I’ve just returned from Hong Kong, invited by local activist group Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong to join an international election monitoring delegation.
There were plenty of rumours (and some credible evidence) of election manipulation, but we didn’t personally witness much of it. We saw people queuing for as long as two hours to deliver an emphatic victory for democratic candidates in altogether very peaceful and orderly ballot. Until the count started, it was actually pretty dull.
Kudos where due – pulling off a dull election is no mean feat when the months leading unto it were defined by almost continuous protest and violence. Aside from a brief encounter with a few thugs, the twelve or so polling stations I witnessed were a picture of civil docility.
Yet the elections were a huge global story. You could be forgiven for thinking that something had actually changed. But it hasn’t, really. And judging by Carrie Lam’s characteristically ill-judged response (claiming that people had turned out in record numbers because the government hadn’t cracked down hard enough on the protesters) we’ll have tear gas again before the end of the week.
Part of the weirdness of the past few days was that Hong Kong’s largest ever democratic vote was cast for what are essentially parish councils. Their primary role is consultative. If local councillors do pavement politics, Hong Kong’s new councillors are the folk who ask whether you’re interested in pavements. There was a 74 per cent turnout for this. In the UK, you’d only push 30 per cent for a council election with a Momentum-level hormone injection. And our councillors actually have some power. Not so in the Pearl of the Orient.
But, of course, for Hong Kongers this election wasn’t about local politics. It was a referendum on Carrie Lam’s handling of the protests. Election manipulation or not, the answer from the people of Hong Kong couldn’t have been clearer: they want more democracy. The democratic candidates stood on the Five Demands platform – and the democrats won big.
The trouble is that these elections are – at best – a baby step towards these Five Demands. So don’t expect to hear any triumphalism from Hong Kong democrats. In fact I’ve never seen people so determinedly morose about thrashing their opponents. They don’t feel they have won anything. They are mindful of the sacrifices of their friends – beaten, tear-gassed, disappeared, shot, or intimidated.
Little wonder that the first visit of these newly minted councillors was to the Polytechnic University in an effort to visit their demonstrator colleagues – still trapped inside by riot police who still refuse to allow medical staff into help them. I was with this group, and the police barricade did not look like yielding any time soon. That is enough to remind them that they have no power yet.
More than that, they know what they are up against. They are a tiny almost-city state with no army trying to face down the terrifying and uncompromising might of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A Party which perpetrates human rights abuses against minorities on an industrial scale, infiltrates and manipulates elections, monitors its citizens with unprecedented invasiveness, and stands openly opposed to the values of a free society. Hong Kong is a tiny bastion of freedom teetering precariously on the edge of ‘President-for-Life’ Xi’s colossal landmass. No wonder demonstrators talk of the ‘end game’ and ‘laam chaau’ (we burn together). When you’re out there with them, they make it feel like Custer’s Last Stand.
So where do the protests go from here? Analysing this question depends entirely upon what Beijing is prepared to tolerate. Clearly, the CCP made a mistake in this election, completely underestimating the commitment of Hong Kongers to their values (not for the first time). They thought Beijing-sympathetic candidates had it sewn up. They got a drubbing. So when the Legislative Council (LegCo) elections come around in September 2020 you can bet your bottom dollar Xi Jinping won’t make the same mistake. Those are the elections that matter, and the stakes are much higher for both sides.
So efforts to undermine the democracy movement are very likely to increase, not decrease as some have reported. Politically motivated intimidation will increase. CCP Pressure on Carrie Lam will also increase, so we can expect to see yet more hard-line inflexibility, incarceration and ten-year prosecutions of kids for “rioting”. Prepare for more ruination of Hong Kong’s economy and infrastructure as the police become less retrained and the protests intensify in response.
That’s all unless Beijing has a change of heart about Hong Kong electing its own leaders. But Xi Jinping has now personally associated himself with the effort to quell unrest in Hong Kong, so backing down requires him to lose face. I just can’t see that happening.
Meanwhile the UK stubbornly refuses to wake up to the true face of CCP authoritarianism, bending over backwards to deny China’s outright disregard for the Joint Declaration – the treaty we negotiated to protect Hong Kong’s way of life. As the people of Hong Kong continue to inhale toxic tear-gas to defend this treaty, it is becoming clear that the UK needs a new China policy, as I have argued here before. The demonstrators will not yield in their desire to elect their own leaders. Instead of selling them out to China, we should be standing with them.