Asia

Commentary: Hong Kong protests – a rising China clashes with frustrated Hong Kong

SINGAPORE: Hong Kongs protesters celebrated last weeks District Council elections results.

The pro-democracy camp heavily defeated pro-establishment parties and will dominate 17 out of 18 District Councils for the next four years.

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The former tripled its Council seats from 120 in 2015 to 388. They now have 86 per cent of seats, a huge surge from 28 per cent.

Hong Kongs District Council plays mainly an advisory role in the government without substantial power.

The traditionally low voter turnout of below 50 per cent since 1999, however, saw a surge to 71 per cent from 2015s 47 per cent.

Much has been said about how voters saw the elections as a “referendum” on the protests and the governments response.

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But in the much more important Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, vote shares between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps have always been around 60 per cent versus 40 per cent.

In the most recent 2016 LegCo elections, the vote shares were 55 per cent versus 40 per cent – very close to those in the 2019 District Council elections: 57 per cent versus 41 per cent.

READ: Voices of Hong Kong – a CNA interactive special

READ: Commentary: Struggles within Hong Kongs political system the new battle frontier

MIXED IMPLICATIONS

The implications from this comparison are mixed. First, although the pro-democracy camp won a clear victory, they failed to expand popular support beyond their historic 60 per cent share.

Second, the pro-establishment camp lost the elections but still maintained their long-held 40 per cent of popular support.

In essence, the popular support for both camps basically remains unchanged.

Third, the pro-democracy camp certainly has good reasons to celebrate, but not all is lost for their opponents. Nevertheless, it is clear that protests and violence have not raised as much public support for the pro-establishment camp as they expected.

A look at the number of seats and voter turn-out at Hong Kong's elections. (Table: Author)

DEEP DIVISIONS, HUGE ANGST

The District Council elections results have also sent strong signals to Beijing and the mainland.

Beijing has wisely restrained itself from publicly and directly intervening in the Hong Kong protests in the last six months, to provide breathing space for “one country, two systems”.

But protesters and the pro-democracy camp are not letting up. They believe the Hong Kong government is Beijings puppet, and without Beijings consent, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, cannot accept their five demands.

Of those demands – withdrawal of the Extradition Bill; a refrain from labelling protests as riots; an independent inquiry into police brutality; amnesty for all arrested protesters;, and universal suffrage to elect both the Chief Executive and Legislators – only the first has been fulfilled.

READ: Commentary: Hong Kong poll win will embolden protesters

READ: Commentary: Behind Hong Kongs extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future

Their discontent with Beijing has now been transformed into a wider anger against the mainland, which has been felt not only by mainlanders in Hong Kong, but also Chinese in the mainland.

Anti-government protesters hold placards as they attend the "Lest We Forget" rally in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The strong division and angst felt by both sides were apparent in a recent trip to Taiwan and mainland China I took where I had opportunities to discuss the protests with people of different backgrounds.

Hong Kongers and mainlanders are divided over what defines a successful “one country, two systems”. Hong Kongers believe this philosophy should aim to keep Hong Kongs way of life intact, with minimum influence from the mainland.

Mainlanders think since Hong Kong has returned to China for over two decades, Chinas growing influence in Hong Kong is not only natural, but also necessary, given national interests, especially considerations of national security.

While the Hong Kongers emphasise the distinction between the “two systems”, mainlanders focus on the necessity of “one country”.

RISING CHINA, FRUSTRATED HONG KONG

The Hong Kong issue is a clash between a rising China that is growing more confident, and Hong Kongs frustrated ambitions.

A masked protester attends a "March of Gratitude to the US" event in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

READ: Commentary: Surely separatism is not Hong Kongs endgame?

Hong Kongers fiercely complain that Beijings political, economic and social influence is transforming Hong Kong into a typical mainland city, like Shenzhen or Shanghai, leading to a loss of its identity.

In contrast, two decades ago, most Hong Kongers believed that the mainland would gradually become more like Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”.

Against the backdrop of a rising China, Hong Kongers had been proud of their way of life, a clean and efficient government, and a liberal and diverse society, but feel frustrated deeply by Chinas growing influence.

This has been the root cause for their resistance against the government: They are fighting against unwanted pressures from the mainland.

It is hard for most mainlanders to understand Hong Kongers frustrations. Mainlanders share great pride and rising confidence about Chinas place in the world, its growing economic heft and military prowess.

READ: Commentary: An independent and thriving Hong Kong is a fantasy

They are surprised by Hong Kongs rejection of Chinas influence and angered by the hatred displayed towards mainlanders. “Why hasnt our government crushed the rioters?” “Losing Hong Kong means nothing to us!” These angry words shared with me reflect sentiments among many mainlanders.

Many mainlanders think a failed Hong Kong is in Beijings interest, because Hong Kongers will not wake up until they have suffered enough from the chaos. They believe this is the reason Beijing has allowed the violence to escalate.

They were surprised by the election results, which suggested that chaos has awoken more Hong Kongers to vote for the pro-democracy camp instead.