Hong Kong’s Democrats Triumph as a Bruised Beijing Mulls Disqualifying Candidates

July 13, 2020 Updated: July 14, 2020


In a stunning rebuke to Beijing, more than 600,000 Hong Kong residents turned out on July 11 and 12 to vote in the pro-democracy camp’s primary election, in spite of co-organizers of the poll being raided by police, exploding numbers of coronavirus cases, and threats by officials that voting was illegal under the new national security law.

The result is a major embarrassment to the authorities, who had sought to avoid a show of defiance by the opposition. The pro-democracy camp had seemed to have been on their heels, with entire parties disbanding last week as the national security law came into effect.

The primary is an innovation in Hong Kong’s politics. Its main purpose is to ensure that democrats don’t run excess candidates in each district, which Hong Kong’s highly proportional electoral system punishes severely. In the past, lack of coordination among candidates and parties has cost the pro-democracy camp seats—something that the primary appears set to prevent.

On the eve of the poll, Hong Kong’s leading pollster, PORI—one of the primary’s co-organizers along with the umbrella pro-democracy organization Power for Democracy—was raided by police, leading many to fear that police would heed many pro-Beijing politicians’ calls to break up the primary and even arrest voters.

Instead, the result will send shockwaves through a pro-Beijing political establishment that just last week was celebrating a supposed “victory” against the pro-democracy protests, recently quelled by the national security law. This demonstration of strength by democrats is a reminder that the uneasy peace of the city’s streets is likely just the calm before the storm before violent protests erupt once more, as hardcore protesters bide their time and wait for the heavy police presence to subside.

With the mass marches that characterized the 2019 protests rendered a thing of the past due to rampant police violence, public transport closures on scheduled protest dates, and the national security law, the extraordinary turnout serves notice to Beijing that as backing for the demands of pro-democracy activists remains undimmed, the Hong Kong public will seek to find outlets to voice their support.

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People queue up to vote in an unofficial primary for pro-democracy candidates ahead of legislative elections in September, in Hong Kong on July 12, 2020. (Vincent Yu/AP Photo)

An Organized Opposition

Indeed, even a heavily-discredited report by a government body into police brutality found that 62.3 percent of respondents supported the protests, with just 18 percent opposed. In this context, it is difficult to see anything other than crushing defeat beckoning for the pro-Beijing camp in September’s Legislative Council (LegCo) elections.

However, the advent of the national security law means any semblance of a free and fair election following the primary is extremely unlikely. High-profile government officials and pro-Beijing politicians have called for anyone who has publicly opposed the law—in other words, every established pro-democracy politician—to be struck from the ballot.

However, the leaders of the pro-democracy camp, anticipating mass disqualifications, have back-up candidates without a record of controversial statements waiting in the wings, identities as yet unknown.

With elections in Hong Kong defined irrevocably as a choice between representatives of the resilient pro-democracy movement and hand-picked shills of the Communist Party, which candidates appear on the ballot matters far less than their political affiliation. Thus, the value of the success of the pro-democracy camp’s primary rests in the finality it gives to who will be running, putting any internal disagreements to bed long before the campaign proper begins.

This is significant due to the fact that previous election cycles gave been characterized by vicious infighting between more radical and moderate democrats, and though these disagreements haven’t disappeared, the primary provides a definitive result as to who will carry the pro-democracy movement’s banner in each of Hong Kong’s five electoral districts. Thus, the primary’s triumph leaves the pro-democracy camp as united as ever, as pro-Beijing parties stare into the abyss ahead of the critical September elections.

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The Legislative Council Complex in Hong Kong on Nov. 5, 2011. (Tksteven/GFDL)

The Democrats’ Challenge

Although LegCo’s powers are limited, the election will be seen as a referendum on the future Hong Kongers wish to see for themselves, as well as a chance to dispel the fiction that a pro-government “silent majority” exists in the city.

That being said, while LegCo’s powers aren’t comparable with those of the U.S. Congress or British Parliament, a LegCo majority would hand the pro-democracy camp the power to wreck the government’s legislative agenda and even dismiss Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Under the Basic Law, the chief executive is mandated to resign if LegCo rejects two consecutive budgets, which would be certain to happen under a Democrat-controlled LegCo. We can only wait for the results.

In the face of such grave threats to its authority and standing, many pro-government figures have called for all candidates who have publicly opposed the national security law to be struck from the ballot. The legal basis for this rests in the fact that elected legislative candidates must swear to uphold the Basic Law as part of their oaths of office. As the national security law has been inserted directly into Annex III of the Basic Law, many pro-Beijing politicians have called for the auto-exclusion from the election of anyone who opposes the law.

However, any such attempts by the government to strike democrats from the ballot would have to contend with Hong Kong’s legal system. Recent court rulings have largely thrown out past disqualifications of elected legislators, and the District Council elections in November 2019, in which the pro-democracy camp scored a landslide victory, only saw one candidate, high-profile activist Joshua Wong, barred from standing.

However, it remains abundantly clear Beijing’s intention is to seek to keep all democrats off the ballot. The primary’s success all but confirms candidates favored by the government are headed for a crushing defeat at the polls, likely only hardening Beijing’s resolve to dash hopes of a broadly free and fair election.

Should Beijing fail in somehow fixing the election in advance, the challenge Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp faces this September remains daunting. Despite widespread public support for the protests, only 40 of the 70 Legislative Council seats are elected by the public, with the remaining 30 being so-called functional constituencies, which are selected mainly by business interests.

This system of “election”—apart from making a mockery of democracy—is engineered specifically to prevent the pro-democracy camp from gaining a LegCo majority, even despite it long winning more than 50 percent of the vote at legislative elections. Notwithstanding the Hong Kong public’s clear aspirations for a liberal, democratic future for their city, they will need all their wits about them if they are to take control of the city’s legislature and secure another triumph over the world’s largest dictatorship.

Jack Hazlewood is a student and activist based in London. He previously worked for a localist political party in Hong Kong, and served as field producer for the conflict journalism outlet Popular Front’s documentary “Add Oil,” which followed frontline protesters in Hong Kong in the run up to China’s national day in 2019.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.