How will the November District Councils affect Hong Kong’s protest movement?

Sharon Li

After an election lead-up marked by controversies such as disqualifications of high-profile candidates and accusations of voter manipulation, pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong had much to celebrate following their landslide victory in the November 24, 2019 District Council elections.


In the midst of the protest movement that has gripped the city for the past year, pro-democracy candidates including some prominent figures from the protest movement, won 17 out of the 18 district councils and nearly 90 per cent of seats in the election. This electoral success was made even more astounding given that rival pro-establishment parties (also known as pro-Beijing parties) usually dominate the District Council, such as in the previous 2015 elections where these parties won all of the councils.


Unlike the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, in which citizens determine only 40 of the 70 seats in the Legislature, Hong Kong voters vote for all available seats in District Council elections. Subsequently, leading up to the election, analysts widely predicted that the result of the District Council election would function as a proxy referendum on the Hong Kong government’s response to the protests. The results can therefore be seen to represent citizen frustration with the government’s actions throughout the protests, and a level of solidarity with protestor demands.


However, the actual impact this election will have on achieving the protest demands is unclear. The District Council has very limited institutional powers within Hong Kong’s political system, with the councillors focusing primarily on local and community concerns, such as building bus stops or roads. Unlike LegCo members, councillors have little influence on government policy or laws. As a result, the newly elected candidates will find themselves with little ability to actually implement the structural political demands of the protestors. 


Beyond the limited powers of the pro-democracy councillors, observers also question whether current pro-establishment political leaders will even be willing to listen to the voters. Hong Kong’s deeply unpopular Chief Executive, Carrie Lam herself admitted that association with her administration likely caused voters to abandon pro-establishment candidates, and promised to “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”.


Yet notably since the election, Lam has publicly rejected an independent inquiry into police misconduct - the most feasible of the protestors’ demands and one that even has support from pro-establishment figures. Analysts have also suggested that these results may even further entrench Beijing’s antagonistic approach to the protests, as Beijing wishes to prevent the perception of what Hong Kong-based lawyer Antony Dapiran

calls “a connection between the ballot box and senior leadership”.


Indeed, given the numerous disqualifications of pro-democracy legislators since the 2017 LegCo elections, Beijing seems more than willing to ignore voters’ opinion to maintain control of political decisions made in Hong Kong.


However, the limited significance of these elections in bringing about political change does not mean these results are completely meaningless. Rather, the very fact that these results demonstrate the Hong Kong people’s views gives these results significance. This is because state media in China has relied heavily on the discourse of the “silent majority” of Hong Kongers who are against these protests and simply want to live in stability—a parallel with the populist rhetoric adopted by Donald Trump as well as Scott Morrison’s idea of ‘Quiet Australians’.


These instances attempt to paint an archetypal voter as more interested in protecting their own livelihood, than supposedly grand political or moral ideals such as greater political freedom. If this notion of a ‘Silent Majority’ were true in Hong Kong, it would be most clearly shown in District Council elections, given that they mostly focus on local and community concerns. 


The fact that pro-democracy candidates, including protest leaders, were overwhelmingly victorious in the elections can therefore be seen not only as a rebuke of the government’s response to the protests but also of the leaders’ characterisation of Hong Kongers response to the protests.


It is the actions of pro-establishment that are seen as more destabilising for people’s livelihoods than those of the protestors. This is significant not only because it undermines Beijing’s rhetoric legitimising its response to the protests, but also it is likely that Beijing themselves were expecting a pro-establishment victory. As noted by journalist James Palmer, state media is reported to have only prepared copies of a pro-establishment victory, and subsequently made little reference to the election results following the unexpected success of pro-democracy candidates. 


As a result, Beijing has now sobered up to the fact that anti-government sentiment is not a radical position in Hong Kong, but one that is shared by a large proportion of the population.


While the District Council elections may not induce the major political changes desired by the protestors, at the very least they provide a powerful challenge to the delusions of grandeur that are Beijing’s understanding of the Hong Kong people.


Sharon Li is a recent Asian Studies Honours graduate from the University of Melbourne whose thesis focused on the use of ideology and propaganda for Party-building efforts in China. Her interests include Chinese domestic and foreign politics, particularly issues of sovereignty within Greater China.

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