The people of Hong Kong have delivered a spectacular message in Sunday’s elections, with a nearly total reversal of the 2015 election results. With a 71% turnout, and more than twice the votes cast compared with the last such election, there is no mistaking where the great majority of Hong Kong’s people stand on the direction of their society. This moment presents a vital opportunity for a shift to constructive engagement between pro-democracy activists and the government of Beijing-appointed Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Months of increasingly bold protests, met with increasingly aggressive government response, had created a tense standoff in which neither side felt it could afford to give any ground. Protests began in response to an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of crimes to be tried in the very different court system of mainland China, eroding the partial autonomy promised to Hong Kong. While this bill was eventually withdrawn, by then protesters’ concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy had deepened, and they had expanded their demands.
Protesters were apparently prepared to sustain their running battle with police in perpetuity, but the regional government hardly wanted to be perceived as making concessions in response to violence, even amid the restraint shown by the great majority of protestors. The months of conflict have made all concerned keenly aware of Hong Kong’s desire to preserve its distinctive system. Yet positive movement toward strengthening it was hard to imagine in an environment of such open conflict.
Sunday’s peacefully conducted elections have fundamentally changed this dynamic. Pro-democracy candidates swept the vast majority of seats up for election, taking control of 17 out of 18 district councils, all of which had previously been controlled by pro-Beijing councillors. The voice of the people was given dignified expression through the officially recognized process, as protestors refrained from disruption. Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded with a graceful promise to consider the voters’ message humbly and seriously. The way is clear for a new mode of engagement if both sides do their part to preserve it. The protesters have shown they are prepared to refrain from disorder when their goals can be addressed peacefully. With such an encouraging election outcome, they can show their seriousness by sustaining this moment of peace long enough for the new dynamic to take hold. Carrie Lam for her part can show she deserves their confidence, and her commitment to sustaining peace in Hong Kong, by regularly reaffirming her readiness to respond, and working quickly to cement trust through concrete steps.
Many of us, though far away, are watching with great interest.
The delivery of a powerful message through peacefully conducted elections has created a remarkable opportunity for a win-win. To make the most of it will demand discipline and good judgment from both sides, but there is reason to believe they have what it takes.