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Opinion

Hong Kong's pro-democracy election landslide handicaps Beijing

District council victory undermines lavish system of patronage in city

Democracy supporters celebrate the electoral defeat of pro-Beijing politician Junius Ho on Nov. 25: the pro-democracy camp will need to maintain unity.   © Getty Images

I was awakened by thunderous cheers and applause coming from the counting station down the road. It was half-past two in the morning and hundreds of people were chanting "Revolution of our times," a slogan of the Hong Kong protests, and celebrating the victory of pro-democracy candidates in the previous day's district council elections.

I scrolled on my phone in the darkness, and the breaking news headlines showed the pro-democracy camp had won more than half the seats. It was one of the few nights in the past six months I could sleep well: like many protesters, I have been longing for a small victory during a time of profound political turmoil.

The district council is designed to be an advisory body rather than an institution with real power -- it has a relatively small budget, no direct governing role and its mandate is often confined to community issues like waste collection and road maintenance.

Nonetheless, this de facto referendum on Hong Kong's government has energized the protest movement, defeated the pro-Beijing party in the battle of ideas and opened a new space for democracy campaigners to build their power from below.

Before the election, the government was confident there would be a public backlash against the protesters, fatigued with their shutdowns of roads, railways and cross-harbor tunnels and their increasingly militant tactics. Many pro-government candidates included "Stop the violence, restore stability" in their election platform to galvanize voters' support.

This rhetoric did mobilize more pro-government supporters, but the effect was wiped out by the sharp increase in pro-democracy voters. Of 1.5 million new voters since the 2015 elections, the pro-democracy camp gained 1.1 million, while the pro-Beijing camp took only 400,000. Turnout was a record 2.9 million people, or 71.2%.

The pro-democracy camp won 388 seats out of the 452 contested.

Among 12 pro-Beijing members of the Legislative Council who also held district seats, only two managed to keep them. Many lost their incumbency to young candidates who decided to run against them just six months ago when the protests began. Junius Ho, who advocates a zero-tolerance approach toward protesters, faced a humiliating defeat.

Pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho campaigns during district council elections on Nov. 24: Ho faced a humiliating defeat.   © Getty Images

The pro-democracy camp's victory, taking 17 out of 18 district councils, poses a new threat to Beijing's voter mobilization machine by depriving it of funding.

As Hong Kong's grassroots politics are built on patron-client relationships, pro-Beijing parties often provide material benefits to voters and cultivate them through a personal network.

Since 2003, the Hong Kong Liaison Office, run by Beijing, has been developing a network of auxiliary support organizations, including amenity centers, mutual aid committees, clan associations and even elder-care homes, to provide subsidized services. These satellite organizations have no apparent political affiliation and can easily access funding and resources from pro-establishment district councils.

District councils are notorious for their reckless approval of futile and expensive community infrastructure projects. A controversial 50 million Hong Kong dollar ($6.4 million) musical fountain project was passed last year, and a HK$1.7 billion plan for an elevated pedestrian footbridge is in the pipeline.

Public spending is used to reward cronies of the government, who sponsor pro-Beijing mobilization groups. As the tide turns, these manipulations and rigged rules will be put under the microscope, weakening Beijing's patron-client network.

The pro-Beijing camp has lost almost 240 seats and with those the HK$1.2 billion in honorariums and allowances paid to these councilors. Beijing will undoubtedly try to fill the gap from its weiwen -- stability maintenance -- budget. Competition over resources could cause factions in the pro-Beijing camp to turn against each other.

Beijing's setback in grassroots politics gives perfect timing for young democratic politicians and campaigners to implement their vision, galvanize popular support and expand their supporter base at a community level.

However, this window for democratic acceleration will not last too long. Because of this election's first-past-the-post voting system, the pro-democracy candidates won a landslide of seats with only 57% of the vote, whereas the pro-Beijing camp ended up with very few seats despite getting 42% of votes.

The geographical constituencies in next year's legislative council election operate in a proportional representation system. If the pro-Beijing camp keeps its 40% support, combined with the undemocratic constituencies which companies and professionals vote in, Beijing will continue to dominate the legislature.

The pro-democracy camp will also need to maintain some sort of unity. The government has been extremely resistant to making concessions and has ignored both moderate and radical demands, inadvertently forging unity in the pro-democracy camp.

Among the 388 newly elected pro-democracy candidates, more than 200 are not affiliated with the traditional pan-democratic parties. The old guard needs to find ways to reconcile and coexist with the new political forces to defend the civic space now being suffocated by the government.

Johnson Yeung is a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong, chairperson of the Hong Kong Civil Hub and member of the executive committee of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

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