China heads back to the drawing board on “one country, two systems” after big loss on Hong Kong elections and US democracy law for Hong Kong.
By Frank Ching*
China was taken aback as news emerged of the pro-democratic landslide in Hong Kong’s district council elections. Chinese media, after preparing articles based on assumptions of a pro-Beijing victory, were shocked into silence. Then China suffered another setback – US President Donald Trump signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, approved overwhelmingly by both congressional chambers. The dual shock seems to have led China, for now, to adopt a conciliatory posture, asking the victorious democrats to help strengthen Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems.”
From China’s standpoint, both setbacks were grave. The US bill was introduced in June, and China fought it at every step – in the House, the Senate and as it waited on the president’s desk. After the bill was signed, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng summoned the US ambassador, Terry Branstad, to protest “serious interference in China’s internal affairs” and demand that the United States refrain from implementing the law’s provisions to “avoid further damage” to the bilateral relationship.
The electoral setback in Hong Kong was perhaps worse because it was unexpected. Before the election, China’s supporters controlled all of Hong Kong’s 18 district councils. While most analysts had forecast gains by the pro-democratic camp, no one had predicted the pan-democrats controlling 17 of 18 districts.
Of course, district councils are only responsible for local affairs, advising the government on issues such as provision of public services, including bus stop locations. But, this time around, as Chief Executive Carrie Lam acknowledged in her first post-election press conference, the elections had “a more political dimension.” All sides viewed the election as a referendum, with the record-breaking turnout of 2.9 million voters – 71.2 percent of all registered voters – being the biggest in Hong Kong’s history for any election.
This was a vote of no confidence in Lam’s government and, by implication, the central government that appointed her and continues to support her. Locally, it showed that the majority of the electorate back the anti-government protest movement as well as pan-democrats generally.
The shift in power at the district level has wider political implications. Democrats are poised for gains in the Legislative Council elections next year and will have more seats on the election committee that will produce the next chief executive. By law, six of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council are held by district councilors. Democrats are likely to gain a majority of those seats – key because many issues require a two-thirds majority. Democrats currently hold 24 seats and, at present, of the six district councilors on the Legislative Council, three are pro-establishment and three are pro-democracy. If pro-democrats hold all six seats, their control over a third of the seats would be firm.
As for the election committee, district councilors account for 117 seats, or almost 10 percent of the 1,200-member committee. Democrats will get the vast majority of those seats. That is in addition to other seats they already hold, putting them close to controlling a third of the seats of in the election committee, with the ability to wield real power in a close election by offering support to one side or the other.
The overwhelming defeat of pro-establishment parties sent a clear message of public dissatisfaction with the Lam administration. On November 4, President Xi Jinping again expressed “high trust” in Lam and “fully affirmed” her work in dealing with the unrest that has beset the city since June.
The official newspaper China Daily had reportedly requested articles in advance from its correspondents hailing the expected triumph of the pro-establishment camp. Those articles, of course, went unpublished and the paper instead ran a story about the record turnout without outcomes, although the trend was clear throughout the night. The article also hinted that all was not well when the chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong – the largest political party in the legislature – had issued an urgent appeal for the party’s candidates on the day of the election.
China Daily also appeared to lay the groundwork for blaming widespread electoral defeat of pro-establishment candidates on violence during the campaign. “Competition between the establishment camp and the opposition has been fierce,” editors wrote, adding that “analysts said the opposition wants to ride on the current political turmoil in Hong Kong to have a greater say in the district councils.” Foreign Minister Wang Yi, responding to questions from the Japanese media while visiting Tokyo, said that “no matter what happened” at the polls, Hong Kong would still be a part of China. He repeated the official line that the paramount task is to restore order in the city.
In this digital age, the delayed disclosure of election results was unusual. Tuesday evening’s CCTV nightly news program did not mention the election’ outcome, but did denounce the United States for allegedly fostering violence and chaos to contain China.
China’s surprise at the electoral outcome was significant, reflecting ignorance of the situation on the ground and, worse, a belief in its own propaganda that most people in Hong Kong opposed the protesters, forming a silent majority. Even pro-establishment candidates had expressed concern over possible electoral setbacks linked to their support for a despised proposal on extradition law, allowing people in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial.
In the end, the pro-Beijing parties saw their seats fall precipitously from 300 to 58 while the democratic camp more than tripled their number from 124 to 389.
State news agency Xinhua indirectly reported the news late Tuesday, suggesting that the campaigns of some “patriotic candidates” had been seriously disrupted, their offices “trashed and set ablaze.” Interestingly, Xinhua indicated that China still appreciated the benefits derived from Hong Kong: “Despite the impacts of violence, Hong Kong still boasts unique advantages. It remains as one of the freest economies and a global financial hub, and is striving for becoming an international scientific and research center.” In addressing the business community, Xinhua said, Hong Kong can “achieve joint development” with mainland China through making use of “enormous opportunities” from China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the development of the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area.
The nationalistic Global Times issued a rare political appeal to pan-democrats to build a consensus for Hong Kong’s future. In an editorial, the newspaper validated the elections’ legitimacy, noting that the elections were “held successfully” and the opposition had won a majority, with the outcome “confirmed and respected.” The editorial reminded pan-democrats that more power means more responsibility, saying newly elected councilors should “be more responsible to maintain order in Hong Kong” and “It is a wise choice for pan-democrats to promote democracy in Hong Kong while simultaneously safeguarding national security rather than undermining national security.”
The newspaper also warned pan-democrats against becoming too close to the United States, saying that “amid tensions between China and the US, Hong Kong pan-democrats should steer their political position well, keeping it in line with China’s national security.” Instead of laying down the law, Global Times declared: “Both Hong Kong and the central government need to figure out how to make it as ‘one country, two systems’ is still a new thing.”
This is definitely a softer line from Beijing, and Hong Kong’s democrats must explore with the central government whether Beijing is prepared to collaborate on developing “one country, two systems” over the longer term.
Despite bluster, there are limits to what Beijing can do to retaliate against the United States for the new Hong Kong Act, especially amid a struggling economy and the desire for trade talks to bear fruit. Beijing has made it clear that it will strengthen control over Hong Kong through appointment of the chief executive and other top officials and by interpretations of the Basic Law. The Hong Kong Act may deter China from overt interventions in Hong Kong. If that is not the case, expect implications for the city and China-US relations.
*Frank Ching is a journalist and author of Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family. Follow him on Twitter.