Sep 10th 2016 | BEIJING AND HONG KONG |
CHINA’S leaders wince at the merest hint of support for the separation of any part of their country from the “motherland”. Gun-toting police officers and armies of secret ones ensure that few dare openly to express support for the notion in Tibet and Xinjiang, traditionally restive regions in the west of the country. China’s rapid military modernisation in recent years has been aimed in part at deterring Taiwan, which has never been ruled by the Communist Party, from making its de facto independence a formal one.Imagine, then, their horror at the outcome of elections held in Hong Kong on September 4th.
Thanks to a system that China (gladly) inherited from the British, the outcome of elections to Legco is skewed in favour of pro-establishment politicians. That is ensured by the reservation of 30 seats for “functional” constituencies, namely professions, industries and other groups whose members tend to support the government (another five seats also technically belong to such constituencies, but they allow almost every adult to vote, unlike the others, which have small electorates). It was no surprise, then, that the government’s backers were able to take 40 seats, a majority that will ensure most of its bills will be passed. In the previous Legco elections in 2012 they took 43.
As the Communist Party in Beijing sees it, it is the composition of the opposing camp, not its slightly bigger size, that is a cause for much anxiety. Gone from Legco are several veterans who have been vocal critics of the party (which operates only covertly in Hong Kong). But localists have now gained seats for the first time. Not only do such people flirt with the idea of independence, but they are also more ready than old-guard democrats to engage in civil disobedience. Several were leaders of the “Umbrella movement” of 2014, which involved weeks of demonstrations and sit-ins on busy roads by student-led protesters demanding more democracy.
The umbrellas’ shadow
In the race for 35 seats in “geographical” constituencies (ie, those filled by proper elections), pro-democracy politicians took nearly 55% of the vote in a record turnout. But a big share of this—nearly 20% of the vote—was for localists belonging to parties formed in the wake of the failed Umbrella campaign. Such groups seem to like portmanteau or hybrid names. One of the more radical of them, Youngspiration, now has two legislators. Nathan Law of a party called Demosisto, who was a student leader during the Umbrella movement, has become the youngest ever to win a Legco seat. He calls himself a “23-year-old kid”.
China’s refusal to make concessions to the Umbrella protesters has fuelled the growth of such groups, despite efforts by the government in Hong Kong to undermine support for them (recently, for example, by banning teachers from expressing support for independence in schools). It refused to budge on their demands that the chief executive, as Hong Kong’s leader is known, be freely elected. China insists that candidates for the post be screened by a committee packed with loyal Hong Kongers, who can be counted on to exclude Communist Party-baiting democrats.
Support for more radical political views has also been fuelled by China’s detention a few months ago of five Hong Kong booksellers for selling gossipy works on China’s leaders. .
One of them disappeared from Hong Kong, apparently snatched by mainland agents. Some Hong Kongers also resent an influx of people from the mainland, blaming them for pushing up house prices, taking good jobs and stripping shelves bare on shopping trips. Localists have been at the forefront of protests against the “locusts”, as some call the hordes of mainland day-trippers.
China’s initial reaction to the results in Hong Kong has been guarded (beyond trying, as usual, to scrub the internet clean of any comment on the territory’s democratic endeavours). Its media have barely mentioned them.
But the leadership’s worries are clear. A government statement said that advocating independence for Hong Kong was “a threat to China’s sovereignty and security” and would damage the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong. It expressed support for any legal action taken by Hong Kong’s government to stop it.
One option that China may consider is pushing Hong Kong to revive its long-shelved plans to introduce a new law against subversion. That, however, would risk a public backlash, such as occurred in 2003 when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in protest against the government’s previous attempt to do so.
It may also think about backing Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, for another term when elections are held next March for the post (without public input). Mr Leung is implacably anti-localist, but is also hugely unpopular. Keeping him would also risk triggering more unrest on the streets. The least likely option is that China will grant Hong Kong the democracy many of its people want. Among its many fears is that others in China, not least in its restless west, may ask why they are not allowed it, too.
Tags: abductions, advocating independence for Hong Kong, China, China’s struggle against separatism, Chinese Communist Party, Demosisto, Hong Kong, Hong Kong booksellers, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, Hong Kong’s government, human rights, independence, kidnapping, Legco, Legislative Council, localists, mainland China, Nathan Law, pro-democracy politicians, self-determination, separatism, subversion, Tibet, Xi Jinping, Xinjiang, Youngspiration