The Hong Kong electorate has sent out a message that it is not happy with the status quo. Elections to the 70-seat Legislative Council (Legco) have resulted in an unexpected win by seven localists - politicians who are passionate about protecting the city's culture and identity. In most circumstances, their calling would have been unremarkable. But in Hong Kong's special case, their mandate is to protect the city's autonomy within China. With their election victory, the localists have moved from the streets - where they waged the visible but ultimately fringe Occupy protests of 2014 - to the legislative chamber. Consequently, they are now a part of the political mainstream. That they won in polls that witnessed a record 58 per cent voter turnout, underlines the strong democratic sentiments displayed by an electorate that has long been politically conservative. The Hong Kong establishment would do well to note the shift in public opinion.
Equally, however, the radicals should not let one electoral victory create delusions that can only mislead those who had voted for them. For a start, 40 of the 70 Legco seats have gone to the pro-Beijing camp. Although this outcome still means that it cannot ignore the activism of the pan-democrats, that opposition alignment itself is fragmented. The crucial fault line lies between those who want to secure Hong Kong's autonomy within China and those who are pushing for its outright independence from the mainland.
Beijing does not take kindly to separatists in Hong Kong any more than it does to their counterparts in Tibet and Xinjiang, even if democratic mechanisms are used in Hong Kong to push for an ultimately unsustainable case. If some of the newly elected lawmakers escalate their call for independence, they will cause a setback to the entire opposition cause. Under the "one country, two systems" formula that handed Hong Kong back to China from the British in 1997, the localists insist on the agency of the "two systems" component. They can't afford to forget that it operates under the rubric of "one country", that is, a single China, of which Hong Kong is an inalienable part.
No matter what its political future holds, Hong Kong's economic fate is bound up with the fortunes of China. The problem of income disparity, among other ills that beset the city, is common to other parts of China too. It's the duty of the Hong Kong government to address public grievances over these issues, of course. But the pan-democrats, on their part, might find over time that they can nudge the government to better the life of Hong Kongers only up to the point where their political aspirations do not threaten Beijing's legitimate authority. If Hong Kongers can come to terms with the election results in that spirit, they will find it easier to put both business and social development on a less bumpy road.