Democracy is a complicated word for Hong Kong. Those protesting democracy have often caused trouble for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). A recent example of this is the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014. Hong Kong has been a special administrative region (SAR) of China since 1997. The island is given some autonomy, but is generally subject to Beijing’s control. This control led to the protests in 2014 and the subsequent police reaction to these protests. However, with recent election results there is reason to be hopeful for the democratization movement in Hong Kong. Through these elections we can see the Hong Kong people’s desire for change.
On September 4, 2016, Hong Kong elected its youngest member to the Legislative Council. Even more noteworthy, Nathan Law was one of the faces of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. He was arrested after the end of the protests, but that did not stop his involvement in Hong Kong politics. He and another Umbrella Revolution leader, Joshua Wong, founded their own political party to promote the fight for self-determination in Hong Kong. Their party, Demosisto, currently only has one seat on the legislative council. However, for a new party with radical ideas, the election of Law shows change brewing in Hong Kong.
This September, Law received over 50,000 votes. This election is telling; the people of Hong Kong are showing signs of being ready for a change. The catalyst for this change can be seen in the Umbrella Movement. The Umbrella Movement, named for the protesters use of umbrellas to block pepper spray from police, saw over 100,000 people take to the streets. The goal was self-determination; they wanted the right to chose their own leaders rather than have Beijing involved. Naturally, Beijing did not condone these protests. The police reacted violently with pepper spray and tear gas. They were eventually able to end the protests after 79 days. That, however, did not stop the people of Hong Kong’s appetite for change.
In an interview by Al Jazeera, Law stated that his election shows how the political tides are turning in Hong Kong. He explains: “I believe the people of Hong Kong were looking for a new voice in the electoral system who can uphold the different voices of the democratic movement. I think the elections reflect that.” But Law is not the only Hong Kong legislator who is pro-democracy. After September’s elections, 30 out of 70 of the Legislative Council members support Hong Kong democracy. These numbers are important. They mean that these pro-democracy legislators are able to veto any major constitutional changes. Their election shows that change could be possible sooner rather than later in Hong Kong. It is important to note that there are factions in this pro-democratization camp. In his Al Jazeera interview, Law states: “I know there is a lot of fragmentation in the camp but I believe as individuals we need to search for cooperation… We understand that we need to have representation in the electoral system.” These factions need to come together, especially since it seems that Hong Kong wants to move more towards democracy.
The election of Law and other pro-democracy candidates shows the world that Hong Kong is ready for democracy. The 100,000 people that protested in 2014 did not go away. They have used their votes for the Legislative Council to show Beijing and the world that the goals of the Umbrella Movement are still alive. Hong Kong is ready for a change, but is Beijing? Chinese President Xi Jinping has stated that he does not support democracy. China’s agreement on Hong Kong expires in 2047, meaning that Hong Kong could officially become a part of China in 2047. This year is where some protestors have set their sights. Many argue for a referendum before 2047 to let the people of Hong Kong decide if they want to be a part of China. While Beijing will most likely not support such a referendum, the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the September 2016 elections show that China’s influence may be waning. China was able to hold a tight grip on Hong Kong in 2014, but if trends seen in this election continue, it is unclear how much longer China will be able to hold on to Hong Kong.
Last month’s elections were a huge win for those in Hong Kong who are pro-democracy. They signal that the Umbrella Movement in 2014 was not the end for Nathan Law and the Demosisto party. Hong Kong has showed how it is leaning politically with these elections. Law and other pro-democracy legislators have the ability to change things and make self-determination for the people of Hong Kong a reality.
Laurel Anderson is a master’s candidate at the Patterson School focusing on Diplomacy and Security. She received her bachelor’s degree at Centre College with a major in International Relations and a minor in Asian Studies. Her primary interests include democracy in Asia, Asian security, and the rise of China.