A decision to bar Joshua Wong’s candidacy may signal to protesters that no political path exists for making their voices heard.
By Mike Chinoy*
The Hong Kong government’s refusal to allow 23-year old democracy activist Joshua Wong to contest a local election has emerged as the latest flashpoint in the political crisis. Wong, arguably the most internationally well-known figure in Hong Kong’s youthful protest movement, had planned to run in elections scheduled for November 24 for a spot in one of Hong Kong’s district councils, the lowest rung of local government here.
The 479 representatives on the territory’s 18 councils don’t receive a full-time salary, have no power to pass legislation and serve primarily as an advisory body on such mundane matters as noise pollution and recreational facilities. But the Hong Kong government’s move to bar Wong from running will further inflame an already volatile conflict by underscoring that those in the protest movement have no viable pathway within the existing political system to articulate their concerns.
Although pro-government and pro-Beijing political organizations, with greater resources and connections, have long dominated the district councils, democracy activists made a conscious decision to contest all 452 directly elected seats this time. With nearly 400,000 new voters registered during the territory’s summer of unrest, the calculation is that the election could give pro-democracy forces a popular mandate for their demands for more representative and accountable government and the preservation of the freedoms Beijing promised Hong Kong after the 1997 handover.
This is especially true as one of the major underlying grievances fueling the protest movement has been the sense among many citizens of being shut out of the political process. Indeed, many demonstrators have argued that taking to the streets is justified because the system has shown no willingness to address their concerns. Securing places in local government could have represented a signal that the authorities in Hong Kong – and ultimately Beijing – might have been open allowing this to change.
And indeed, to the surprise of many observers, the authorities have permitted a number of prominent activists to pass a vetting process conducted by local civil servants known as “returning officers” and register as candidates. Wong’s application to run, however, confounded the government, which was undoubtedly under intense pressure from Beijing to bar him while also aware that doing so would further enrage an already discontented population.
In late October, the original officer handling Wong’s case suddenly reported “ill” and then vanished from public view. No explanation was offered, but Wong and others speculated that her “illness” was an excuse to escape the pressure. After waiting until the last possible moment, with candidates for all other district council seats already approved, a newly appointed returning officer on October 29 declared him ineligible to run. The reason, the officer said, was that Wong’s public statements showed it was “questionable whether Mr. Wong accepted the People’s Republic of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong” – even though Wong had publicly declared he did not support independence for the territory.
The district council election has assumed outsized importance not only because it will be the first electoral test of popular feeling since the protests erupted. The movement that has marched and clashed with police for more than 20 weeks has been largely leaderless. This has made it challenging for authorities to identify ringleaders and crack down, but has also meant that the government lacks meaningful interlocutors for any kind of dialogue to ease tensions.
Establishment candidates dominated during previous district council elections. If the November 24 vote produces a new crop of duly elected representatives, then the government would at last have people with whom to engage who are both validated by the existing electoral system but also genuinely representing the views of the large number of Hong Kongers who have participated in the movement. More than 1 million people joined the biggest demonstration during the summer, and opinion polls show strong popular support for its goals.
Given Carrie Lam’s rigidity, lack of political imagination and the pressures she faces from her masters in Beijing, it is far from clear the she would seek to take advantage of such an opportunity. But at a moment when the situation on the streets is deteriorating amid intensifying violence and public anger at both the police and the government, and no other signs of a way out of the crisis, the government could have used Wong’s application as an opportunity to defuse tensions. Certainly there will be many voices apart from those of the protest movement who have made that case to Lam.
However, with Wong barred from running, the legitimacy of the electoral process has been thrown into doubt. The lesson many people in Hong Kong will draw is that even though Wong was willing to play by the rules and operate within the system, the government blocked him anyway. As Wong told reporters, “it’s the interference from Beijing to prompt a delay and to block me to run for office, which will just prove that the election process in Hong Kong isn’t fair at all.”
Wong’s fate could have significant implications for how the international community views Hong Kong, and, in particular, for US relations with both the territory and Beijing. Wong is widely respected by US lawmakers of both parties, and he recently visited Washington to lobby in favor of a bill that would heighten US scrutiny of rights violations here and sanction those deemed responsible. Officials in Hong Kong and Beijing have vehemently denounced the bill. But with Wong barred from running, western diplomats here say its final passage and signing by President Donald Trump is more likely.
More broadly, the signal to the community here is clear – that the governments of both Hong Kong and China fear giving a platform to a 23-year-old. Under these circumstances, the prospect that more radical protestors might seek to disrupt the election would likely increase, and so would the danger that an already skittish administration might decide to cancel the vote altogether – something Lam has already hinted is a real possibility. Such a development could spark greater violence.
Not that the district council campaign has been entirely peaceful so far. At least three pro-democracy candidates have been attacked by pro-Beijing thugs. Two were hit in the head while campaigning, and a third was so badly beaten that he had to be hospitalized. Moreover, diplomats and others here worry that some pro-democracy figures permitted to run may yet be disqualified, or, even if they win, be prevented from taking office, as was the case with several youthful activists who won election to the Legislative Council in 2017 only to be expelled for spurious reasons.
Especially given this history, for many people, the decision to bar Wong from running will likely be seen as more evidence of the necessity of taking to the streets because there appears to be no other way to make their voices heard.
*Mike Chinoy is a Hong Kong-based Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the University of Southern California’s US-China Institute. He is the author of Are You With Me? Kevin Boyle and the Rise of the Human Rights Movement, which will be published in March.