Hong Kong’s district polls outcome: what does it mean?

by AFP/ pic by AFP

CHINA – Hong Kong voters gave the territory’s China-controlled administration a bloody nose in Sunday’s local district council elections, a result that pushes the city’s months-long political crisis into uncharted territory.

Here are some of the key questions about the ballot.

Why is the result important?

Pro-democracy groups have seized on the council polls as a chance to prove the depth of public support for the protest movement, which Beijing-aligned Chief Executive Carrie Lam has dismissed as the work of a radical fringe.

District councils chiefly oversee mundane community-level tasks and their elections generated little buzz in the past. But rising political discontent in recent years has turned them into an increasingly important barometer of public opinion.

That’s largely because balloting for the 18 councils is the only forum for full and direct elections across the city, whose chief executive and law-making legislature are chosen partly by electoral groups appointed and controlled by Beijing.

What has caused the protests?

After more than a century and a half as a British colony, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese control in 1997 under an agreement in which Beijing pledged to afford the port and financial hub a “high degree” of autonomy.

But moves by Beijing and Hong Kong’s administration in recent years have spurred rising fear that the unique freedoms credited for the city’s success were being undermined.

These included a 2014 decision by China’s rubber-stamp legislature that effectively ruled out universal sufferage, and was seen as a bid to increase Beijing’s control over the city’s nominees for chief executive.

This year outrage erupted against a since-withdrawn bill introduced by Lam’s administration that would have allowed extraditions to China’s opaque justice system.

The protesters have subsequently issued five demands, including direct elections of the legislature and chief executive, and a probe into allegations of police brutality against demonstrators.

What will happen next?

Validation at the ballot box is expected to give fresh impetus to the protest movement and encourage reform advocates to step up their demands.

Before counting was even completed on Monday, leading figures in the democratic camp called on Lam and her government to immediately grant the demands. Some have called for the entire city executive to step down.

Various public activities also are planned this week to keep the pressure on, and chatter on pro-democracy forums online has called for a major rally on Sunday.

How will the government react?

After the establishment’s shellacking became clear on Monday, Lam said her government would “listen humbly” to the voice of the people, but her hands are tied by China’s ruling Communist Party.

China takes an uncompromising approach toward any challenges to its policies, particularly those that appear to question its ultimate authority over regions like Hong Kong. Granting concessions – which could encourage challenges elsewhere – is not in the party’s DNA.

“It is very doubtful that there will be any concessions,” Hong Kong-based China politics analyst Willy Lam said.

“That would have to come from Beijing and I don’t see anything from statements by (Chinese President) Xi Jinping or other officials suggesting they would make concessions.”