For the former British colony of Hong Kong, part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1997, in the form of the Special Administrative Region, an election approaches whose significance goes far beyond the primary objective of electing the chief executive.
It is a responsibility that for over two years has become the center of intense political activity, but even more so of the most open challenge yet to the authority that Beijing exerts by law over the territory but which has over time extended to other diverse areas of interest in unexpected ways. In essence, it is applying pressure that is shrinking more and more freedom and local rights. This creates a situation that increases difficulties for the people in the face of immigration and business originating from inside China, in an alliance with the local economic and financial leadership. This results in the strangling of the middle class in Hong Kong economically and is likely also to strangle – along with the potential and aspirations of young people – the real economy.
That of March 28 is an eagerly awaited election, because in order to change the electoral rules and aim for universal suffrage with a choice of candidates freely proposed by the various components of local society, student movements especially are involved, but not exclusively, who engaged in the occupations of autumn 2014, without succeeding in persuading Beijing. Moreover, the victory in the recent elections for the local mini-parliament of ‘localist’ movements, or autonomists with an independent agenda, if Beijing does not loosen its grip on the former British colony, has brought elements of interest but also of deep destabilization that will endure beyond the next vote. A complex situation, therefore, that inspires more concern than confidence in the future, and it is not by chance that young people themselves have been the protagonists, even if not the absolute ones, of the two events that have characterized the life of the metropolis on the delta of the Pearl River since August 2014.
The ‘the umbrellas’ movement’ led by student movements and the Occupy Central group, brought a challenge for 79 days to the local government and the distant Chinese capital in autumn 2014, was an experience from which new political instances are emerging. The biggest challenge to the Communist power for two decades had as its center a request to elect the next head of the local government by universal suffrage from among candidates freely proposed.
A possibility denied by China’s parliament the previous August, which saw it accentuate autonomist aspirations and repression. Dozens of leaders and protesters were detained or arrested; they were frequently released with the risk of ending up on trial if they did not put an end to their commitment. The leaders recognized by the students during the occupation, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, were threatened by new judicial proceedings and were subjected to aggression both from the media, and in reality. Among the most illustrious victims, Professor Chin Wan, ‘first victim among academics’, who found himself denied the renewal of his contract at Lingnan University where he had taught for years, in retaliation against his support for the protests. A judicial pressure formally implemented within the boundaries of the law and administered by a judiciary that maintains a good degree of autonomy, which did not cancel the tensions but merely contained them while waiting to give themselves new targets, with sporadic acts of public violence and intimidation to counter nurtured manifestations of dissent.
That of 4 September 2016 was not only the most important election because of the marches and the autumn 2014 student occupations, but also the one with the greatest participation since the handover from British colonizers to the government of the PRC on 1 July 1997. Fifty-eight percent of 3.7 million voters voted for the Legislative Council (LEGCO), or the local small parliament. A contested election but one marked even more by the relationship with Beijing and the intimidation of candidates who rejected its constant pressure: both of the democrats for long represented in the assembly, as well as the ‘outsiders’ who support a more or less open demand for independence.
Among these are the five elected from the lists of small parties, heirs to student intellectual and political groups active in the ‘umbrellas’ revolution’, who are engaged in asking for universal suffrage and the choice between an unlimited number of candidates in the next election.
The victory of the so-called ‘localists’, but also the unexpected ‘holding’ of the pan-democrats who want an evolution in relations with Beijing but within the limits of the Basic-Law that has ruled Hong Kong life and its relationship with the Chinese motherland since 1997, expressed, as pointed out by observers, a ‘strong message to Beijing’. The democratic ‘old guard’, though emerging more fragmented did, however, go against the expectations and managed to ensure 27 seats to the forces unfavorable to Chinese control, one-third of the total. They were able therefore to exercise the right of veto in an assembly which is elected publicly for only 40 of the total 70 seats, with the remaining ones representing economic and social interests related for the major part to Beijing’s choices.
The September elections were marked both by fragmentation of the political scene and participatory enthusiasm. However, never before in this election campaign was there such increased emphasis to ‘break’ with Beijing and its pressure, accompanied by warnings that took the form of open intimidation of ‘localist’ candidates, the threat of a recall of emergency legislation to contain the dissatisfaction and also, of pressure on mass media and intellectuals together with other disturbing and atypical methods, such as the kidnapping of publishers and writers. The request of the Election Commission that candidates sign a declaration of acceptance of the inseparability of Hong Kong from China, clearly indicated the external pressures on local politics. Six pan-democratic candidates were removed from office from the lists, based on rules decided only 48 hours before the start of the election campaign, others placed themselves spontaneously aside. Indeed, a pro-independence candidate, Ken Chow Wing-kan of the Liberal Party, abandoned the competition, pointing out that the threats addressed to him were from sources external to Hong Kong and “even more powerful than the Chinese Liaison Office and the Triads”.
Indeed, the candidate who collected the most votes in the election, Eddie Chu, one of the six candidates of the ‘localist’ group, came to fear for his life, which is why he asked for police protection for himself and for his family. A convinced ecologist, the 38 year-old Chu has for some time been committed to protecting the already much too man-made local environment against the new urban development initiatives in which local and external economic interests converge. This commitment brought him more than 84 thousand preferences that made him ‘the king of the votes’ for the mass media in Hong Kong, but also a target of retaliation often contracted out to powerful clans of the Chinese mafia.