Voters in the Legco (Legislative Council) elections held on 4 September – widely seen as the most important since the 1997 handover – redrew Hong Kong’s political map and delivered a sharp rebuke to the government. The shock effect cannot be overstated no matter how much Beijing’s stooge Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying (“CY”), puts on a brave face. CY and the pro-government camp failed completely in their aim to take full control of the Legco by denying the opposition its veto power, which requires a minimum 24 seats in the 70-seat chamber. Instead, the opposition’s share increased from 27 to 30 seats.
The opposition veto has been a thorn in the side of CY’s administration and the Chinese dictatorship. Last year it was used to block Beijing’s imposition of an ‘Iran-style’ vetted election system – the issue that sparked the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
The pro-government camp’s share of the overall vote fell from 44.1 percent in the 2012 elections to 40.2 percent. These results cannot be measured like elections in other countries: Hong Kong is not a democracy. The largely powerless Legco is only partially elected, so there was never any doubt the pro-government camp would win a majority of seats. But they failed to win enough.
This is despite a rigged system; fake so-called ‘functional constituencies’ reserved for business interests, behind-the-scenes manipulation, and powerful patronage networks that deliver establishment votes. The blame for this poor showing will mainly be laid at the door of CY Leung – another blow to a hated leader who is desperately seeking Beijing’s blessing for a second five-year term beginning next year.
The carefully laid plans of the pro-government camp were pulverised by the highest turnout since partial democracy was introduced under British colonial rule in the 1990s. The turnout at 58 percent was five percent up on the last election in 2012. The late rush to vote, stirred by fears of opposition losses, literally crashed the system. Long queues formed in many localities in the final hours before the official 10.30 pm closing time. Some polling stations were forced to stay open until two o’clock in the morning.
Not only did the pro-government camp fail in its aim to ‘deactivate’ the opposition’s veto but as a result of CY’s anti-democratic machinations, creating polarisation and explosive discontent, the ‘old normal’ of a relatively stable opposition bloc has been broken and replaced by a much more volatile, fragmented and unpredictable situation.
The elections saw the emergence of new oppositional forces, alongside the pro-government and traditional pro-democracy camps, with the entrance of younger activists linked to Umbrella Movement of 2014. Rather than a single bloc, the new faces represent diverse groupings from the extreme right to the liberal left. The one thing they share is they are seen as a more radical combative alternative to challenge the Chinese dictatorship and its puppet Hong Kong government.
The new faces include three right-wing anti-immigrant ‘localists’ (also known as ‘nativists’) and three other radical activists who are not localists although they have been wrongly lumped together as ‘localists’ in most overseas media reports.
‘Moderate’ support squeezed
This outcome reflects massive disillusionment with the traditional ‘moderate’ i.e. bourgeois pro-democracy parties and their strategy to win gradual democratic reforms under the Chinese dictatorship through a process of negotiation. A turning point was the 79-day Umbrella Movement, which ended in disappointment and frustration because it failed to squeeze a single concession out of Beijing.
The CWI forces in Hong Kong (Socialist Action) and China explained this, well in advance, because of the impossibility of a successful democratic struggle that does not also seek to break with capitalism, now in deep crisis. A democratic revolution is needed, but with socialist policies as the only way to break the undemocratic power of monopoly capitalism which rules Hong Kong together with the Beijing dictatorship. The bourgeois pan-democrats believe democracy and dictatorship can coexist together in “one country”, when all history disproves this – one or the other must give way!
The traditional pan-democrats, who previously monopolised the opposition, now have just eleven geographical seats (i.e. elected seats) in the Legco, as compared to eight seats for various ‘radicals’ (the pan-democrats picked up a further 11 ‘functional’ and ‘super’ seats – the geographical seats are based on actual electoral support). Among the pan-democrats several veteran profiles failed to be re-elected, and both the ADPL and Neo-Democrats were ejected from the Legco completely. The Labour Party, another pan-democratic party, retained one seat compared to three at the last election. The Democratic Party and Civic Party won five geographical seats each.
Two new groups formed after the Umbrella Movement by ‘moderate’ pan-democrats wanting at all costs to revive the idea of compromise and negotiations performed poorly. This was, according to the South China Morning Post, “another testament to the increasing lack of room for moderates in the sharply polarised political landscape.”
The elections therefore marked a powerful rejection of Beijing’s increasing interventions and a search for a ‘new’ more combative counter-strategy. Several events this year have raised fears that the Chinese regime is steadily rescinding Hong Kong’s autonomy and the partial democratic freedoms this affords. Five Hong Kong booksellers were illegally renditioned and jailed in China, the first riots in 50 years were provoked by aggressive policing, and just weeks later Edward Leung Tin-kei, a pro-independence ‘rioter’ from the small localist group Hong Kong Indigenous got 66,000 votes in a byelection.
At the start of the Legco campaign six pro-independence localists, including Leung, were barred from standing on the grounds that advocating independence is illegal under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which states the city is “an inalienable part” of China. After the riots in February, we said CY Leung had inadvertently acted as the election manager for the localists in the byelection – by attacking them he massively boosted their candidate’s credibility and media reach.
The Chief Executive has since repeated this feat on a higher level in the Legco elections, resulting in localist candidates gaining 11 percent of the total vote and entering the Legco for the first time. The government’s decision to ban pro-independence candidates was decisive in this respect, creating a massive political blowback against what was widely and correctly seen as a new serious attack on democratic rights.
In combined numbers the ‘radical’ segment in the Legco gained over 567,000 votes or 25 percent of the total. This compares with 625,691 votes (27 percent) for the traditional pan-democrats and is more than a doubling of the radical vote from the previous election (260,000 votes for LSD and People Power). The pro-government camp received 871,016 votes (40.2 percent) and ‘non-aligned others’ (mostly pro-government) 103,334 (4.8 percent).
‘Radical’ camp gets 25 percent:
Localists (3 seats) 237, 959 votes (11.1%)
Democratic self-determination (3 seats) 173,122 votes (7.86%)
LSD/People’s Power* (2 seats) 156,019 votes (7.2%)
*The League of Social Democrats (LSD) formed a joint electoral list with People Power. Both parties sat in the Legco previously and are sometimes counted together with the pan-democrats.
This dramatic shift of support within the anti-government camp is testimony to the colossal political ineptitude and blindness of CY Leung, but also ultimately Beijing. It’s repressive intransigence has generated mass support for forces that barely existed at the last election.
The new opposition ranks in the Legco, a collection of ‘one-seat parties’ and ‘no party’, span the entire political spectrum. Three are right-wing ‘localists’. Another three, who each represent a different platform, could be classified as liberal, green, and social democratic respectively. They stand for ‘democratic self-determination’, a deliberately vague position, but are not anti-immigrant and would be attacked as ‘lefts’ by the localists. The process of political reorientation after the failed Umbrella struggle is complex and contradictory, due to the lack of any genuine and significant left alternative and above all due to the lack of a distinctly working class political party.
Localist gains – what next?
The successes of the localists, from two antagonistic party lists – Youngspiration (2 seats) and Civic Passion (1 seat) – does not necessarily reflect a solid base for their anti-immigrant right-wing politics. Nor is it likely to lead to more cohesive organisation or party formations within localism, which remains more of a trend, mostly mobilised through social media, rather than a movement.
Anti-mainlander sentiment is widespread among the younger generation especially, and was undoubtedly an important element in the localists’ support, but two other factors have been even more important. One is the surge in support for independence, on which they currently have a monopoly despite not actually standing clearly for independence in most cases, and often deliberately blurring this issue and using terms like ‘real autonomy’ and ‘self-determination’ that are never explained. The other is the localists’ image – completely undeserved – of offering a more militant approach to struggle.
This could quickly land them in a predicament as the three localist legislators now come under pressure to justify the claim they are “different” and offer a new and more confrontational strategy against the government. Early indications suggest they have not managed to think so far ahead. When asked what kind of resistance they will put up, Youngspiration’s two legislators said they will filibuster to delay government bills. One of them, ‘Baggio’ Leung Chung-hang, said they might occupy the Legco president’s seat.
Neither of these ‘tactics’ are new, but have already been practised for example by radical LSD legislator ‘Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung, and such actions have only a limited effect unless a mass democracy movement can be built outside the Legco. The localists, despite their electoral success, do not offer the programme and methods to accomplish this task and their racist ideas represent a serious obstacle to building such a movement.
Independence taboo is broken
In recent polls, more than one in six Hong Kongers support independence, a figure that rises to 40 percent among youth. Support for independence was virtually non-existent just a few years ago, but thanks to Beijing’s hard line policies it is now a permanent part of Hong Kong’s political equation. In these elections, however, localists also seem to have received votes from people who don’t support independence, but wanted to register their opposition to the government’s political screening and persecution of localist candidates. Some also voted for the localists because this seemed the best way to hurt the government.
Socialists support the right of self-determination (now a much misused term in Hong Kong) and this includes support, if a majority want this, for independence (a concept that cannot even be legally discussed according to Beijing). No independence struggle could succeed unless it was linked to fighting capitalism and imperialism in a unified struggle with the working masses of the wider region including of course China.
This question is extremely complicated, not just by arguments that Hong Kong as a city could not survive as an independent entity (there are actually smaller independent states), but because many would not support independence for a variety of reasons, not least that it would bring forth a military response from Beijing.
Many youth support independence having drawn the conclusion that democracy is impossible under Chinese rule – as the failure of the Umbrella Movement seemed to prove. This is the main argument of the various localist groups, but they offer no viable strategy for how this goal could be achieved. What is the answer to the sixty four billion dollar question that is the Chinese dictatorship? If Beijing has refused to grant democratic elections to Hong Kong, under what circumstances would it grant independence? Replacing the word ‘democracy’ with the word ‘independence’ does not erase the existence of the world’s biggest authoritarian state and second largest military power.
The supporters of the CWI have explained that the only solution is to link the struggle in Hong Kong to the looming mass upheavals in China, and across Asia, to overthrow capitalism and dictatorship and create a socialist society with real democracy. This would include the right of all national minorities to independence, or to the widest political autonomy within a democratic and federal socialist state, alongside the creation of a voluntary socialist confederation throughout Asia.
A left alternative
In these elections, Socialist Action supported and campaigned for ‘Long Hair’ of the League of Social Democrats as the one of the few genuine representatives of the left. He very narrowly retained his seat, due to a lower vote (35,595 as against 48,295 in 2012), but this was largely due to misguided ‘tactical’ voting, to help other opposition candidates in the belief he was safe.
The political shifts in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement have produced a kaleidoscope of different groupings, some reactionary, some desperate, and many very confused. They all reflect a decisive rejection of the old ways. But to build upon this and channel the discontent into a new and successful democratic movement requires the creation of a mass workers’ party and strong trade unions. All history has demonstrated, most recently in the Arab revolutions of 2011, that the working class organised around socialist ideas is the decisive ingredient needed if dictatorial regimes are to be defeated once and for all.
Splits in the elite
The deeply unpopular CY is fighting for a second term from March next year. While only 1,200 elite voters get to choose the Chief Executive, he is facing increasing opposition even within Hong Kong’s ruling class who blame his hard line stance for destabilising the territory, while his economic policies favour mainland Chinese business groups at the expense of traditionally dominant Hong Kong billionaires. The Chinese dictatorship, which makes the final pick, has yet to declare if it backs CY or favours a new face such as the more ‘Hong Kong-friendly’ finance minister John Tsang Chun-wah. Beijing’s reticence to make a decision, a now familiar ‘communication problem’, is probably connected to the sharp power struggle within the ruling elite as Xi Jinping seeks to consolidate his position ahead of next year’s Chinese leadership reshuffle, as well as waiting to appraise the balance of forces after Legco elections.