Hong Kong Democrats Stay Afloat

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Kin Cheung / AP

Pro-democracy candidates (from right) Amy Yung, Audrey Eu and Tanya Chan celebrate the day after the Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong.

Defying predictions of an electoral trouncing, Hong Kong's democrats managed to keep their toehold on political influence in the Sept. 7 elections, winning 24 seats in the city's 60-member legislature and maintaining their veto power over any changes to the territory's constitution. "At the beginning, the pan-democrats were nervous about the result," says James Sung, a political scientist at the City University of Hong Kong. "But they still maintain good momentum, and they have the power of constitutional review. In this sense, they are the winner."

Since Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, legislative elections have become an important, and closely watched, barometer of the city's unique status within China. Hong Kong's constitution, known as the Basic Law, states that the city's leaders should eventually be chosen by a direct territory-wide vote — though the timetable dictated by Beijing for such elections has often been hotly debated. For mainland China, still unnerved by the prospect of political instability, an orderly transition to full democracy in Hong Kong may provide a possible blueprint for wider political liberalization.

Coming in the afterglow of last month's Beijing Olympics, the Sept. 7 legislative election was widely forecast to be a rout of the democrats by Hong Kong's pro-Beijing parties. Only a week before voters went to the polls, China’s gold medalists made a triumphal tour of the city — a move some saw as an attempt to drum up support for pro-Beijing politicians. Hong Kong's government denied the athletes' visit was connected to the election. But pro-Beijing candidates couldn't help but benefit from association with the victorious Olympians. "China is rising in international status," says Joseph Cheng, secretary general of the pro-democracy Civic Party. "There's a sense of being proud of being Chinese. That certainly supports the establishment."

Speaking on Sept. 7 at his party's headquarters, where a group of weary volunteers were making last-minute phone pitches to voters, Cheng said democrats were "quite worried" about losing their one-third minority in the city's legislative assembly. In Hong Kong's Byzantine political structure, set up by the British to forestall grassroots political organizing, only half of the city's legislators are elected by voters; the rest are elected by largely pro-Beijing business interest groups. Legislators also lack any meaningful power, since they can only veto laws proposed by the city's chief executive, who is elected by a pro-Beijing klatch of 800 appointees. Last year, Beijing indicated that it could introduce direct elections for Hong Kong's legislature and the chief executive by 2017, potentially robbing democrats of their signature issue. "This was an important move by Beijing because it helped to cool down the intention of middle class people to cast their vote," says Sung.

Hong Kong's democracy movement crested in 2003, when SARS, a steep economic downturn, and a controversial security law galvanized massive street protests. Since then, the pro-democracy parties have fractured and their influence has waned. Sunday's turnout of 45% was down almost 11% from 2004. "There's a little sense of political impotence and apathy," says the Civic Party's Cheng, who is also a political science professor at City University of Hong Kong.

Indeed, it is the economy, rather than universal suffrage, that seems most on the minds of Hong Kong voters. Inflation is creeping upwards, and many Hong Kong residents worry about a widening chasm between rich and poor. The most surprising result of the election was the ouster of a number of long-time pro-business legislators in favor of those supporting populist measures, like a minimum wage law.

Hong Kong's democrats were also running without two of their most stalwart figures. Martin Lee, founder of Hong Kong's Democratic Party, and Anson Chan, a popular former top civil servant, both declined to run for reelection in order to make way for a younger generation of democrats. According to City University's Sung, their absence may have contributed to the depressed voter turnout. "I think after the election, pan-democrats have to think why turnout was lower than the expected," says Sung of the democrats' current disunity. "People are unhappy because there are too many small mountains: too many words, not enough ideas, and not enough solidarity."