Rowdy politics but Hong Kong remains useful to mainland

The results of the Legislative Council (Legco) elections on Monday are out.

Although there were 18 political parties in the race, they could be categorised into three camps, namely, the pro-establishment, the pan-democrats, and the radical localists including those who campaigned for independence. The turnout was 52.6 per cent of the 3.8 million registered voters - the highest percentage so far. They elected 70 legislators out of 289 candidates.

As expected, the pro-establishment group has kept its majority, notwithstanding the loss of several legislators. The opposition, including the pan-democratic and localist groups, won 30 out of 70 seats, more than one-third of the total, in the Legco, which empowers them to veto Bills related to constitutional matters.

The surprising outcome was that the young and radical localists have won eight seats despite their destructive acts during the Occupy Central episode in 2014. The emergence of these young radicals in the Legco must have sounded an alarm to the central government in Beijing that Hong Kong politics will be more volatile in the years ahead.

The large number of political parties represents a fragmentation of political views in Hong Kong. On the one hand, they all agree that the rule of law, freedom of speech and universal suffrage are fundamental to Hong Kong. On the other hand, they disagree on issues such as the screening of candidates for the election to the chief executive post by a nominating committee, the security measures drafted in Article 23 of the Basic Law, the National Education Curriculums, and whether Hong Kong should seek independence from China.

The disagreements have created an unstable situation which will be further aggravated by the emergence of the radical localists on the political scene and the louder voice of the pan-democrats and radical localists in the Legco.

Mr Nathan Law speaking to supporters following his win in Hong Kong's Legco elections on Monday. With him is student activist Joshua Wong (second from left).  PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

The bulk of the supporters of the radicals and localists are young people. As is true everywhere, they tend to be idealistic, passionate and rebellious. They want their voices to be heard, and are anxious to see changes to improve their living conditions. Some of their demands may not be realistic or practical. As they grow older, especially after they have married, they will become more mature and responsible for their actions. But the problem will not be solved as there is always a younger generation to take their place. Therefore, we should expect that it will be a normal phenomenon to see young people involved in many protest movements. The Hong Kong government and Beijing will have to listen to their voices, and accede to their reasonable demands whenever possible.

The immediate impact of the Legco elections will be on the chief executive election next year. The Basic Law states that universal suffrage will be allowed by following a step-by-step approach and it has to be conducted in an orderly manner. Beijing will not allow a chief executive to be confrontational to the central government, and so screening for suitability is a must for potential candidates. Those who oppose the screening called this "fake universal suffrage" and have rejected the electoral reforms proposed by the government in previous years.

As a result, the next chief executive will be elected by the Election Committee consisting of 1,200 members next year. With the win in the elections and the significant increase in its number in the Legco, the opposition will be more vocal and take more drastic actions to attain its goal of "genuine universal suffrage". Hence, we can expect chaotic situations and even violent conflicts leading up to the chief executive election next year.

Another significant impact will be on the long-term relationship between the Legco and the central government. Of the 70 legislators, 40 are directly elected by voters, with the remaining 30 elected by the traditional functional group members. The pan-democratic camp has long asked for the abolishment of the functional groups and to convert the functional group elections to direct elections.

Under stronger pressure from the newly elected legislators, the functional groups may be abolished one day and the democrats and radicals may win a majority of seats and control of the Legco. They may then block the chief executive's initiatives and proposed Bills in the Legco, making it very difficult for him to work with the Legco.

They may even adopt a confrontational approach towards the central government, riding on the voters' mandate. The Hong Kong government may run into gridlock as a result.

How will the Hong Kong people react to such a situation? The democrats and radicals will demand universal suffrage and non-interference in domestic affairs by Beijing. Some extremists may even campaign for independence, although that would be unrealistic and irrational. But they are only a minority of the city's total population. In the Legco elections, there were seven million residents, out of which 3.8 million were registered voters. The voter turnout was two million, out of which probably fewer than a million voted for the democrats and radicals. It was clearly a case where the vocal minority called the shots while the silent majority remained apolitical. Perhaps it is time for the majority to wake up and participate in the political decision-making more actively.

How will the central government in Beijing respond to the Legco election results? Will it instruct the Hong Kong government to reintroduce Article 23 in the Legco? Will it bring forward the end of "One Country Two Systems" from the current expiry date of 2047, marking 50 years since Hong Kong's handover to Beijing?

Article 23 was not approved by the Legco previously and is unlikely to be approved by an increasingly hostile Legco in future. As to "One Country Two Systems", it is a useful and practical political framework.

Also, Beijing has the obligation to honour its international treaty and so is unlikely to end it earlier.

Hong Kong performed its historical functions and made contributions to the mainland. It continues to cooperate with the mainland as an economic partner, particularly in the Pearl Delta Area. In Beijing's eyes, Hong Kong is a useful annexe which helps to keep the main mansion functioning. As long as it is useful, there is no reason to demolish the outhouse, even if things get a bit noisy and rowdy, and a minor commotion erupts at times.

  • The writer is an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 07, 2016, with the headline 'Rowdy politics but Hong Kong remains useful to mainland'. Print Edition | Subscribe