Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam last month postponed the city’s slated Legislative Council elections in September by a year, claiming that it is necessary amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The opposition has accused Lam of using the pandemic as a pretext to stop people from voting. This accusation is well founded, considering that the government appeared to make no attempt to explore measures to make voting safer, such as better crowd control at polling stations and allowing mail-in votes. Instead, against the constitutional doctrine of ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’, it has sought the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s rubber stamp parliament, for advice on how to handle the ‘legislative vacuum’ before new legislators are elected.
The potential solutions include setting up a Beijing-appointed provisional legislature or keeping the existing electoral one – yet it will be the Committee’s authority to decide if an individual legislator can remain in their position and the criteria for remaining. Either way, the power of the Hong Kong people is at least being suspended, if not being sold to China.
Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government has banned 12 pro-democracy candidates from running in the elections. A similar instance happened in the 2016 Legislative Council elections, where five pro-democracy candidates were disqualified at the beginning of the campaign and six others were deprived of their seats after they were elected. The ban this time, however, has generated a far bigger political firestorm.
The candidates involved in the previous ban came from a small sect of the pro-democracy camp, who were mostly new to local politics and were proponents of the relatively marginal aims of self-determination and independence for Hong Kong. They did not enjoy a wide voter base, hence limited public concern. While the government stripped their seats and right to stand for election, justifying it by questioning the candidates’ allegiance to the city’s constitutional status as part of China, this did not meet significant resistance from society.
In contrast, the recent ban has triggered a widespread and substantial response. The pro-democracy legislators currently in office are now considering collective resignation to boycott the legislature. Some are calling for the establishment of an unofficial yet truly representative parliament of Hong Kong people’s own in the international sphere, like the Tibetan Parliament in Exile.
On the one hand, self-determination and independence are becoming more and more popular amid the Anti-Extradition Protests since June 2019, which have significantly changed the pollical landscape of the city. On the other hand, among those 12 pro-democracy candidates, a good number of them are ‘traditional democrats’ and existing legislators with long-standing public support.
After all, the whole pro-democracy camp had won more than 80% of the contested seats in the District Council elections in November 2019, in which over 70% of eligible voters participated. The ban, under the present context, steals not only the political rights of the 12 candidates but of the whole city.
As the government effectively kills elections and the public refuses to stay silent, what are the implications for democracy in Hong Kong?
We have to know about the past to understand the present. As the cultural studies scholar Ackbar Abbas observed, ‘the history of Hong Kong, in terms that are relevant to what it has become today, has effectively been a history of colonialism.’
Scholars often consider Hong Kong’s colonial experience exceptional. This is not only for delivering extraordinary economic growth, boasting a higher GDP per capita than its colonial master in the last days of colonisation, but also for its remarkable social stability. In 1967, riots between communists and the police led to more than 50 deaths and hundreds injured. To maintain Hong Kong as a stable place for the continuous growth of capitalism and to quell discontent with colonial authorities following the riots, the British government implemented a series of social and welfare reforms including introducing public housing and free public education.
In the politcal realm, the British government had a strategy that the sociologist Ambrose King has called the ‘administrative absorption of politics’. This refers to a special political arrangement whereby societal political forces are integrated into the governing body to prevent or redirect potential opposition. Elites and civil society leaders were admitted to the legislature and advisory committees, or recruited as officials whose roles were actually administrative. While they functioned more like window dressing for colonial rule than as real policy makers, such an arrangement gave these people a false sense of power and therefore political satisfaction. Forces that would have gone against the government, therefore, were redirected into serving the government.
The recent ban on pro-democracy candidates running in the elections, however, is a reversal of such a strategy. What can be expected as a result is the radicalisation of the opposition. In the original setting, mainstream society could still influence policymaking via their elected representatives in the legislature; so although limited, there was a room for negotiation and political change from within. But now, no space exists as pro-democracy voices are excluded from any share of power.
The possibility of collective resignations and the formation of a parliament in exile parliament illustrate that Hong Kong’s people are being pushed to more thoroughgoing means of political change, and potentially supporting separatism from China, despite this being heavily criminalised under the draconian new national security law. As experts, commentators, and many of the city have started to recognise, an exiled parliament would be a preliminary yet concrete step towards practically realising Hong Kong independence. What was marginal in 2016 has become mainstream today.
On the handover anniversary day last year, Hong Kong protestors broke into the Legislative Council Complex. They defaced the Chinese emblem in the chamber and left pieces of graffiti on the walls. One of the messages read: ‘It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.’ Perhaps now we may as well say: ‘It was you who taught us peaceful elections are useless.’ It is no surprise that polarisation of power ends up in polarisation of resistance.
Banner image: People take to the streets of Hong Kong in protest in 2019. Source: Studio Incendo via Flickr