Two years after the Occupy protests, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council sees a generational shift in politics

Recent elections have injected new demands for self-determination and ideas of localism into the heart of Hong Kong’s law-making body.

Karen Cheung
27 September 2016

Queues outside polling stations, 4 September 2016. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Queues outside polling stations, 4 September 2016. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

The queues to cast ballots still stretched out into the early hours of the morning, following a record voter turnout of 2.2 million people. And after the elections on 4 September, Hong Kong woke up to a drastically reshaped Legislative Council (the city-state’s principal law-making institution). Many that emerged victorious are not only fresh faces, but also remarkably young ones; the median age in the Legislative Council has dropped from 60 to 52. Nathan Law Kwun-chung, now the city’s youngest ever lawmaker, is a mere 23-years-old.

Law is best known for his role as a student leader in the pro-democracy Occupy protests of 2014, when Hongkongers took to the streets for 79 days to voice their discontent towards a decision issued by China’s National People's Congress Standing Committee, which stated that: “The chief executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong”. In other words, candidates for the 2017 elections for Hong Kong’s highest office would be pre-screened and pre-approved by the Chinese Communist Party. This dashed many Hongkongers’ hopes of a shot at genuine democracy.

By September, students across the city were taking part in class boycotts organised by the student organisation Scholarism, as well as the Hong Kong Federation of Students (Law later became secretary-general of HKFS). Later that month, Law took part in an attempt to charge the government offices’ Civic Square, alongside student activists Alex Chow and Joshua Wong. When police used tear gas to disperse the protesters, thousands more showed up on the streets in anger, igniting the occupation also known as the “Umbrella Movement”.

The Occupy protests were arguably the most significant political event since the handover – the resumption of China’s sovereignty over the former British colony – in 1997. The legacy of the movement has been debated by many in the aftermath of those 79 days. Civic Passion, a ‘localist’ group, published a book on the “failure” of the movement, and last September, close to its anniversary, the party’s Cheng Chung-tai (also one of 2016’s newly-elected legislators) branded the protests a “self-indulgent failure”. Although the controversial political reform package on chief executive elections was voted down in the Legislative Council in 2015, uncertainties over the city’s progression towards democracy have only increased.

But the protests of 2014 also gave birth to a new generation of young people such as Law, determined to fix the city by entering politics. Law is now the chairman of Demosisto, a newly-formed political party which advocates for self-determination, calling for a referendum to determine Hong Kong’s future after 2047, when the 50-year “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement between China and Hong Kong comes to an end. He recently escaped a jail term for inciting others to take part in an unlawful assembly, in relation to the events at Civic Square; he was instead given a community service sentence.

On the day of the elections, I spoke to Alex Chow, who campaigned for Nathan Law. “He’s my comrade – we have fought together for almost two years,” he told me. “He’s growing, he’s becoming smarter and more mature in handling social issues, [be it] in the engagement in social movement, or community planning, or the future of Hong Kong as a city as a whole – he also has a lot of ideas in proposing new ways and alternatives for Hong Kong people… to better our city.” The next day, Law claimed his seat after amassing 50,818 votes.

Localism advocates

Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.Another fresh face is Youngspiration’s Yau Wai-ching. At 25, she is the youngest woman to be elected to the council. Youngspiration is part of a phenomenon that Hong Kong’s media commentators like to call “Umbrella soldiers”: the young people who have risen to political prominence after the Umbrella movement, although they themselves have rejected the term. They are also commonly referred to as ‘localists’, meaning those who advocate for safeguarding the interests and way of life of Hongkongers against ‘mainlandisation’ – the encroaching influence of the country across the border (particularly the impact of immigration and tourism on Hong Kong’s culture).

This is the first time that the legislature will feature lawmakers advocating for localist issues and self-determination. During a Legislative Council by-election in February, localist Edward Leung Tin-kei finished third with a staggering 66,524 votes; although he did not win the only seat up for grab, it would have been unimaginable for a localist candidate to gain that level of support just years ago, when Chin Wan’s On the Hong Kong City-State triggered some of the first discussions of contemporary localist ideology in 2011. However, he was banned from running in the recent election after the election office introduced a new ‘Basic Law’ confirmation form asking candidates to promise to uphold the city’s mini-constitution – including provisions that stated Hong Kong was a part of China. This was a direct response to escalating demands for Hong Kong independence over the past year. Although Leung had tried to distance himself from the pro-independence movement, he and five other candidates were banned.

Many in Hong Kong were outraged at the ban and its implications for democratic politics, with hundreds protesting against what they called “political vetting”. Following the ban, Leung announced that Youngspiration’s Sixtus “Baggio” Leung would be his “substitute”, and the latter did go on to win a seat in the legislature. But on the day of the results, Sixtus Leung’s face was expressionless when his win was announced; he said that the election had been unfair, and that winning a seat merely felt like a “mission accomplished”. Yau, for the same reasons, refused to even go on stage when it was announced that she had been elected.

New blood

The emergence of the pro-independence movement, the election of localist candidates to the legislature, as well as the record-high voter turn-out, must all be viewed in the context of political desperation. In February, violent clashes, triggered by the government’s clearing of street hawkers, broke out between protesters and the police in the district of Mong Kok; Edward Leung had been on the frontlines when the demonstrations erupted, and he is currently facing charges for “rioting”. The protests are a manifestation of a particular, popular discontent under CY Leung’s rule.

Former chief secretary Anson Chan, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, commented that over the last few years, “our way of life… has faced unprecedented challenges in the form of a systematic undermining of our core values and freedoms.” This includes, she said, the sacking of outspoken political commentators, journalists being assaulted, threats to academic freedom, the ban of discussions of independence in Hong Kong’s schools, as well as the ‘disappearance’ of five publishers who sold books banned in China, later revealed to be a ‘kidnapping’.

In the face of these threats – and the failure of both the government and the incumbent legislature to defend them – Hongkongers desperately want a change to the status quo, and there are only two places they can turn to in order to make their voices heard: the streets, and the voting booth. As they welcome new blood into the legislature, it appears that they have certainly made good use of the latter to declare their desire for change.

The dark horse of the race is environmentalist and activist Eddie Chu Hoi-dick, who ran on a largely crowd-funded campaign, and was dubbed the “king of votes” (winning over 84,000 votes, the highest out of all the candidates in the geographical constituencies). Chu is notable for his history of activism: he fought against the demolition of the old Star Ferry and Queen’s Pier, stood by Tsoi Yuen villagers who were forced to relocate for a highly unpopular express train between China and Hong Kong, and battled the Link REIT, a property developer and symbol of land hegemony. All of these were issues close to the hearts of Hongkongers, and losing the fight against the government have left many frustrated; now, they have elected Chu to voice these frustrations on their behalf. According to local media platform Initium, Chu had previously expressed no interest in joining the legislature – what he called “having meetings in Central” – but he changed his mind after the Occupy protests.

Archaic arrangements

Chief Executive CY Leung. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.

Chief Executive CY Leung. Vincent Yu/AP/Press Association Images. All rights reserved.To an outsider, Hong Kong’s labyrinthine electoral system can be confusing. Currently, half of the 70 seats on the Legislative Council are elected by “functional constituencies”. This is an archaic arrangement which allows businesses to have votes according to different “industries”, and dates back to the colonial era. Not surprisingly, these seats are traditionally taken up mostly by pro-government individuals, concerned with protecting their vested interests. The other 35 seats, however, are directly elected by the people of Hong Kong, divided into five different “geographical constituencies” based on location.

Determined to keep a majority for the opposition, tactical voting was a hot topic in the days leading up to the election. One strategic voting initiative was law professor Benny Tai’s “Operation Thunderbolt”. Tai – another leading activist during the 2014 protests – devised a platform which recommended voters to either “save” or “give up” on candidates, based on polling performances. Moreover, in a last-ditch attempt to concentrate votes in the hands of those with a higher chance of winning, six pan-democrat candidates dropped out just before election day. Strategic voting may have resulted in some surprising results; Tai himself admitted afterwards that he did not think that “the effect of strategic voting would be so strong”; this, if anything, demonstrates the dedication of Hong Kongers to keeping power out of the hands of Beijing loyalists.

The results of the election have been hailed as a “victory” for the opposition camp, because, by securing more than a majority of seats – 19 out of 35 – in the geographical constituencies, they are able to keep their veto power in the legislature for motions, bills and amendments to government bills proposed by fellow lawmakers. This also means that should the pro-Beijing camp propose amendments to the council’s rules of procedures to hamper filibustering – a classic method adopted by the pan-democrat camp to stall bills they are opposed to – they would be able to vote the amendment down. Having won 30 overall out of 70 seats in LegCo, the opposition camp will also be able to vote down issues that need a super-majority (two-thirds) in the legislature to pass. Under an electoral system that is far from democratic, it is perhaps the best outcome one can hope for, especially amid rumours of vote rigging that plagued the elections and allegations of intimidation tactics employed by pro-Beijing candidates that had resulted in one LegCo hopeful tearfully dropping out before the race.

The generational change

But it is the introduction of ‘localists’ and candidates advocating for “self-determination” into the legislature, that most upsets the status quo, on both camps in the council. No longer is the legislature structured according to traditional ‘pan-democrat’ versus pro-establishment lines. Many of these newly elected lawmakers are notably distinct from the older pro-democracy politicians: the latter have traditionally pushed for democracy in China, and have never chanted slogans in support of independence. The injection of these new ideologies into the council could mean future instability in how the institution votes on bills, and even fractures within the opposition camp itself.

Furthermore, the departure of many veteran lawmakers and pan-democrat heavyweights of the older generation – such as Labour Party’s Lee Cheuk-yan and Cyd Ho, both of whom ran and lost – marks a new generational dynamic within the pan-democratic camp. Alvin Yeung and Tanya Chan of Civic Party – who both won seats this election – were among several signatures to a resolution demanding that Hongkongers be allowed to decide their own future after 2047, an idea they called “internal self-determination”. Unlike the older pan-democrats, these young lawmakers seem to have pronounced the death of the “democratic handover” – an idea dating back to the 1980s, advocated by pan-democrats who thought the mainland would carry out political reforms after its economic transition, and eventually implement democracy in Hong Kong.

However, despite the shift, there are still sharp differences between the beliefs of young pan-democrats and localists, as well as between the different LegCo newcomers. For example, Civic Passion believes in nation-building, while Youngspiration supports independence. Meanwhile, Eddie Chu is in support of self-determination but is firmly against the ways in which right-wing localists prioritise racial issues over democracy.

Will the new lawmakers prove to be too inexperienced, or will they be a breath of much-needed fresh air in the LegCo opposition, increasingly viewed as being dominated by older pan-democrats who have good intentions but are not progressive enough? Will they be able to live up to their voters’ expectations, or will their failure to do so inspire cries for more radical change? A great deal of unknowns lie ahead for the incoming legislature.

But for now at least, democratic development – in terms of Hong Kong’s political structure – has come to a standstill. The council’s electoral system with its functional constituencies looks like it is here to stay, and no progress has been made since 2010, when five new “super” seats returned by direct elections were set up following political reform. The upcoming chief executive elections remain undemocratic, with the next leader of the city being elected by a 1200-member committee rather than the general public. This is despite what was decreed in the Basic Law, which laid down promises that a democratic system would gradually be introduced in Hong Kong (Article 68 states that “The ultimate aim is the election of all the members of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage”.)

An atmosphere of fear continues to loom over the city; Eddie Chu burst into tears following his win, saying that he feared for the safety of his family. Chu, met with death threats, has since moved out of his home temporarily. Over the next four years, lawmakers, new and veteran, young and old, face formidable challenges both inside and outside the walls of the Legislative Council chamber, as Beijing tightens its control over the special administrative region.

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