Election triumph gives Hong Kong protesters chance for peace
The message from the results of the local council elections in Hong Kong is about as loud and as clear as it can ever get, at least in a democracy. Of the 452 seats up for grabs, the pro-democracy movement captured 347, while pro-Beijing candidates won 60 and independents, including democracy supporters, bagged another 45. In all, the pro-democracy candidates control 17 of the 18 district councils — a complete reversal of the situation that existed before the elections.
The astounding win of the pro-democracy movement is indeed creditworthy. It has come against all odds. Their candidates were faced with numerous hurdles in filing their nominations and campaigning freely, while Beijing and its supporters had the entire government machinery and most of the local media rooting for them. The local government had pitched its campaign on the violence and unrest that has captured Hong Kong for almost six months now, ever since the government tried to introduce a bill that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China.
The spontaneous, widespread and popular opposition to the bill was the genesis of the current crisis, as the pro-democracy supporters soon began looking at the bigger picture of Hong Kong being able to retain its autonomy and independence of dealing with its domestic issues. Though Carrie Lam, the pro-Beijing leader of Hong Kong, suspended the bill in face of the opposition, the pro-democracy movement began asking for greater freedoms and guarantees that the autonomy of the territory would be preserved.
In the initial weeks, the response to the protests of the administration and, more crucially, Beijing was rather muted and passive, with police playing a defensive role. However, the pro-democracy movement seems to have gone out of control, much like its counterpart in France — the “Yellow Vest” movement, which also began peacefully a year ago but has since degenerated into a weekly riot on the streets of Paris and other cities across France.
Unfortunately, the key squares of Hong Kong have, over the past several weekends, come close to resembling the Champs-Elysees or other key parts of Paris. They have been ravaged by groups of protesters smashing and burning anything they can lay their hands on, causing millions of dollars in losses, not just to the government but also local businesses.
Beijing and its proxies used precisely these images of chaos, disturbances and unrest to seek votes for stability and peace. But the locals have spoken with their votes, insisting that they are definitely not prepared to trade the price of their autonomy and limited independence for having peace, safety and order on the streets.
Now that the pro-democracy camp has stamped its authority on the popular vote and is clearly stronger than ever before, it is time that it began looking for peace seriously. It is nobody’s case that they should sacrifice their autonomy and play ball with China on its terms, but the pro-democracy supporters, especially the leaders of this disparate group, need to realize that these election results offer them a rare opportunity to seize peace by engaging in serious discussions and negotiations with the local government and indeed with Beijing, through its intermediaries. The onus is on them much more than it is on Beijing or Lam.
Now that the pro-democracy camp is stronger than ever before, it is time it began looking for peace seriously.
In their moment of exuberance, the leaders of the protest should not overestimate their strength or, more crucially, underestimate Beijing’s determination to maintain its firm grip over Hong Kong. Though Chinese President Xi Jinping may have held off any strong reaction to the protests and let Lam deal with the crisis, there have been enough signs that mainland China is losing patience with the never-ending protests, violence and, most of all, the extensive global media coverage, projecting the protests as a challenge to Xi’s authority.
Beijing may try to placate the protesters by perhaps replacing Lam and hoping for a fresh start, but it is unthinkable that Xi would still be watching from the sidelines if the Hong Kong situation continues to worsen and results in a real challenge to Beijing’s authority over the territory. The pro-democracy camp would do well to remember that Xi is perhaps the strongest Chinese leader since Mao Zedong and, armed with the economic, strategic and technological strengths China today possesses, he could be the most powerful ruler in China’s entire history.
Xi has already dealt a blow to protesters in other parts of China, having detained about a million Uighurs in the far west province of Xinjiang following months of unrest among the Muslim-majority population. He has also almost ended the protests in Tibet that frequently flared up before he took charge.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters would do well to remember that, while they may be in the limelight today, with numerous Western leaders asking China to be restrained in its response, the Western world is hardly the bedrock of support they might ultimately need. World leaders could turn a blind eye or actually be powerless to do anything to help them. These are the lessons they can draw from the quelling of unrest in areas from Xinjiang to Kashmir: When the strongmen wield the whip, even if unjustly, there is no hand that can hold them back. And China hardly looks likely to loosen its grip, even slightly, over any territory under its control or in its sights — be it Taiwan or the controversial islands in the South China Sea.
For Xi, seizing the moment of peace is crucial. If, by sacrificing the extremely unpopular Lam and by making a few concessions, he can win peace, it might be worth his while. Not only would it have dealt with this high-profile issue, but it would also allow him to focus on the other serious challenges facing China today — such as the trade war with the US, an ageing population and a slowing economy. Suing for peace in Hong Kong could work for both camps.
• Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.