In 2014, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents protested Beijing’s denial of genuine democratic reform for the semiautonomous territory. But the Chinese communist regime yielded no quarter to the mostly youthful Hongkongers who occupied major roads in the city for nearly three months.
The spirit of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, however, appears to have endured.
Youthful protesters became politicians, campaigning on local issues and Hong Kong’s political future. Millions of Hongkongers, dissatisfied with Beijing’s continued encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms, went to the polling booths and elected several new pro-democracy candidates for the city’s legislature.
Analysts say that the turnout and results of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council elections reflects a changing of the guard in the pro-democracy camp. Hongkongers, analysts add, appear to reject outright calls for independence by radical politicians and firmly reject the Chinese Communist Party’s influence.
How Hong Kong Voted
About 2.2 million Hongkongers, or 58 percent of registered voters, cast their ballots on Sept. 4. This is the highest voter turnout since the British returned Hong Kong, then a colony, to mainland China in 1997.
Some Hongkongers flew in from the United States, Canada, or the U.K. just to vote in the elections.
At stake were 35 geographical seats in the 70-member Legislative Council. Pro-democracy lawmakers have constantly sought at least a third of the seats, the required number to block a legislature stacked with pro-Beijing lawmakers from passing unpopular bills.
When the votes were tallied, the pro-democracy camp learned that they had not only retained their numbers, but had expanded their presence in the legislature by taking 30 seats, up from 27.
The pro-democracy lawmakers retaining the veto in the legislature is the “very most important thing,” Ching Cheong, a veteran Hong Kong journalist and commentator, said. “Without this veto, the Chinese Communist Party can do whatever it wants.”
Of the 30 pro-democracy legislators, six new faces belong to the so-called “Umbrella Generation”—young Hongkongers who participated in the massive Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests in 2014.
Changing of the Guard
At 23, Nathan Law is the youngest of the newly elected legislators. He is also the youngest lawmaker in the history of the Legislative Council.
Two years ago, Law was one of the more recognizable student protest leaders of the Umbrella Movement. This April, he and Joshua Wong, Hong Kong’s most prominent teenage student activist and protester, helped establish the political party Demosisto.
Demosisto is calling for a referendum to decide Hong Kong’s future after the terms negotiated by the U.K. for the handover of Hong Kong expire in 2047. Under those terms, Hong Kong, unlike mainland China, has an independent judiciary, guarantees for fundamental rights, and real but limited democracy. The idea of self-determination is one of the new political concepts being advocated in the territory.
Law, a former student leader at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said after the elections that the legislature could get younger in the future as more and more young Hongkongers realize that “society is affected by the political ecology.” Many lawmakers are in their 50s or 60s.
Law said in a press conference that the “miraculous” election results reflect voters’ desire for change: “Especially in light of stalemate and deadlock in the democracy movement, voters wish for a new way of doings things so that the democracy movement will have a new future. Thus, the people’s spirit of resistance can be strengthened.”
Law beat veteran pro-democracy lawmaker Cyd Ho from Hong Kong’s Labour Party in the Hong Kong Island constituency. Meanwhile, Ho’s fellow party member and a longtime legislator Lee Cheuk-yan lost his seat to the 32-year-old Cheng Chung-tai, a member of the radical political group Civic Passion.
Some of the old guard retained their seats, but barely. Leung Kwok-hung, a veteran radical lawmaker affectionately known as “Long Hair” for his flowing grey mane, edged out independent candidate Christine Fong by a little over 1,000 votes.
Most of the new candidates promised to pay more attention to local issues, including the candidate who garnered the most votes (over 84,000).
Eddie Chu, a youthful-looking, 38-year-old activist, has for the past decade been involved in local environmental and preservation issues. While on the election campaign trail, Chu was intimidated and harassed on multiple occasions by triad members connected with local officials and businessmen.
Chu shed tears several times during his post-election speech to the press, and thanked his family and residents in the New Territories West area for their support.
“I hope my daughter understands that her father entered politics not for himself, but for the future of Hong Kong,” he said during his speech. “Her father won’t be afraid of the criminal elements, and will instead tell Hongkongers and the villagers of the New Territories that only by standing up will Hong Kong have a new way out.”
Ivan Choy, a senior lecturer with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the results of the Legislative Council elections clearly indicate a changing of the guard in post-Umbrella Movement Hong Kong.
Choy added that the youthful lawmakers will have much to learn when they take office and will likely need a “breaking in” period with the traditional pro-democracy or “pan-democrat” lawmakers.
Resisting the Communist Regime
Ma Ngok, an associate professor with the Chinese University of Hong Kong, also thinks that the voting in of young candidates suggests a generational shift.
“Voters picked candidates that will struggle inside and outside the legislature,” Ma said. “Conversely, the so-called ‘localists’ or advocates of ‘Hong Kong independence’ didn’t get as much support as imagined. In fact, the leadership of the latter suffered defeats; this should signal to the Chinese government how to view Hong Kong.”
Although those who advocate an independent Hong Kong belong to the fringes of the political spectrum—”a small but vocal minority,” in the words of Zhang Dejiang, the top Chinese official that oversees Hong Kong—the Chinese regime has constantly played up this issue to talk tough to Hong Kong.
Before the elections, the Hong Kong government banned five candidates who openly declared their support for Hong Kong independence.
After the elections, China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office said in a statement that the regime is “resolutely opposed” to any talk or movement concerning an independent Hong Kong.