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China has dodged a bullet. The recent legislative elections in Hong Kong returned a majority that is sympathetic toward Beijing. That means that there will be no confrontation between Hong Kong’s feisty democrats and the Communist Party leadership in China. Instead, the results provide a chance to test a hypothesis put forward by moderates in Hong Kong: with them in control of the legislature, Beijing will feel secure enough to permit a loosening of constraints and the extension of democracy in the special administrative region (SAR).

Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has 60 seats. Half the seats are filled by votes from special constituencies, such as businesses, industry groups and professionals, some of which can consist of a relatively small number of voters; in total, the groups represent less than 6 percent of total votes cast. Their professional interests tend to make them pro-Beijing in outlook. And, in last week’s vote, 23 pro-Beijing legislators were elected from these lists. Arcane rules govern allocation of the remaining 30 seats, which are selected by popular vote. As a result, despite winning 60,000 more votes in Hong Kong, democrats split six seats with pro-Beijing parties rather than claiming four.

The final result was a stronger-than-anticipated showing by pro-Beijing parties, which won 35 seats in all, retaining their majority. The largest party in the Legislative Council is now the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), which holds 12 seats, up from 10 in the previous legislature. Prodemocracy groups hold 25 seats, up from 22, but less than the 26-28 seats they had hoped to win. The results are especially frustrating for them since voter turnout reached a record high 53 percent and a high turnout was thought to favor the democrats.

There were a number of reasons for the democrats’ poor showing. Credit goes to Beijing for trying to win popular support, providing economic incentives for a pro-China vote and sending China’s Olympic gold medal winners to Hong Kong to remind voters of the benefits of associating with the mainland. The success of those efforts is visible in the strong showing of pro-Beijing candidates in the popular vote; they took 12 seats, up from seven in the last ballot in 2000.

There was a dark side as well: There were reports of intimidation of voters. Some democracy candidates were allegedly threatened as well, and one was arrested on the mainland and charged with soliciting a prostitute, although he claims he was set up. The democrats should also be faulted for their strategy. The various candidates robbed each other of votes. Finally, it is unclear what the democrats stand for: opposition to Beijing — or at least the extension of the democratic franchise — is their primary (and unifying) theme. That is not enough at a time of increasing economic difficulty. Hong Kong voters have to feel as though the opposition has viable policies. That message has not been communicated.

The Chinese leadership can draw several lessons from this vote. On the one hand, it should feel vindicated for putting economic issues above political ones. Beijing has long stressed that democracy was the concern of just a few “troublemakers” and that more tangible issues should be paramount. (This is another sign of the evolution of the Chinese Communist Party away from its ideological roots toward a more pragmatic position.)

But the results can also validate the DAB claim that Hong Kong voters are responsible; it is not that they are indifferent to politics, but that they recognize the best way to express their political preferences. If so, then the proper response is to reward that maturity with more democracy in Hong Kong. A failure to do so could raise tensions in the SAR as Hong Kong residents come to realize that they will have no say over the future. In this sense, the election is a window of opportunity for Beijing. It can move forward with electoral reform, confirming that it too is responsible and prepared to reward its citizens for their good faith. It would defuse the democracy issue internally as well as eliminate a potentially potent international issue, given the attention focused on Hong Kong as a bellwether of Chinese intentions.

A graduated reform process in Hong Kong could also pay dividends in Beijing’s relations with Taipei. The continual frustration of democratic aspirations in Hong Kong has confirmed the fears of many on Taiwan that Beijing’s “one country, two systems” model is a sham. By investing that model with more content, China can allay those concerns. In other words, Hong Kong’s vote is an opportunity for China. A bold move toward Hong Kong — promising more democracy — could presage an equally bold move toward Taiwan. Sadly, there is little sign that the Chinese leadership is prepared to seize the moment.

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