Commentary: Hong Kong protests - a rising China clashes with frustrated Hong Kong

Commentary: Hong Kong protests - a rising China clashes with frustrated Hong Kong

A deeper look at the District Council elections results and responses from Hong Kongers and mainland Chinese suggest differences run deeper than the five demands, says East Asian Institute’s Qi Dongtao.

Hong Kong lunchtime rally
High school students gesture and chant slogans during a lunchtime flash mob rally in the Cheung Sha Wan district in Hong Kong on Nov 29, 2019. (Photo: Philip FONG/AFP)

SINGAPORE: Hong Kong’s protesters celebrated last week’s District Council elections results. 

The pro-democracy camp heavily defeated pro-establishment parties and will dominate 17 out of 18 District Councils for the next four years.

The former tripled its Council seats from 120 in 2015 to 388. They now have 86 per cent of seats, a huge surge from 28 per cent.

Hong Kong’s District Council plays mainly an advisory role in the government without substantial power.

The traditionally low voter turnout of below 50 per cent since 1999, however, saw a surge to 71 per cent from 2015’s 47 per cent. 

Much has been said about how voters saw the elections as a “referendum” on the protests and the government’s response.

But in the much more important Legislative Council (LegCo) elections, vote shares between the pro-democracy and pro-establishment camps have always been around 60 per cent versus 40 per cent.

In the most recent 2016 LegCo elections, the vote shares were 55 per cent versus 40 per cent - very close to those in the 2019 District Council elections: 57 per cent versus 41 per cent.

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The implications from this comparison are mixed. First, although the pro-democracy camp won a clear victory, they failed to expand popular support beyond their historic 60 per cent share.

Second, the pro-establishment camp lost the elections but still maintained their long-held 40 per cent of popular support.

In essence, the popular support for both camps basically remains unchanged.

Third, the pro-democracy camp certainly has good reasons to celebrate, but not all is lost for their opponents. Nevertheless, it is clear that protests and violence have not raised as much public support for the pro-establishment camp as they expected.

(sl) Elex stats HK district council
A look at the number of seats and voter turn-out at Hong Kong's elections. (Table: Author)


The District Council elections results have also sent strong signals to Beijing and the mainland.

Beijing has wisely restrained itself from publicly and directly intervening in the Hong Kong protests in the last six months, to provide breathing space for “one country, two systems”.

But protesters and the pro-democracy camp are not letting up. They believe the Hong Kong government is Beijing’s puppet, and without Beijing’s consent, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong government, cannot accept their five demands. 

Of those demands - withdrawal of the Extradition Bill; a refrain from labelling protests as riots; an independent inquiry into police brutality; amnesty for all arrested protesters;, and universal suffrage to elect both the Chief Executive and Legislators - only the first has been fulfilled.

READ: Commentary: Hong Kong poll win will embolden protesters

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Their discontent with Beijing has now been transformed into a wider anger against the mainland, which has been felt not only by mainlanders in Hong Kong, but also Chinese in the mainland.

Anti-government protesters hold placards as they attend the "Lest We Forget" rally in Hon
Anti-government protesters hold placards as they attend the "Lest We Forget" rally in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

The strong division and angst felt by both sides were apparent in a recent trip to Taiwan and mainland China I took where I had opportunities to discuss the protests with people of different backgrounds. 

Hong Kongers and mainlanders are divided over what defines a successful “one country, two systems”. Hong Kongers believe this philosophy should aim to keep Hong Kong’s way of life intact, with minimum influence from the mainland. 

Mainlanders think since Hong Kong has returned to China for over two decades, China’s growing influence in Hong Kong is not only natural, but also necessary, given national interests, especially considerations of national security.

While the Hong Kongers emphasise the distinction between the “two systems”, mainlanders focus on the necessity of “one country”.


The Hong Kong issue is a clash between a rising China that is growing more confident, and Hong Kong’s frustrated ambitions.

"March of Gratitude to the U.S." event in Hong Kong
A masked protester attends a "March of Gratitude to the US" event in Hong Kong, China December 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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Hong Kongers fiercely complain that Beijing’s political, economic and social influence is transforming Hong Kong into a typical mainland city, like Shenzhen or Shanghai, leading to a loss of its identity. 

In contrast, two decades ago, most Hong Kongers believed that the mainland would gradually become more like Hong Kong under “one country, two systems”.

Against the backdrop of a rising China, Hong Kongers had been proud of their way of life, a clean and efficient government, and a liberal and diverse society, but feel frustrated deeply by China’s growing influence.

This has been the root cause for their resistance against the government: They are fighting against unwanted pressures from the mainland.

It is hard for most mainlanders to understand Hong Kongers’ frustrations. Mainlanders share great pride and rising confidence about China’s place in the world, its growing economic heft and military prowess.

READ: Commentary: An independent and thriving Hong Kong is a fantasy

They are surprised by Hong Kong’s rejection of China’s influence and angered by the hatred displayed towards mainlanders. “Why hasn’t our government crushed the rioters?” “Losing Hong Kong means nothing to us!” These angry words shared with me reflect sentiments among many mainlanders.

Many mainlanders think a failed Hong Kong is in Beijing’s interest, because Hong Kongers will not wake up until they have suffered enough from the chaos. They believe this is the reason Beijing has allowed the violence to escalate.

They were surprised by the election results, which suggested that chaos has awoken more Hong Kongers to vote for the pro-democracy camp instead.

READ: Commentary: A very gloomy outlook for Hong Kong’s economy

Hong Kong holds local elections
Voters queue outside a polling station during district council local elections in Hong Kong, China November 24, 2019. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

However, it is in Beijing’s interest to keep “one country, two systems” intact and safeguard Hong Kong’s economic system and success.

A failed Hong Kong cannot be a role model for Beijing to sell a “one-country, two systems” approach to Taiwan. 

Similarly, both Taiwan and the US have been proud of their political systems and believe that China should enact reforms to become “more democratic”.

A rapidly rising China with a different political system, however, has run against the narrative of the triumph of post-Cold War western liberal democracy.

China’s model of development not only challenges today’s status quo but has also frustrated the US, Taiwan and many western countries, which explains in part why they chose to check Beijing’s influence and stand with Hong Kong protesters.

READ: Commentary: Could 'black hands' be behind the Hong Kong protests?


In the wake of the elections, however, both the Hong Kong government and protesters have some precious breathing room for possible reconciliation.

Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam news briefing after local elections
Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media in a weekly news briefing after local elections in Hong Kong, China, November 26, 2019. REUTERS/Marko Djurica

The elections results have boosted the confidence of the pro-democracy camp. Their dominance in the District Councils will give them control over one-third of the Chief Executive Election Committee members, and significantly raise their influence in choosing the next government leader.

This renewed confidence may lead to peaceful and institutional resistance, leading Hong Kong to move away from violent street protests.

The Hong Kong government and Beijing may take this opportunity to offer concessions to the protesters. 

But if the Chinese government is determined to keep them desperate and wait for their stamina to peter out, their confidence will be further frustrated, which would fuel a next round of violent resistance.

Qi Dongtao is a Research Fellow of East Asian Institute, National University of Singapore. The opinions expressed in the commentary are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the East Asian Institute, or its Board Members.

Source: CNA/sl