Unlike Hong Kong’s process to select its leader — a baroque system involving an election committee of around 1,200 members, many of whom are handpicked by Beijing — these local elections reflected more directly the public mood in the former British colony. In the run-up to the vote, there was still speculation that it could be canceled amid the chaos and violence convulsing the city. Some analysts reckoned that fatigue with the protests, as well as the greater financial clout and resources of pro-Beijing parties in the city, would humble the pro-democracy camp. But the opposite turned out to be the case: The elections were carried out in an orderly and peaceful fashion, with more than 70 percent voter turnout. By comparison, district elections in 2015 yielded only a 47 percent turnout.
“The councils have very little actual power,” explained the New York Times. “They advise the government on neighborhood issues like the location of bus stops, not big questions like democracy. But the democrats’ victory also means that they will gain a larger say on the committee that chooses the territory’s chief executive in 2022.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters now believe they have a mandate to press forward their many demands, including possibly the resignation of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s embattled pro-Beijing leader, as well as an inquest into police accountability after months of violence and a slate of deep political reforms. “The district council election fully shows that Hong Kong people will not accept the authoritarianism of the central government,” Wu Chi-wai, chairman of the Democratic Party, said to my colleagues. “The Hong Kong government must now seriously consider public opinion.”
Lam could only muster a timid statement, indicating that she recognized “that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society” and that her government would “seriously reflect.”
For Lam, who has failed to quell the protests and done much to stoke public outrage, the situation seems increasingly untenable. Joseph Cheng, retired political science professor at the City University of Hong Kong, told the Guardian that the election was “a slap on the cheek for Carrie Lam’s administration who insisted that the silent majority [of Hong Kongers] was supporting the government.” He added that there may not be any path to “normality” under Lam’s watch in Hong Kong.
The protesters have vowed to continue their demonstrations and actions until their demands are met. My colleagues laid out the tricky way ahead: “With this rebuke of its affiliates in the city, Beijing faces a tough choice: whether to open up politics as promised in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, extend a crackdown on the pro-democracy protesters by the city’s police force and government, or try to navigate a delicate middle path.”
Many in Hong Kong hope for moderation and conciliation. “It is up to Beijing to make use of the carrots and sticks it has in shaping the city’s development,” noted an editorial in the South China Morning Post. “But an approach that reflects majority wishes will go a long way in winning support and fostering stability and prosperity.”
But there’s little indication that Beijing is at all interested in indulging Hong Kong’s majority. Chinese state media cast the elections as the product of foreign interference and misinformation. For President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong’s elections underscored a grim week of headlines, capped by new revelations about China’s vast system of repression in the far western region of Xinjiang. Though Xi may be straining under internal pressures, few analysts believe Beijing will countenance a full capitulation from Lam’s government.
“Trapped in an echo chamber of its own making, Beijing has, at every juncture, doubled down on its hardline rhetoric that the protesters represent an independence movement committing acts of terrorism, with the support of overseas governments and Western media,” wrote Quartz’s Isabella Steger. “While the strategy played well to a nationalism-fueled domestic audience, especially as protests escalated in violence over months, in practice it leaves little room for the party to climb down, and find new and flexible ways of engaging with the genuine demands of the movement which include greater democratic representation and an investigation into police brutality.”
As an opaque political system struggles to reckon with a democratic uprising, the specter of greater violence still looms. “Whether it is just a continued tone-deaf response, whether it is harsher crackdowns, [Beijing seems] singularly unable to make any adjustments to their game plan,” Christopher Balding, an American academic formerly based in China, told my colleague Anna Fifield.