Hong Kong sends China tough message

People gather in support of pro-democracy protesters during a lunch break rally in the Kwun Tong area in Hong Kong on November 27, 2019. - Hong Kong has been battered by months of mass rallies and violent clashes pitting police against protesters who are

The landslide victory of the pan-democratic camp, a loose alliance of parties that are pro-democracy and opposed to China’s policies, in local council elections in Hong Kong will boost ongoing protests there. The pan-democrats won 347 of the 452 seats up for grabs, with independents—many of them are pro-democrat, too—winning another 45. Pro-establishment candidates managed to win just 60 seats. The pro-democracy camp has taken control of 17 of 18 district seats.

This is a huge setback to Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Since June this year, Hong Kong has been roiled by unrest. What began as protests against plans to allow extradition of suspects to mainland China escalated over the weeks into a larger pro-democracy campaign. Although Lam withdrew the draft law, the protests did not die down as Lam’s overture was seen to be too little, too late.

Additionally, the use of excessive force against the protesters has steeled their resolve. Clashes have claimed lives and left many injured. They have disrupted daily life in Hong Kong and plunged the economy into recession. Lam has always claimed that she had the support of a “silent majority.” Voters disproved her claim by rejecting pro-establishment candidates. A tsunami of voters endorsed the pan-democrats.

This was an election to local councils, where transport and other amenities are the main issues. However, this time, it was more than that. It was a de facto referendum on Lam’s handling of the protests. Voters slammed her for that. Democracy and China’s role in Hong Kong’s affairs were uppermost on voters’ minds. They voted in favour of democratic rights and for less interference from Beijing. The election result is thus a wake-up call for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing establishment. They cannot ignore the message from the result.

Following the election defeat, Lam has adopted a more conciliatory approach, promising to “listen humbly” to the people’s views. In contrast, Beijing has taken a tougher stance, warning against further protests and stressing that Hong Kong will remain Chinese territory come what may. This could prompt protesters to dig in their heels. Beijing’s concerns are understandable to some extent.

It fears that the protests are being encouraged from abroad, that is, by the United States. This is possible. Still, taking a confrontationist stance will not help end the crisis. China can be expected to replace Lam with a Beijing-backed hardliner, who will order all-out crushing of the protests. This will result in much bloodshed. Instead, Beijing and Hong Kong’s authorities could accept at least a few of the protesters’ demands and draw the protesters to the negotiating table for a compromise settlement.

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