Editor’s Note: Kerry Brown is professor of Chinese Studies and director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College, London, and an Associate Fellow of the Asia programme at Chatham House. The opinions expressed in this article belong to the author.
Hong Kongers have elected a raft of young former pro-democracy protesters to the city's parliament
Kerry Brown: The people of Hong Kong have sent a message. The authorities can either dismiss that, or try to solve it
The Hong Kong elections for the city’s Legislative Council held Sunday – the parliament for Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region – were always going to be significant: they are the first to have been held since the anti-Beijing Occupy Central protests that attracted international attention in 2014.
The outcome so far partly confirms what was already widely suspected: Hong Kong politics has become more divided and more fractious.
Several members of the Umbrella Movement have been elected, including Nathan Law from the Demosisto Party, set up by activists as a direct result of the Occupy Central movement.
Having formal representation by people previously regarded as anathema to the mainstream electorate in Hong Kong even a few years ago is a clear sign of how much confidence towards Beijing – and the government it supports in Hong Kong – has eroded in the last few years.
But before predicting imminent revolution, a couple of things need to be considered. Hong Kong’s politics has always been volatile. There were riots by sympathizers to the radical Maoist leadership during the Cultural Revolution half a century ago. In the final years of the British colonial era, strong divisions against the 1997 handover deal with Beijing appeared.
That pro- and anti-mainland fault line exists to this day. All that’s changed is that it has become deeper. Throughout the last 20 years, there have been massive protests against issues running from Chinese attempts to introduce patriotic education, to the attempts to impose anti-secession legislation a decade ago.
What happened on Sunday is simply a further manifestation of this often contrarian local political atmosphere.
The element that is new is the deeper role of Beijing and its ideas in local politics. The leadership of Xi Jinping has shown a hard edge towards the city.
Officials in his administration have made it clear that the only option in Hong Kong is to work within the framework they supply. There can be dabbling around the edges, and some compromise. But on the main issues, Beijing’s fiat rules.
Activists in Hong Kong would be naïve in the extreme to believe that moves towards unilateral independence would ever be permitted by Beijing. It has reacted with extreme harshness to any such talk in Tibet and Xinjiang.
Even over Taiwan, which enjoys de facto independence, it makes loud and intolerant noises when anyone so much as mentions the possibility of the island being a separate sovereign entity. For Hong Kong, therefore, the context in which it exists is set in stone. It is, and will remain part of the People’s Republic. The question is under what terms.
This is not to be dismissive of the clear sign offered by these elections that many people living in Hong Kong are frustrated, angry, and want a better political deal. For these people, the same challenges of stagnant wages, rising living costs, and constant economic pressure are shared with communities across the planet.
So, too, is real anger at the very poor quality of leadership they have seen in the city’s political elite in the last few years. They don’t feel they have been represented well – and they are probably right. C Y Leung has proved a weak and often ineffective chief executive. The possibility of his standing for a second term next year will only create even more frustration.
The simple fact is that the people of Hong Kong have sent a message in supporting more radical parties. The authorities can either dismiss that, or try to work out a way of solving it.
For Hong Kong’s future, there are two stark issues that need to be addressed by the parties involved.
Pursuing a more confrontational stance towards Beijing by local politicians creates the kind of uncertainty that risks weakening the principle assets the city has: a strong, global finance and services-based economy. But that does not mean that the government can simply ignore the clear evidence these elections give of a divided, unhappy electorate and do nothing about the underlying causes.
The brutal fact remains that unless the government, which has a key role in all of this, can find a constructive way out of the current impasse, there is a real possibility that Hong Kong’s best days will be behind it. And that is a lose-lose scenario for everyone.