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Hong Kong Votes in Decisive Poll

Sep. 5, 2016

A clear trend has emerged in the results of Sunday's Legislative Council election in Hong Kong: Lawmakers with a tough stance against mainland China have won the support of many voters.

Back in 2014, students and others staged sit-in protests, demanding a genuine democratic election for the territory's chief executive. The movement became known as the "Umbrella Revolution." But it ended without the changes the protesters had sought, leaving them and many others disillusioned.

Last year, booksellers in Hong Kong were detained on the mainland. They worked for a store that sold titles critical of the Chinese Communist Party. The move fueled concerns over the territory's autonomy.

Pro-Chinese lawmakers have a majority in Hong Kong's legislature, with pro-democracy lawmakers forming the opposition. In recent years, a third force has emerged -- one that demands independence.

Interest was particularly high in this year's election, as evidenced by the record-high turnout. It was the first major vote since the umbrella movement emerged 2 years ago.

Twenty-four was an important number in the election. That's one-third of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council. All eyes were on whether the pro-democracy candidates could retain their one-third minority and keep veto power in the legislature.

According to the election board's intermediate announcement, pro-democracy candidates have won 24 seats, and so-called localists, who favor independence for the territory, have garnered 3 so far.

That means that candidates critical of Beijing have held onto the number of seats needed to veto important bills, and the localists have won council seats for the first time.

"It shows how Hong Kong people want to change, and actually we were stuck in the democratic movement, and people are voting for a new way and new future of our democratic movement," said Nathan Law, a candidate who won a seat in the vote.

Pro-China candidates have retained 38 seats so far.

What's behind the election results? I visited the territory over the weekend and talked with candidates and voters. People naturally had very different opinions, but what I quickly understood was that they all shared one thing in common -- that is, everyone was talking about the growing influence of mainland China.

It's been almost 20 years since the former British colony became a special administrative region of China. The elections were seen as the most critical ones since the handover in 1997. The candidates were talking about the future of the territory. What divides them most is their stances on the territory's relationship with Beijing.

Horace Cheung is a candidate of the largest pro-China party. He organized a march with his supporters in a working-class district. He criticizes the pro-democracy opposition for using its one-third minority in the Legislative Council to block bills that would lead to strengthened ties with the mainland.

"Hong Kong is part and parcel of mainland China. So it is quite important for us to maintain a good relationship with China so that we can have a stable economic environment to maintain our living standard in Hong Kong," Cheung said.

James To is a veteran politician in the democratic camp. He was telling voters that if the pro-democracy camp can't secure a one-third minority, Hong Kong's democracy will be endangered.

"If we can maintain the one-third minority, at least we can block any not-true democratic elections proposal like those we fenced off 2 years ago," To said. "We must fight hard this time because the democratic camp has spread into too many small parties."

A new force of young activists who support independence from China has the pro-democracy camp worried.

Yau Wai Ching joined the umbrella movement 2 years ago. Their demand was not met, but that experience led her to think that Hong Kong should keep a clear distance from the mainland.

They call themselves "localists," and their new demands are seen as a radical departure from those of the traditional democrats.

"It is the last chance for us to promote our political platform and our ideology about building our nation, Hong Kong nation," she said. "We have to have Hong Kong-China differentiation. It is because under the rule of the Chinese government, we have got worse after 19 years."

Voters apparently made their choices based on their opinions about mainland China. Students at one kung fu school were following the master's movements, but they were much less in harmony when it came to their notions about the mainland.

"I work in the construction industry and many of my colleagues are pro-China because many of us moved from the mainland recently. That's why I think we tend to be pro-China," said one of the students.

Frank Ching, a journalist who has covered events in Hong Kong for many years, joins anchor Sho Beppu in Hong Kong.

Beppu: As I understood from speaking with voters and candidates on the weekend, basically everyone was talking about mainland China. Why is it difficult for people not to think about mainland China in Hong Kong now?

Ching: Well I think when you talk about the influence of mainland China the people you are talking to are probably talking about political influence rather than economic influence because China and Hong Kong have a huge economic relationship. But politically speaking, under the concept of "one country, 2 systems," Hong Kong is supposed to run itself and mainland China isn't supposed to interfere in Hong Kong's "internal affairs." So if China does interfere then people in Hong Kong get upset, and I think that's understandable.

Beppu: I also feel that some people feel very insecure. They're no longer in this so-called cocoon of Hong Kong. Is that what is happening?

Ching: I think what has happened in the last year or so, you probably have heard of this, a number of people who were involved in the bookselling business vanished. And one of them was in Hong Kong and then he was in China. And apparently he had been spirited across the border, didn't go through immigration, and if this is what happens under the idea of one country, 2 systems then people in Hong Kong are naturally worried. That is, the law in Hong Kong no longer protects them if Chinese security people can come to Hong Kong, snatch anybody they want to, and take them back to the mainland.

Beppu: So are you saying that people preferred to live under British colonial rule?

Ching: I think people in Hong Kong prefer to live under the rule of law wher no one gets snatched, kidnapped, and taken from one jurisdiction illegally into another jurisdiction, regardless of whether it's a British or Chinese or Japanese system.

Hong Kong Voters' Views Polarized
Takuma Yoshioka

So what did the voters look for in the election, and what were the factors that drove their decisions? Some voters had sharply differing views about Hong Kong and its future.

Last month, nearly 3,000 young "localists" turned up for a rally outside the Legislative Council building.

"We must start the fight to reclaim our sovereignty!" Edward Leung, spokesman for Hong Kong Indigenous, told the crowd.

The number of people who identify as “Hong Kongers” has increased. The localists say China has broken its promise to keep a "one country, 2 systems" policy. They say independence is the only way to protect their rights.

Dicky Tang used to be with the pro-democracy camp but he and his wife became disillusioned with it after they joined the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
They criticize the pro-democracy camp for continuing to seek dialogue with Beijing, even after the movement was quashed without gaining any concessions.

"I feel like I was betrayed by the pro-democracy camp," Tang said. "I no longer believe in its strategy of seeking solutions through talks.”

Last year, booksellers in Hong Kong were detained on the mainland. It made Tang feel that China is ramping up the pressure on Hong Kong. He started to support independence because he believes Hong Kong's freedoms won't survive without a change of tactics.

"There have been significant restrictions on freedom of speech and of the press. It seems like the more talks we have with China, the more China raises the pressure," Tang said.

The people who want close ties to Beijing have been running a hard campaign too. They've found strong support among local business leaders.

One of those supporting the pro-Beijing camp is Ng Kwok Ming. He's president of a company that makes construction machinery, and he gets many orders related to mainland China.

Ng says the future lies with China. He thinks it's important to develop infrastructure that links Hong Kong with the rapidly growing Chinese cities. He says that will increase the flow of goods and labor.

"Hong Kong is not big enough to be able to resolve issues on its own. Its economy will not succeed without the support of mainland China," Ng said.

The pro-Beijing camp still has strong power in the Legislative Council, but its members will have to deal with an opposition that's become even more radicalized.

Beppu: How do you think view the election results for the localists?

Ching: I think the localists did very, very well. I think they did better than anybody imagined would be possible. One of them got 82,000 votes. I think that is unimaginable. And this is someone who did not get very much media coverage. I think this shows that the people in Hong Kong, the voters support what these localists are saying. And now that they've been voted into the legislature, everyone is waiting to see what they're going to do and say. They've become a new force in the election. Traditionally there was this pro-establishment group, which has the majority, then there was the democrats and now there's this new force. It's a smaller force but it's a young force, and clearly it has popular support. So I think it's a new development, and one that's very interesting. And I think the Chinese government will also be watching to see what they will do.

Beppu: Do you think we can interpret the results as a clear "no," that the people of Hong Kong have expressed against the growing meddling of Beijing in Hong Kong's affairs?

Ching: Yes, I think that is certainly the case. I think the localism movement won ballots from the fact that many people in Hong Kong felt that despite the policy of one country, 2 systems, the Chinese government has been meddling in Hong Kong's affairs. People were saying that there is no more one country, 2 systems and that it's just one country, one system. And in response to that, some people have been calling for independence. I think this is action and reaction. And the localists are sort of a milder form of the pro-independence camp. And now they are in the system, they are actually legislators. I think we should wait and see what they will do and what they'll say.

Beppu: Now let's try to read what Beijing is thinking. Do you think they're nervous?

Ching: I think Beijing is probably slightly nervous. But Beijing must be comforted by the fact that 6 candidates were not allowed to run at all. Now these were out and out pro-independence candidates. And the Hong Kong government would not allow them to run. So the people who ran did not outwardly express support for independence. So now they're in the legislature and by law they cannot be prosecuted for anything they say in the legislature. So they can come out and make pro-independence statements. But if they do, then of course there might be other consequences. I think that they are a young force, they're people in their 20s and in their 30s, and I think we have to give them time to work within the system and the democrats, the traditional ones, will have to work with them. And I think the government will have to work with them.

Beppu: How do you think the election results will affect next year's election to choose the new leader of the territory?

Ching: Well actually the people will not be able to choose the new chief executive. It's just a committee of 1,200 people. And those candidates will all be approved by Beijing. The central government will approve the candidates, and the committee I think will choose whichever candidate indicates is its choice. I think the question is whether the current chief executive, C. Y. Leung, will be given a second term or not. He clearly wants a second term. But I think that if Beijing feels that he is not doing a good job, they might prefer a new candidate. A lot depends on what the legislature does.

Beppu: Finally, it's very difficult to predict something in the future, but do you imagine an independent Hong Kong in the future?

Ching: No I cannot imagine that because I think it is not possible if China is opposed to it. Hong Kong depends on China for its water, for its food. And if China says no to independence, Hong Kong cannot have independence. I think it's highly unlikely that China can say, "go ahead and be independent, Hong Kong."