HONG KONG -- The reputation of Hong Kong as a global business center suffered another blow on Sunday, as a by-election loss by the democratic opposition left it unable to regain veto power in the city's Legislative Council. The result is expected to strengthen Beijing's political hold over the territory.
Election returns early Monday morning revealed that pro-Beijing candidate Rebecca Chan Hoi-ying had won the crucial seat by a margin of around 13,000 votes, or 6% of the total. She defeated the opposition's Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy activist who has been pushing for change in Hong Kong since the 1980s.
The by-election is just the latest of a series of developments over the past year or so that have many people worried the Asian financial center is losing much of its competitive edge and ability to lure talent and money. "Localist" candidates seeking greater autonomy for Hong Kong were barred from running for the legislature by the authorities, who accuse them of separatism. A Financial Times journalist was forced to leave the territory after his visa was not renewed. And the government forced a pro-independence political party to disband, citing a new interpretation of an old ordinance.
Through it all, students, university professors and others still face nuisance charges over street protests.
"The by-election defeat is a further blow to the morale of pan-democratic supporters," said Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a political science lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Choy believes low turnout among young people was a key reason for the democrats' loss. He said the city's youths have become either radical or apathetic.
"Many young people feel disappointed about the reality" of politics in Hong Kong, Choy said. The bans on many localist and pro-independence candidates have left young voters unenthusiastic about their choices.
In Sunday's by-election, only 44.4% of registered voters cast ballots despite the fact that the vote would determine whether the democrats regain their veto power in the legislature -- a crucial tactic used by opposition lawmakers to block contentious bills.
The democrats lost their veto when six opposition lawmakers were disqualified by the government over improper oath-taking in 2016. They were only able to win two seats out of four in an earlier by-election in March.
At least four candidates were barred from running in next two by-elections, as the government decided that their rhetoric indicated support for Hong Kong independence. While older pan-democrats do not support such ideas, separatism has gained ground among younger people after the authorities cracked down on the Occupy Central protest movement in 2014.
A survey conducted in September by Choy shows 50.4% voters aged 18 to 29 voted for localist candidates in the 2016 Legislative Council Election. But voter turnout in this age group fell by nearly half to 29.47% in the March by-election, versus 57.52% in the 2016 vote. Although figures for the November by-election are not available, Choy believes the decline in interest among young voters will continue.
The indifference shown among Hong Kong voters after the string of opposition setbacks may leave Beijing less worried about the fallout if it further tightens its political grip on the city. The government's freer hand in the legislature could see it reintroduce legislation on sedition and subversion.
An earlier administration in 2003 backed off from adopting such a law, as mandated by the city's constitution, in the face of huge political demonstrations. Many raised questions then about whether the national security law would interfere with the free flow of information in the financial center. While Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been noncommittal about the timing of reviving anti-sedition legislation, former legislator James Tien told an interviewer this month that the government should now move forward. Tien's resignation from the government's Executive Council helped derail the 2003 push for such a law.
Lam dismisses fears over an erosion of Hong Kong's freedoms. In an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review in October, she said there was "absolutely no evidence, no worry" about such a change, arguing that Hong Kong's rapid integration into China's national strategy only "enriches the implementation" of the one county, two systems formula.
That political framework, agreed in the 1980s between China's paramount leader at the time, Deng Xiaoping, and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, promised Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy, including an independent legal and economic system, as well as freedom of speech and the right to protest for at least 50 years.