Time for Beijing to rethink Hong Kong script after pan-democrat landslide, Chinese analysts say

Josephine Ma

The results of Hong Kong’s district council elections on Sunday were worse than expected and Beijing should start considering how the outcome will affect the 2022 race for the city’s chief executive, mainland specialists on Hong Kong affairs have warned.

“Beijing was psychologically prepared, but it did not expect [that the pro-establishment camp] would suffer such a severe defeat,” Wuhan University law professor Qin Qianhong said.

A central government official agreed that Beijing was surprised by the landslide win for the pan-democrats.

“We know it was going to be a tough fight as some pro-establishment candidates said they faced verbal abuse when they walked the district, but the number of seats [the pro-establishment camp] won was below our expectation,” he said.

A record 2.9 million voters, representing 71.2 per cent of the registered electorate, cast their ballots in the weekend polls, up from 47 per cent in the 2015 district council election and 58.3 per cent in the 2016 Legislative Council election.

The pro-democracy camp won 392 of the 452 seats to control 17 out of the city’s 18 district councils.

The results mean the pan-democrats look set to take up all the 117 seats for district councillors in the 1,200-member Election Committee that selects the chief executive.

Tian Feilong, an associate professor at Beihang University’s law school in Beijing, said that as a last resort Beijing could exercise its right to refuse the appointment of an “unacceptable” chief executive candidate.

“[The results] will boost the direct or indirect political power of those not in the pro-establishment camp,” Tian said.

“[But] if a candidate that is not acceptable to Beijing has emerged, Beijing would not appoint them.”

Qin agreed that the Basic Law gave Beijing the power to turn down undesirable candidates, but that there were risks.

“The result could be another massive street movement,” he said.

Hong Kong’s crushed pro-government camp faces up to new challenges

Li Xiaobing, a Nankai University academic specialising in Hong Kong politics, said it would be a concern if pan-democrats allied with different sectors in the Legco and chief executive races over the next few years.

“If it was just a few people, then it is easy to handle. But now they have formed a group and become a power,” Li said.

“If they join hands not only among themselves but with different sectors, then it would have … an impact on the Legco and chief executive elections. Beijing would have to address it with countermeasures.”

Voters turned out in records numbers for Sunday’s district council elections in Hong Kong. Photo: May Tse

The pro-establishment bloc ended up with about 40 per cent of the votes on Sunday but an additional 800,000 voters turned out on the weekend, compared to the 2016 Legislative Council elections, and more than half of them voted for the pan-democrats.

“The election has polarised politics in Hong Kong. It has forced those in the middle to take sides. I think most of these people opted to take the extreme side [of pan-democrats who did not denounce the radical protesters]. It is a big political lesson,” Tian said.

In their campaigns, the pro-establishment bloc promoted the need for stability and a return to social order after more than five months of protests in the city but the strategy appeared to have little impact on the new voters.

“Hundreds of thousands of young people were new registered voters … These people were those affected the most by what happened in the past five months,” Nanjing University law professor Gu Su said.

Gu said Beijing might now have to agree to chief executive nominations that were acceptable to both camps.

Hong Kong election result draws cautious response from Beijing

Song Sio-chong, a professor at the Centre for Basic Laws of Hong Kong and Macau at Shenzhen University, said many middle-class people who did not vote in the past also came out to support the pan-democrats this time.

“This election is entirely politicised and there was no mention of community affairs. It prompted the middle class, who were sympathetic to the democrats, to vote. The extensive work by the pro-establishment camp at the community level in the past has become ineffective. What should we do next? It is a big question,” Song said.

He said Beijing should reconsider its strategy and give the pro-establishment parties more flexibility.

“A major reason for the defeat of the pro-establishment is that it was tied to the Hong Kong government in the anti-extradition bill campaign. There was not enough room for the pro-establishment camp to have its narrative and to respond. They could only respond passively in line with the government’s position.”

Gu agreed. “The way the pro-establishment camp supported the government was too direct. Some changes are expected in their relations with the Hong Kong government.”

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