This piece was written by Shao-Kang Chen. Chen was a Vincent Siew International Exchange Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Hong Kong held its sixth Legislative Council election on September 4, 2016. The political atmosphere and the participation of first-time candidates and new political parties set this year’s Legislative Council election apart from previous contests. This was the first general election in Hong Kong since the Mong Kok protests broke out in February 2016, the latest of many demonstrations that followed the so-called Umbrella Movement protests for greater participatory democracy in 2014. Since then, new Localist parties have sprung up to challenge the established pro-Beijing wing, and younger candidates have stepped into the arena and defeated veteran politicians. Hong Kongers participated enthusiastically in this election, resulting in a record-high voter turnout. These factors contributed to a message of dissatisfaction with the status quo, delivered to Bejiing by Hong Kong’s candidates and electorate.

What is the Legislative Council?

The Legislative Council is the legislative body of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR). It is divided into geographic constituencies and functional constituencies with thirty-five seats respectively. Currently, only forty of the seventy seats in the Legislative Council are directly elected by the general public: thirty-five through geographical constituencies and five through the District Council (Second) functional constituency. The remaining thirty seats are elected by twenty-eight traditional functional constituencies (the Labor constituency returns three seats, while the other twenty-seven constituencies return one seat), which are made up of small clusters of electorates consisting of individuals, interest groups, professional groups, and—most controversially—corporations. Some seats in the functional constituencies are uncontested, while multiple candidates from the same camp compete for others.

Camps are groups of political parties with similar inclinations, particularly their views on Hong Kong’s relationship with China. Three major camps competed in the 2016 Legislative Council race. The pro-establishment, or pro-Beijing, camp supports the policies and views of the Chinese Communist Party and the HKSAR government. In opposition, the pan-democracy camp is composed of the parties that support liberal values and universal suffrage for the direct election of the Hong Kong chief executive and the Legislative Council.

The third camp consists of candidates from Centrist and Localist parties. The Centrists’ political perspectives generally lie in the middle of the spectrum between the pro-establishment and pan-democracy camps. The Localist parties also steer independent of the pro-establishment and pan-democracy camps, but unlike the Centrist parties—which accept negotiations with Beijing—the Localists view the policies of the Chinese central government as an encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Most candidates are sorted into one of these three major camps according to their party’s political relationship with Beijing. However, some candidates have been classified differently due to their diverse stances on other issues. For example, Leung Kwok-hung and Chan Chi-chuen were considered pro-democracy candidates in the rolling poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong but the South China Morning Post included both candidates among the election’s eight Localist winners. In this publication, Leung Kwok-hung and Chan Chi-chuen are both considered part of the pro-democracy camp.

Winners of the 2016 Legislative Council Election

There are five geographical constituencies in the Legislative Council, each with a different number of seats.

Hong Kong Island’s six seats went to Regina Ip Lau Suk-yee, Cheung Kwok-kwan, and Kwok Wai-keung from the pro-establishment camp; Tanya Chan and Hui Chi-fung from the pan-democracy camp; and Law Kwun-chung from the Centrist/Localist camp.

Kowloon East’s five seats went to Paul Tse Wai-chun, Wilson Or Chong-shing, and Wong Kwok-kin from the pro-establishment camp; and Wu Chi-wai and Jeremy Tam Man-ho from the pan-democracy camp.

Kowloon West’s six seats went to Priscilla Leung Mei-fun and Chiang Lai-wan from the pro-establishment camp; Claudia Mo and Helen Wong Pik-wan from the pan-democracy camp; and Yau Wai-ching and Lau Siu-lai from the Centrist/Localist camp.

New Territories East’s nine seats went to Elizabeth Quat, Chan Hak-kan, and Yung Hoi-yan from the pro-establishment camp; Alvin Yeung, Fernando Cheung Chiu-hung, Leung Kwok-hung, Chan Chi-chuen, and Lam Cheuk-ting from the pan-democracy camp; and Sixtus Leung Chung-hang from the Centrist/Localist camp.

Finally, New Territories West’s nine seats went to Michael Tien Puk-sun, Alice Mak Mei-kuen, Leung Che-cheung, Chan Han-pan, and Junius Ho Kwan-yiu from the pro-establishment camp; Kwok Ka-ki and Andrew Wan Siu-kin from the pan-democracy camp, and Cheng Chung-tai and Eddie Chu Hoi-dick from the Centrist/Localist camp.

The functional constituency District Council (Second)’s five seats went to Starry Lee Wai-king and Holden Chow Ho-ding from the pro-establishment camp; and James To Kun-sun, Leung Yiu-chung, and Kwong Chun-yu from the pan-democracy camp.

Among the remaining thirty seats of the functional constituencies, twelve pro-Beijing lawmakers—Abraham Shek Lai-him, Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, Wong Ting-kwong, Chan Kin-por, Martin Liao Cheung-kong, Poon Siu-ping, Ho Kai-ming, Luk Chung-hung, Jimmy Ng Wing-ka, Chan Chun-ying, Lau Kwok-fan, and Kenneth Lau Ip-keung—ran uncontested and were automatically elected. Of the functional constituencies’ thirty seats, twenty-two went to candidates from the pro-establishment camp and eight went to candidates from the pan-democracy camp.

In total, the 2016 Hong Kong Legislative Council election returned forty candidates from the pro-establishment camp, twenty-four from the pan-democracy camp, and six from the Centrist/Localist camp. Although unable to win a majority, the pan-democracy and Centrist/Localist camps still consider this election a success because they obtained one-third of the total seats in the legislative council—the number necessary to veto the passage of major motions. This election reflected the up-and-down dynamics of the post-1997 Hong Kong–China relationship.

The History of the Hong Kong–China Relationship

Hong Kong became a UK colony after the Chinese Qing Dynasty lost the First (1839–1842) and Second (1856–1860) Opium Wars. The United Kingdom acquired the territories through either perpetual cession (in the cases of Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula) or leasing (in the case of the New Territories) from China based on three bilateral treaties—the 1842 Treaty of Nanjing, the 1860 Convention of Beijing, and the 1898 Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory.

When the People’s Republic of China obtained the right to represent China in the United Nations in 1971, efforts were made to restore the sovereignty of Hong Kong. The governor of Hong Kong, Murray MacLehose, visited China in 1979, initiating a series of negotiations between London and Beijing. While the UK attempted to maintain its administrative control of Hong Kong, China proved equally assertive.

At length, the negotiations between London and Beijing drove former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping to formulate the “one country, two systems” policy, which defined Hong Kong and Macau as Special Administration Regions (SAR) that operate on a liberal system different from China’s. The adoption of the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China (the Hong Kong Basic Law) paved the way for the entire Hong Kong territory’s return to Chinese sovereignty on July 1, 1997. These measures also ensured Hong Kong’s capitalist economic system and autonomous legal and legislative systems for fifty years, until the arrangement expires in 2047.

However, the return to Chinese rule did not turn into a warm homecoming for Hong Kong locals. Skepticism of Hong Kong’s future —as blueprinted by the Sino-British Joint Declaration—and fear caused by the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre sparked massive Hong Kong emigration tides in the 1980s and 1990s. An estimated average of 21,000 people left Hong Kong annually beginning in 1980, which soared to 48,000 in 1987. The number continued to climb to 55,000 people between 1988 and 1994, reaching its peak of 66,000 people in 1992.1 An estimated total ranging from 250,000 to one million people departed Hong Kong permanently in the 1990s.

While the number decreased after the handover, emigration surged once more in 2014 with the rise of the so-called Umbrella Movement. According to the Hong Kong Free Press, statistics provided by the Canadian government showed that there had been an 85 percent increase in the number of Hong Kong emigrants to Canada during the first quarter of 2016 compared with the same period in 2015.  

The social movements, protests, and riots indicate the rising tension between Hong Kongers and the Chinese government. The Hong Kong July 1 protests started in 1997 as a rally against the handover and became a major annual event in 2003 when it called for opposition to a proposed Article 23 of the Hong Kong Basic Law. Article 23 would have been the basis of a security law allowing the HKSAR government to enact laws on its own to prohibit Hong Kong dissidents from any act of secession from the rule of the Central People’s Government. After the July 1 protest in 2003, it became clear that the bill would not receive the support necessary for it to pass and it was ultimately shelved.

The most significant demonstration in recent years was the so-called Umbrella Movement, lasting from September 26 to December 15, 2014. The Umbrella Movement was ignited when the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) issued restrictive guidelines to its 2007 decision on granting universal suffrage—as stipulated by Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law—for the 2017 chief executive election. While generally following Article 45, the NPCSC opted to have a 1,200-member nominating committee, created based on the current Election Committee, decide who would be on the candidate list before the general election. This decision was largely seen as a prescreening mechanism in disguise and an estimated 1.2 million people took to the streets in total over the duration of the protest.

Though the Umbrella Movement ended with the students and protesters frustrated, their efforts burned on like wildfire.  The use of pepper spray and batons against demonstrators during the 2014 protests strained the relationship between the Hong Kong police and the public. On February 8, 2016, a riot erupted in Mong Kok when the police cracked down on unlicensed street vendors. With the 2016 Legislative Council race being the first general election since the latest civil unrest in Mong Kok, the result reflects the deterioration of the Hong Kong–China relationship over the past few years, and some regard it as reflecting a longer-accumulated tension.

The Sixth Legislative Council’s Message to Beijing

Three things made the 2016 Legislative Council election stand out. First, candidates from the new Localist parties, Youngspiration and Demosistō, that emerged after the 2014 Umbrella Movement participated in the campaign and successfully won seats in the Legislative Council. Youngspiration was founded on January 21, 2015, by Sixtus “Baggio” Leung Chung-hang and a group of students who participated in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Demosistō was established by Law Kwun-chung on April 10, 2016. Both Leung and Law won a Legislative Council seat, and Yau Wai-ching—also from Youngspiration—won a seat in the Kowloon West geographical constituency.

Second, these candidates are not just new faces in the political arena but younger ones. The 2016 election saw many more candidates in their early 30s and even those in their 20s. Law Kwun-chung, who is twenty-three years old, was the youngest candidate; Yau Wai-ching, who is twenty-five years old, and Leung Chung-hang, who is thirty years old, both defeated veteran candidates in their respective constituencies.

Finally, Hong Kongers quietly signaled their wishes for change through the decision to cast ballots rather than stay home. According to the South China Morning Post, a record-high 2.2 million people turned out to vote, compared with the 1.8 million that turned out in the 2012 Legislative Council election. With many people flocking to vote in the evening, polling stations stayed open well beyond their originally scheduled closing hour—one station in Taikoo Shing received its last vote at 2:30 a.m.

These three features did not seem to be minor tremors but earthquakes to the Beijing government. The message Hong Kong sent Beijing clearly questioned its authority and the further “Mainlandization” of Hong Kong. How the future Hong Kong–China relationship will develop largely depends on how the message was perceived by Beijing, and how Beijing will respond lies on how big a threat the result was considered.

The Future of the Hong Kong–China Relationship

Many incidents during the campaign suggested that Beijing and the HKSAR government were growing increasingly worried about the voices calling for democracy and independence, and had adopted a hardline policy to influence the Legislative Council election. The greatest controversy was over a new election procedure implemented by the Electoral Affairs Commission that required the candidates to sign a confirmation form acknowledging Hong Kong as an inseparable part of China. Six Localist candidates were disqualified after the nomination period—including the Hong Kong National Party's Chan Ho-tin, the Democratic Progressive Party's Yeung Ke-cheong, Nationalist Hong Kong's Nakade Hitsujiko, the Conservative Party's Alice Lai Yee-man, and independent Chan Kwok-keung, all of whom refused to sign the form. Hong Kong Indigenous's Edward Leung, who signed the form, was disqualified because the Commission doubted his true stance.

The HKSAR government took preemptive action in schools in early August as well. Teachers in Hong Kong received warnings from the Hong Kong Education Bureau that advocating territorial independence in school might lead to them losing their jobs. Although there were no reported incidents of teachers getting into trouble, the warning still cast a shadow of doubt on the atmosphere of the election.

Interestingly, during the three weeks since the Legislative Council election, the Chinese government has been rather quiet. Many Hong Kong dissidents have speculated whether Beijing is brewing a new plan to crack down on the pro-independence winners, while others believe that Beijing is unsure about what to do next and is taking time to observe the influence the new councilmembers hold. It appears that, for now, Beijing is in a dilemma.

There is little doubt that China will not concede on territory- and sovereignty-related issues. Hong Kong, being the most autonomous region under Chinese sovereignty, can be a threatening example to the restless voices on the mainland. The strong reactions to the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2016 Mong Kok riot could be examples of the Chinese saying “killing the chicken to warn the monkey”—the chicken being pro-independence activists in Hong Kong and the monkey being potential activists on the mainland.

The current tranquility might be a reflection of Beijing’s uncertainty about how to handle its future relationship with Hong Kong. One would be too optimistic to take this as a sign of Hong Kong marching toward democracy or universal suffrage. It is more likely that China and the HKSAR government are looking for a lower-cost solution, instead of a powerful and direct but controversial remedy, to tackle this new headache. An early indicator will be the list of candidates running for the 2017 Hong Kong chief executive election, which the 1,200-member pro-Beijing Electoral Commission will nominate on 11 December 11, 2016. Whether they call for a more hardline policy or a milder approach to governing Hong Kong can offer insight into Beijing’s decision and the future of the Hong Kong–China relationship.

Notes

1 Melanie Manion 2004, Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004).