The last time I discussed the political situation of Hong Kong a few months ago, I predicted that the Hong Kong Legislative Council, also known as LegCo, elections would sway to the mainland regime’s favor. As it turned out, that prediction failed to come true, but was not totally wrong either. The 2016 LegCo elections marked not only the highest voter turnout in Hong Kong history with over 58% participating, but also a resounding victory for the anti-Beijing political camps of Hong Kong, as they were able to win at least 29 seats in the geographic constituencies. Among the people elected, six are members of the “localist” camp, which advocates for increased autonomy in Hong Kong, and even self-determined independence from China. However, the electoral success of the localists, considered radical by some, has not gone unnoticed by the mainland government however, as the current Chinese regime has warned that advocating for more autonomy or even independence would be considered a threat to Chinese sovereignty. Considering China’s crack down on democratic governance in Wukan after the jailing of an elected local official on flimsy charges, will the mainland government attempt to further subvert Hong Kong’s autonomy further? If it feels that the LegCo is resisting its rule too much, the answer is probably yes.
To understand the 2016 LegCo election results, the ramifications of the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” must be taken into account. Unsurprisingly, most of the newly-elected localist-aligned politicians have ties to the Umbrella Revolution. It was sparked after many Hong Kong residents, especially young residents, grew frustrated with the increasing amount of interference from the Chinese Communist Party with Hong Kong’s affairs despite the mainland’s official recognition of the one country, two systems principle, in which the Chinese government agreed to respect Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Because of this, there was a noticeable increase in anti-mainland sentiment, a lot of which still has not abated entirely. It had become so widespread before the election, in fact, that talk of Hong Kong independence was no longer taboo – and as the election results have demonstrated, it is now a force to be reckoned with in Hong Kong politics. While most localist politicians concede that independence is highly unlikely, their intention is that the popularity of this radicalism will force the Chinese government to rethink its policies regarding Hong Kong. The side effect of this is that the Pan-Democracy political camp (which is also supportive of Hong Kong autonomy, but not as much as the localists) lost a few of its own seats, but the overall total of Pan-Democracy and localist seats has increased from 27 to 29.
That is not to say that the anti-mainland political camp has a majority of seats in the LegCo, mostly because of the LegCo’s unique structure. The LegCo is composed of 70 seats in total, but only 35 seats are directly elected in geographic constituencies, while another 5 “super-seats”, are elected by voters across the territory. There are around 3.8 million registered voters in Hong Kong who can elect the representatives for these seats. The last 30 seats are “functional constituencies”, which usually represent specific trades and industries (i.e. finance, tourism, IT, etc.). They are only elected by about 6% of the Hong Kong population. To put that into perspective, 6% of Hong Kong’s population is around 434,000 people, while 3.8 million is closer to 52.5% of Hong Kong’s population, so a comparatively small minority of people in Hong Kong has a large say in how its legislature will be composed. Considering that the functional constituencies have a tendency to vote in favor of Beijing, this political arrangement is highly controversial among the Pan-Democrats and localists. But now that the anti-establishment camp has more than 24 seats in the LegCo, it can effectively vote against any Beijing-led reforms of Hong Kong’s political structure should it feel that they are anti-democratic.
Unsurprisingly, the mainland government took the results of the LegCo elections rather poorly. Considering Beijing’s lackluster record when it comes to actually following the principle of one country, two systems, it is highly unlikely that it will stay idle if it feels that Hong Kong is becoming too autonomous. Should the more radical parts of the LegCo and the Hong Kong population continue to agitate for self-determination, it is entirely possible that the Chinese government will crack down on dissent, although it is also unlikely for the Chinese government to be so open in violating the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement which mandated the British to hand over Hong Kong to China as long as the Chinese government should honor Hong Kong’s autonomy until at least 2047). Should the situation escalate, the United States and its allies must take a stand against Chinese authoritarianism. Considering that the Philippines is appearing to move away from its historic ties with the United States, supporting allies in the South China Sea area is a less viable option. Having some US allies withdraw from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) might place a little diplomatic pressure on China, but it is unlikely to have that much consequence. Sanctions are an option, but considering the large trade ties the United States and most of its allies have with China, this option will be difficult to act on as well. Therefore, the United States is probably going to have to remind the mainland that respecting Hong Kong’s autonomy is actually in China’s best interests, as calls for greater autonomy only started appearing after the Communist Party repeatedly tried to violate the one country, two systems principle. Only then might the stability the Communist Party desires remain in Hong Kong.