The Hong Kong Election: What Message Does it Send Beijing?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On September 4, Hong Kong elected a batch of its youngest and most pro-democratic lawmakers yet. Six new legislators, all under 40, won on platforms that called for Hong Kongers to decide their own fate. The youngest is 23-year-old Nathan Law, a veteran of the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests and a co-founder of the new political party Demosistō. What message does the election of these young legislators send to Beijing, and how will China’s leaders react? — The Editors


The most important message for the gerontocracy ruling China from the elections in Hong Kong is that generations are shifting, and power is moving to a group for whom the myths, concerns, and defining events of their lives are fundamentally different from those who came before.

That’s actually a lesson that needs to be learned and learned well by politicians and leaders on all sides of the political divide, and on both sides of the border. The older generation of “pro-democracy” activists in Hong Kong have more in common with the generation of sexagenarians in the standing committee of the Politburo than one might think—both had their politics forged first by the chaos and trauma of China’s Cultural Revolution and then by the Tiananmen Square protests and crackdown in 1989.

The rising generation is different—and, frankly, still unformed.

The cohort leaving university in Hong Kong this year was born in 1995—they have no personal memories of British colonial rule; China’s Tiananmen trauma was something their younger teachers and older siblings could tell them stories about; the Cultural Revolution horror belonged to their parents and grandparents and maybe wasn’t spoken of at all.

The concerns of the new generation are economic, are identity-based, are different, and are expressed in a vague and inchoate form. Even “localism” for Hong Kong is still defined more by the negatives than any positive: not a colony, not a fundamental part of China, not Beijing-Mandarin speaking, not Queen’s English speaking, not a manufacturing center anymore, not China’s major entrepôt, not giving local people enough opportunities, not capable of supplying even its own toilet paper or fresh water. And yet. . . however inchoate, “localism” expresses a longing for identity that will need to be listened to, adjusted to, and forged by anyone or any body politic that hopes to lead this territory.

The Chinese Politburo should actually be grateful to Hong Kong for expressing through democracy this generational shift that is also affecting the mainland, yet has no true representative outlet there. It needs to recognize it and respond. When the next Politburo and Standing Committee are selected at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, to miss this opportunity and crisis would be to sow the seeds of true crisis.

President Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream is aimed at the two 100s: the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party in 2021 and the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic in 2049. Yet to focus on these historical markers has as much resonance with the newly emerged cohort as my grandmother’s harkening back to the cultural joys of pre-Nazi Germany had with me.

To govern Hong Kong successfully, a new generation of leaders has to recognize that youth has emerged with concerns, needs, and an identity confusion that require fundamentally different answers and approaches. To govern China successfully, the Communist Party needs to rejuvenate itself and to reform in order to—at the very least—find ways of representing and reflecting society as it is becoming.

I would almost like to challenge the question posted here, and suggest that it doesn’t matter what message the election sends Beijing. China’s leaders might feel troubled by the outcome and election of localists to the Legislative Council, but they have demonstrated little finesse managing Hong Kong and will likely continue with ham-fisted missteps such as more “patriotic education” as a response to this latest political development.

Reporting on the election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong back in 2012, I remember passing by the Occupy Central encampment at the base of the HSBC skyscraper in the city’s financial district. I was born in Hong Kong and had always been a frequent visitor, and the general mood of the city felt different to me on that trip for the first time in my life. I couldn’t pinpoint what bothered me, and reached out to a journalist based there to ask him more about the Occupy tents.

He brusquely brushed off the protesters. “They don’t matter. It’s not a story.”

Of course, the Occupy movement that sprang up the following year, the one that eventually became the Umbrella Movement, was a different protest with different goals, but bread and butter concerns have never orbited too far from political ones, and what started out small and insignificant has become the will of a new, young generation. In 2012, protesting included a parallel mock election, one in which every eligible Hong Kong resident could vote as opposed to the 1,200 elites who would select C.Y. Leung to the post. More than 200,000 people stood in line to cast their protest ballots. That message to Beijing, like so many subsequent actions, has done little to change its position.

Whether naively or wrongly, many people in Hong Kong had believed that the Basic Law, hammered out in part to ensure the continuance of many of the city’s economic and legal institutions after its handover to China, would somehow mean little or no change at all until the magic flip of the switch in 2047. Part of the mistake was also China’s—for failing to develop a clear message to the people of Hong Kong and providing a roadmap for the expiry of the “one country, two systems” deal. On the mainland, getting buy-in from the public would not have been necessary. But this place was different.

It’s unlikely the Chinese leadership would have ever questioned itself in this way, though it should start doing so moving forward. Clear to almost everyone but itself, China’s authoritarian moves have only produced more pro-independence and pro-democracy supporters in the territory. The message this election sends to Beijing: maybe you are the problem, and not Hong Kong.

In the election we see the retirement of some long-term legislators and the electoral success among some younger candidates. But new faces are not necessarily equated with new thinking and direction, as far as mainstream parties are concerned. The overall makeup of the LegCo has not changed much either. Under the LegCo structure that divided the 70 seats into 35 directly elected seats and 35 others elected in functional constituencies easily manipulated by Beijing, the opposition’s seats increased incrementally to 29 from 27, still falling far short of gaining the majority.

What has changed is the internal combination of both the opposition and establishment camps. In the opposition camp, six successful candidates depart from the opposition’s tradition of never questioning Chinese sovereignty over Hong Kong. Their rise is attributable to the Umbrella movement in 2014 and the Fishball uprising earlier this year. Among the six, three support the right to self-determination of Hong Kong’s people, though they are elusive about how self-determination could be achieved and reluctant to express their support of the independence option. The other three are advocating formal or de facto independence of Hong Kong, though they have been careful not to say “the I-word” in their campaigns after the Hong Kong government controversially (some say illegally) disqualified a handful of openly pro-independence candidates. These six candidates, together with their like-minded comrades who failed to win seats, muster about 19 percent of total votes in the direct election. This resonates with the result of a recent survey showing 17 percent of Hong Kongers now support independence, with a majority of 39 percent in the 15-24 age group in which 26 percent oppose independence.

Another change in the establishment camp is the rise of a group of hardline conservative professionals who are believed to be directly cultivated and favored by the Liaison Office, the highest body representing Beijing. Over the years, Beijing has been relying on the “old patriots” (who originated from the local underground Chinese Communist Party under British rule) and local business magnates to govern Hong Kong. But in the last four years, cleavage between Beijing’s old allies and Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, as well as the Liaison Office keenly supporting him, is growing. Establishment business political leader James Tien and senior “old patriot” Jasper Tsang openly criticized C.Y. Leung’s hard-line approach repeatedly, and Tsang indicated the possibility of his running against Leung in the 2017 Chief Executive election. Many see this cleavage as an extension of factional struggle in Beijing. In this election, six new favorite underlings of the Liaison Office won seats with a 100 percent success rate, in some cases at the expense of Beijing’s old allies, who lost or were forced to withdraw before or during the election by some invisible hands.

While the establishment’s monopoly of the semi-democratic legislature remains unchanged, the rising hardliners and radicals from the establishment and opposition camps are set to clash with each other, in the legislative chamber and beyond.

The message that the Hong Kong Legislative Council election sends is one that Beijing appears incapable of hearing. It is the same message that Hong Kongers have been sending Beijing since British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited the two cities in September 1982 to begin the long goodbye that saw Britain surrender its last significant colony in 1997.

It is a simple message: Hong Kong people value their institutions, their laws, and their liberties.

The Chinese Communist Party of today is unable to engage in a way that will assuage Hong Kong people’s understandable fear that the Party wants to destroy each of these, to do away with the institutions, the laws, and the liberties that make Hong Kong the freest city in the People’s Republic.

Since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949, only Deng Xiaoping, with his “one country, two systems” formulation, managed to find a way to reassure Hong Kong people that life under the People’s Republic of China would be worth staying for after 1997. Although there was substantial emigration in the run-up to the handover, especially after the 1989 Tiananmen killings, the situation would have been far worse without reassurances from Beijing.

Nearly two decades into Chinese rule, and two decades since Deng died, those reassurances are increasingly hollow. Last year it was the missing booksellers, abducted from Hong Kong and Thailand and made to confess their crimes in China. There is pressure on virtually every institution, from media to the courts to even the vaunted Independent Commission Against Corruption.

Hong Kong is under attack from cadres whose political philosophy centers on control.

Before the 1997 handover, there were promises aplenty that we would have universal suffrage in 2007. I remember a prominent businessman sketching out the expected electoral reform timetable for me on a whiteboard.

After 1997, Hong Kong people did the unthinkable: they refused to be controlled. Instead of voting for the pro-Beijing parties, as cadres apparently genuinely thought they would do, Hong Kongers kept expressing support for independent pro-democracy politicians. That 2007 timetable for real electoral reform was scrapped. (And that businessman with his whiteboard now keeps quiet about politics except when it comes to supporting Beijing’s initiatives.)

It turns out that democracy with Hong Kong-Chinese characteristics was controlled democracy, contingent on supporting pro-Beijing politicians.

Except that in 2003, somewhere between 500,000 and one million people took to the streets to protest national security legislation required under Article 23 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution. Hong Kong’s first chief executive was forced to step down as a result.

Still, Beijing keeps pushing for more control. One lesson of an authoritarian government is that no amount of control is ever enough. Instead of letting Hong Kong pursue its own agenda, and continue contributing to the country as only the freest city in China and its robust international financial market can do, Beijing is determined to dominate Hong Kong. Rather than displaying long-term strategic patience, Beijing keeps pushing for submission.

The National People’s Congress put out a white paper two years ago squelching any hopes of real political reform. That move breathed new life into a flagging protest movement. The next month, the Occupy movement took over much of Central for 79 days.

Two years ago, mention of independence was laughed off as a joke, as risible as the lone protestor I saw on the July 1 demonstrations that year carrying a colonial Hong Kong flag. Beijing has succeed in making the laughable almost mainstream.

The rise of a younger generation of politicians in Hong Kong that David Schlesinger refers to is certainly an important phenomenon. But the more insidious message of the LegCo elections—and the one that the Hong Kong Central Government and Beijing are more likely to take to heart—is how vulnerable Hong Kong’s civic institutions are to manipulation.

The saga surrounding the exclusion of “localist” politicians from candidacy—explained in detail by my colleagues at the Progressive Lawyers’ Group—is the most widely-known example. The Electoral Affairs Commission’s last-minute addition of a “confirmation form”—and the exclusion of candidates who signed these forms on the basis that their declarations were not “genuine”—cannot be seen as anything but a ham-fisted attempt to exclude political “undesirables” from the ballot. As Reuters later revealed, the Hong Kong authorities’ exclusion of six politicians from LegCo candidacy was the result of political pressure from Beijing. Any legal challenge to the exclusions is likely to take years to resolve.

Other examples abound. The 2016 elections were marred by accusations of voter fraud, including in “functional constituencies”—the statutorily designated special interest seats that have been a major obstacle to meaningful electoral reform. Former Law Society President Junius Ho publicly thanked the Beijing government’s Liaison Office for its support, and former Secretary for Security Regina Ip is suspected to have paid a visit to the Liaison Office shortly after her own victory. (Support from the Liaison Office is forbidden under Article 22 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.) More ominously, one of Ho’s opponents, Liberal Party member Ken Chow, dropped out of the race after individuals “from Beijing” threatened him and his close friends at a meeting in Shenzhen.

A sensible administration in Beijing would recognize this year’s Legco results as a warning that they have interfered too much with Hong Kong. Unfortunately, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s blasé reaction, and the all-too-predictable “resolute opposition” to pro-independence legislators from the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, suggest that Beijing has concluded it has not interfered enough.

Recent events in Hong Kong, from the ratcheting up of pressure on publishers to the elections, have underscored in different ways how wrong it was to say three things about the city’s future as the 1997 handover neared.

First, it was wrong to say that Hong Kong people had always been and would likely remain focused on making and spending money and have little taste for politics after July 1, 1997. That stereotype has been proved wrong over and over again, in dramatic events such as the 2003 protests against a new security law, 2012 ones that led to tabling of plans to bring mainland-style patriotic education into the city, the Umbrella Movement of 2014, and now this spirited election.

Second, it was wrong to say that, as soon as the Handover took place, Beijing would move swiftly to completely defang the press and leave no space for critical political expression. There have been many moves to rein in the public sphere. Thanks partly to the acts of resistance noted above, though, Hong Kong has remained a city unlike any we have ever seen within a country under Communist Party rule when it comes to the latitude for speaking out, the ability to organize, and the opportunities to buy books and see movies that the government dislikes. It is also simply unimaginable that someone like the just-elected Nathan Law would have been part of even a legislative body with very limited powers in a city within the Soviet bloc during the Cold War or any mainland metropolis now.

Third, though, it was mistaken to think more optimistically back then that the difference between the public spheres of Hong Kong and other Chinese cities, or at least those just over the border from it in South China, would steadily lessen due to the freer patterns in the former Crown Colony spreading into the mainland. There was a time when, from year to year, there seemed bigger zones of freedom in mainland cities, and there was a time when the media in Guangzhou seemed to be moving toward becoming more like that in Hong Kong. In recent years, however, the trends associated with civil society and public life in the mainland have been toward more restrictiveness and government control, and the notion that other cities might get a bit more like Hong Kong, in realms other than style and shopping options, have given way to real fears of the mainlandization of Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s post-1997 history has been filled with fascinating twists and turns, including this latest electoral one. Many events have been inspiring to watch, even as they unfold against a backdrop that seems increasingly ominous. I am thinking, for example, of how tightly the mainland media blocked coverage of the elections. And how the election was preceded by mainland videos presenting Joshua Wong as a pawn of foreign powers and followed by harshly worded official statements about the punishments to be meted out to those who challenge Beijing.

The most important message sent to Beijing by the legislative elections is not really new, just more forceful: they affirm once again that the central authorities have so far chosen some rather unrepresentative interlocutors. If Beijing wants a less confrontational relationship with Hong Kong, it will have to consider broadening the range of those with whom it agrees to speak. Sadly, this has been true for decades, and nothing much has changed. As China cheered the end of foreign colonialism on its territory in 1997 with the handover of Hong Kong, and again in 1999 with the return of Macao, it still sought to keep intact the local governing elites. Comprised of a mix of real estate tycoons, bureaucrats, and grassroots patriots groomed in Mandarin-speaking schools, they have too many entrenched interests to be able to represent the full spectrum of aspirations of the territory.

Many of Hong Kong’s biggest problems have been created by this undemocratic and entitled elite, and yet, to this day they are the only power brokers who Beijing recognizes. While this structure of power has hardly evolved, Hong Kong’s society definitely has changed, and its youth are no longer content with looking forward just to the first occasion to emigrate. Faced with this change, Beijing’s response has been hardline, seeking to impose more controls on the press, the universities, and even local booksellers.

I am not sure I agree with the idea that the concerns of Hong Kong’s youth are being expressed and defined mostly in the negative. The desire for real universal suffrage is a constructive request, as is the one for a fairer system of government and representation. The attitude towards the language, Cantonese, is also affirmative, as are the concerns towards urbanism and the environment. The new batch of legislators shows a very potent and refreshing determination to be as active as possible within the constraints given to them by a partial democracy and an executive-led government.

Post-election, the media’s attention has been concentrating on Nathan Law, 23, and Edmund Chu, 38, and with good reason: the strength of their beliefs has inspired tens of thousands of people to come out and vote, even if both of them conducted rather cash-strapped campaigns. One of the first things Law declared upon being elected was “we are uncontrollable, and our hands are clean”; his party, Demosistō, will talk and negotiate with anybody, but is not open to compromises it deems disrespectful. Remarkable as that is, I think that the election of Edmund Chu is even more emblematic. Nobody expected him to win, let alone to gather the highest number of votes—and on an environmental and conservationist platform that had long been forgotten by everybody else.

Chu has decided to tackle head-on the real-estate hegemony and the unbridled powers of the Heung Yee Kuk, a rural representative body often accused of colluding with criminal gangs. The Kuk is one of the many unjustifiable partners Beijing has chosen with which to affiliate itself—and once again, the people of Hong Kong have said very loudly that these vested interests do not represent them, and are in fact damaging the city and its future. This impasse will not be solved by an increased hard-line approach—yet that is the only one Beijing has applied.

Taiwan’s people have been speaking for a long time in ways that the pro-independence insurgents in Hong Kong can readily understand. In November 2014, the Guomindang (KMT) lost big in local elections on Taiwan that were widely seen as an informal referendum on then President Ma Ying-jeou’s policy of ever closer ties to the giant across the Straits. Those elections came after the massive demonstrations on Taiwan, known as the Sunflower Movement, that were a striking expression of the deep distrust of Mainland China on Taiwan and its anxiety about the KMT’s hard push for an ever tighter network of relations.

And, of course, in January came the Taiwan presidential election, won in a landslide by Tsai Ing-wen, the candidate of the Democratic People’s Party (DPP), whose official platform calls for an independent “Republic of Taiwan.” President Tsai knows better than to provoke the mainland by formally pushing for independence, but her election was an unmistakable indication that Beijing’s concerted drive to force the island to embrace the one-China idea was based on threat and intimidation, not on any popular Taiwanese will.

The election of a handful of defiantly anti-Communist-Party, pro-independence young activists to the Legislative Council in Hong Kong seems similar in many ways to the popular success of Taiwan’s DPP. There’s the coming of age in both places of a new generation unaffected by the psychological attachments to the Mainland of their elders, a generation in Hong Kong that will still be alive and active in 2047 when the current one country, two systems arrangement formally comes to an end. In both places, Beijing’s dictatorial heavy-handedness has cost China a steep price in public opinion. Hong Kong’s vote is a kind of payback for Beijing’s hostility to the pleas of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong of two years ago. It is a response to the kidnapping by the Public Security Bureau of those five Hong Kong editors who, according to the one country, two systems idea, were supposed to be left in peace.

There have been no editors abducted from Taiwan, but the island has been a full-fledged democracy for 20 years now, even as the mainland has reinforced its anti-liberal, anti-democratic rule. And then there is the resentment at the small humiliations constantly imposed by Beijing on Taiwan—forcing its Olympic team to compete as China, Taipei; excluding it from U.N. organizations; and the like.

Beijing of course holds the ultimate trump card especially with regards to Hong Kong. It could easily crush the new elected opposition, and, indeed, China’s docile state-controlled press was threatening just that right after the election, calling the new LegCo members “separatists” and saying that “sedition” should be punished. But Beijing’s leaders also know that what it does in Hong Kong is closely watched on Taiwan, were the prospect of a voluntary reunification is more distant than ever and where it will be even more distant if Beijing openly breaks its promise to respect Hong Kong’s freedoms.

The results of the 2016 Legco elections showcase the biographical and social impacts of the Umbrella Movement, through which the new generation is making its demands for change loud and clear. Only two veteran pan-democrats who held their seats before the handover in 1997 survived. In contrast, six “umbrella soldiers” aged 23 to 40 were elected. Among them, the elections of Nathan Law and Eddie Chu are vital. The former revives international attention on Hong Kong politics; the latter tells a stimulating story that hope will appear if one persists.

While these new faces have injected momentum into the enduring project of resisting Beijing’s encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy and civil liberties, they also unfavorably appraised Hong Kong’s three-decades-long democracy movement. Instead of playing rearguard, the localists now aim to push forward the agenda of self-determination or independence. Democracy has not been abandoned, but it has become a distant, if not residual, goal. Nurturing solidarity among their supporters and constructing a common identity are more urgent.

The reshuffling of votes among the opposition provides the new generation with both popular mandates and institutional leverage to set their agenda. Having won 29 out of 70 seats in the Legco, the opposition has secured its one-third veto power, which is essential for blocking major bills and controlling public finance. But this means that the support from the six umbrella activists is indispensable; they have occupied the position of being the vetoers among the vetoers. The exodus of veteran legislators further disrupts seniority in the legislature and makes coordination unmanageable. As long as the localists define their identity by working against the pan-democrats and their success by practicing progressive repertoires, the Legco is likely to become an extension of the movement front.

To analyze how Beijing would respond to this trajectory, one must first explain why a hardline approach was adopted from the onset. There are two main theses. The first one refers to Beijing’s self-imposed instability targeting a wider audience. The rise of localism provides an ideal opportunity to frame Hong Kong’s democracy movement as separatist. It serves growing nationalist sentiments at home, helps create fragmentation within, and checks organized resistance from Hong Kong’s opposition. The second thesis stresses the entrenched central-local mistrust. Where Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporter considers mass mobilization a necessary means to exercise freedoms and improve governance in an undemocratic regime, Beijing perceives protests as signs of disloyalty, inferring that the “people’s hearts and minds have not returned” to the new sovereign. The party mouthpieces and its grassroots agencies have supplied evidence of foreign interference to consolidate such threat and to justify further repression of the regime’s enemies. The result is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The triumph of localism in the elections signifies that this self-imposed or contingently-evoked instability is no longer containable. While Beijing shows signs of adopting interim policy changes such as supporting a moderate candidate to run in next year’s Chief Executive election, it lacks the indulgence and incentive to alter its hardline position and to reconcile with the pan-democrats. Once the feedback of such “compromise” failed to check localism or silence the claim of self-determination, it would consider the new generation of opposition as both unrealistic and unfaithful. The vicious cycle would then repeat itself.

In Taiwan, there is a mixture of reactions to the Hong Kong election. Many people, including young people, have not followed the election closely or at all. They are working long hours, often for very low salaries and, understandably, are more focused on domestic political issues such as affordable housing and whether the country’s pension and healthcare systems will go bankrupt.

Among Taiwanese who are discussing the Hong Kong election, there is an apparent divide: comments on major online forums like the PTT Bulletin Board System tend to be more pessimistic, focusing on the fact that the majority of votes still went to pro-establishment candidates. Some of them call this the result of brainwashing; others argue that Hong Kong’s population has been “washed” by settlers from the Mainland. The general conclusion, among this group, is that Hong Kong’s elections will not send any message to Beijing that the latter will heed, and that Hong Kong has already been swallowed by the PRC.

Their strong disappointment reflects how much Taiwanese who think about politics care about what happens to Hong Kong; “Today’s Hong Kong, Tomorrow’s Taiwan” is a common refrain here. It also reflects the gap between Hong Kong and Taiwan’s political experiences. Taiwan has been holding direct presidential elections for 20 years, and Taiwanese observers who have not been following Hong Kong politics especially closely may indeed find the net gain of only two seats for non-establishment parties in the legislative council—not even an election for the territory’s leader—underwhelming.

But those who have been following Hong Kong politics closely over the past few years are optimistic, overall, that the emergence of localist parties is a good start. It may send a message to Beijing that suppressing dissent—whether in Hong Kong today or tomorrow in Taiwan—ultimately is untenable. Doing so discredits those who, like Hong Kong’s pan-democrats, argue that change without separation is possible. “Beijing may see that it just creates more trouble for them in the end,” one former Sunflower Movement activist told me hopefully.

While the election results were indeed a hard-won victory for the pan-democratic camp, it is important to take seriously the issues that seemingly marred the legitimacy and fairness of this election. Alvin Cheung mentioned many examples: the exclusion of the pro-independence candidates, the accusations of voter fraud, the overt role of the Liaison Office in supporting selected candidates, and the drop-out of a pro-establishment candidate under intimidation.

The latest news is even more ominous. After winning the largest number of votes in his constituency,
Eddie Chu Hoi Dick, a veteran activist who campaigns on environmental issues and vows to expose rural leaders in collusion with the government, said that he had received imminent death threats to for himself and his family after he was elected. Although Hong Kong long has been classified by political scientists as a hybrid regime, things like these seldom happened in the past, or at least were rarely heard of. Elections, though not entirely democratic because of their narrow constituencies, were still considered to be relatively free and fair. Now, perhaps it is time to reconsider.

In any case, until now, the results were unexpectedly positive for the pro-democracy camp, especially given the pessimism before the election that too many pro-democracy candidates were running for limited seats, which is expected to harm overall results under a proportional representation system. But even though the democrats managed to keep the critical minority and even gained additional seats, they are still way short of a simple majority for voting down unpopular government bills, such as the soon-to-be-raised-again national security legislation. Therefore, it is unrealistic to expect the new Legislative Council to “get things done” or “get things undone.” Moreover, given the election of a number of protest activists and pro-independence candidates, the LegCo is likely to become a full-fledged social movement front, ending its pretense as a half-baked lawmaking body. The success of these newly-elected lawmakers will be measured not by their policy achievements, but by their ability to galvanize issues through the civil society.

More head-on confrontation against the government and pro-establishment elites will be expected.

However, the election results also drastically changed the ecology within the pro-democracy camp. It is difficult to say whether there is a “pro-democracy camp” as it has been split into two factions—the pan-democrats and the localists, which together now are known loosely as the “anti-establishment” in a well-intentioned attempt to create unity. But even among the so-called localists who advocate either self-determination or independence, such lawmakers and their supporters are deeply divided by complex fault lines. It is unclear whether and how they will work together in the coming four years. Localist lawmakers already stated that they would not participate in the coordination meetings organized by the pan-democrats. Whether these cleavages will strengthen or weaken the city’s struggle for democracy, autonomy or independence remains to be seen.

The recent Hong Kong legislative (Legco) elections prove once again that the “people’s government” of China doesn’t trust the Chinese people. And that many of those people—notably in Hong Kong—trust neither their local government, nor that at the center in Beijing and its ruling Communist Party.

Years ago, the rulers in Beijing could have honored their explicit and implied pledges to Hong Kong and let voters practice full local democracy, with “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” under great autonomy, as the relevant “One Country, Two Systems” method is supposed to provide. Almost certainly, the result would have been a benign administration determined to get along well with the mainland—so crucial to its economic well-being—yet equally determined to preserve the many internal freedoms found nowhere else in China.

Instead, Beijing reneged on its promises and systematically began eroding the civic and legal rights left behind when British colonial authorities departed in 1997. Presumably, Communist Party leaders feared a desire for self-determination in Hong Kong might seep across the border and beyond, infecting the mainland with political attitudes that the party has crushed with special vigor since Xi Jinping gained power in 2012. Consistent nibbling at Hong Kong’s civic freedoms, assisted by the supine administration led by roundly disliked and distrusted Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, has turned its political activists against both the local government and many veteran pro-democracy opponents who were seen as ineffective and out of touch with a younger generation.

Thus the Legco election results. A record two million voters, about 58% of those eligible, turned out to choose the 70 winners. Rather than lose their blocking third in the legislature as many feared, the loosely-aligned and sometimes quarrelsome pan-democrats gained three seats for a total of 30, despite a complex voting system tilted in favor of pro-government forces. Legco has limited powers but this tally means democrats can prevent establishment members from ramming through fiscal or politically-restrictive bills they oppose.

More importantly, there was a major shift in pro-democracy ranks. Many younger candidates—one only 23 years old—won, including “localists” who identify themselves more closely with Hong Kong interests than with those of mainland China. Few seek independence, a politically and economically impossible goal, but they feel increasingly apart from the rest of the nation and the local leaders Beijing has imposed.

This division promises turbulent politics ahead; next year a special committee must either re-elect or replace Chief Executive Leung, who wants another term. Beijing could help itself by backing a more popular substitute such as Jaspar Tsang, Legco’s former presiding officer and a founder of the main pro-government political party who has split with Leung on key issues. Despite his leftist credentials, Tsang agonizes about the desirability and difficulty of introducing real local democracy and readily concedes that most Hong Kongers don’t want their lives micro-managed by the Communist Party. China could also allow incremental liberalization of the electoral system, meeting some pan-democrat demands.

But these don’t seem likely. Beijing hasn’t trusted Hong Kong to make its own choices and thus it got results opposite to what it sought. So far there is no reason to believe President Xi’s regime will learn a lesson from all this, and the political forecast is for more turbulence in Hong Kong.