Hong Kong Vote Is Thorn in China's Side ; Beijing Will Have to Deal with New Legislators Who Seek Self- Determination

By Michael Forsythe; Alan Wong | International New York Times, September 7, 2016 | Go to article overview

Hong Kong Vote Is Thorn in China's Side ; Beijing Will Have to Deal with New Legislators Who Seek Self- Determination


Michael Forsythe; Alan Wong, International New York Times


The election of six freethinking young legislators means that Beijing must deal with an indigenous movement elevated to positions of political power.

In Canada, it is the Quebecois. In Spain, the Catalans. In Britain, the Scots.

Now, China must deal with its own version of a democratically elected indigenous movement, elevated to positions of political power on Sunday in the only place in the authoritarian country where that is possible: Hong Kong.

Six young people -- none older than 40 -- were elected to Hong Kong's legislature on platforms that called for the city's 7.3 million people to decide their own fate, a generation after Britain and China decided it for them by negotiating the handover of the onetime British colony to Chinese rule.

These new legislators stand apart from more established and moderate pro-democracy lawmakers who for decades have tried to work with Beijing while pushing for expanded direct elections. Their success speaks to the cost in public opinion that Beijing has suffered for its steadfast refusal to compromise on popular demands for greater participation in the selection of Hong Kong's leader next year.

Outside Hong Kong, the Chinese authorities can deal with independence-minded minorities with an iron fist, suppressing movements in Tibet and in the western region of Xinjiang, for example, that are pushing for more autonomy from Beijing. But in Hong Kong, political freedoms are protected until 2047 by a mini- constitution that China agreed to honor to regain sovereignty over the city in 1997.

It remains to be seen how China's central government will deal with these newly minted lawmakers, all of whom may be politically active for decades to come. The youngest is 23. A move by the Hong Kong election authorities to bar five candidates from running may have backfired. Turnout on Sunday spiked to a record, and the biggest vote-getter of any of the 35 legislators elected in geographic districts was one of the six upstarts, Eddie Chu.

"This is nothing short of a strategic setback for Beijing," said Zhang Baohui, a professor of political science at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. "These people are now officially inducted into the political framework, and they are going to give Beijing a hell of a time in the future."

For now, it is unclear how China will deal with the new political force, whose potency was indicated by a July poll showing that almost 40 percent of people in Hong Kong aged 15 to 24 supported independence after 2047. On Monday, China's government appeared to be silent on the elections, focusing attention on the Group of 20 summit meeting in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

In Beijing, a representative of the cabinet-level office dealing with Hong Kong affairs said that "some organizations and candidates were using the election to promote 'Hong Kong independence,"' Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, reported on Monday evening. Such talk went against the Chinese Constitution and Hong Kong law and was harmful to the city's well-being and stability, the representative said, according to Xinhua. …

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