For months, China has described Hong Kong’s protesters as “behaving like terrorists” manipulated by foreign forces against the will of a suffering population. On Sunday, the people of Hong Kong gave their verdict in the first vote since the demonstrations erupted in June. The outcome of the district council elections was a slap in the face for Beijing.
In one of the biggest voter turnouts in Hong Kong history, the pro-democracy camp won 17 of 18 districts — compared with zero in the last poll four years ago. Some of the most prominent pro-Beijing figures lost their seats while hardline democracy activists won theirs.
Despite concerns of violence, the vote was peaceful. There were no clashes between police and black-clad protesters, just candidates and their supporters waving to passersby.
The elections followed one of the most disruptive fortnights in the protests. Police laid siege to universities and protesters snarled up transport forcing schools to close.
One of the sieges, at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, was still under way on Monday — a week after it began. Analysts thought the violence might weaken popular support for the movement. The district council elections have put paid to that speculation.
The councils lack political power, mostly advising the government on quotidian community matters. But the victory will give the pro-democracy camp new channels of influence. The winner of the district council elections can nominate six people to the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s de facto parliament, and 117 people to the 1,200-member election committee of mostly pro-Beijing loyalists that selects the city’s chief executive.
The significance of the district council elections, however, is that they are the fairest and most direct vote in the territory. They are decided by simple majority, in contrast to the LegCo poll that gives an outsized voice to business. This poll was a referendum on the protest movement.
The crisis facing the Hong Kong government and its Beijing masters has now deepened. An emboldened protest movement will press its demands even harder, including those for universal suffrage in the election of Hong Kong’s leader and an independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality.
One solution might be for Beijing to offer political reform. This would not be unprecedented. In 2014, President Xi Jinping made a proposal according to which Beijing would provide a list of screened candidates for the leadership. Hong Kong voters would be able to elect one of them by direct vote. This was rejected by the pro-democracy camp but Beijing could try to produce another plan for consideration. That at least would raise the prospect of a political solution to the city’s dilemma.
The most likely result, however, is that the Communist party will continue to crack down. The past months will have convinced Mr Xi that Hong Kong cannot be trusted with the autonomy it already enjoys, let alone any more.
“This is David against Goliath! Hurrah!” tweeted one supporter of Jimmy Sham, a pro-democracy candidate who was beaten by thugs with hammers ahead of the elections.
Perhaps, but it will take more than one stone to defeat the Goliath of Beijing. Hong Kong’s days of tear gas and rubber bullets are not over.
Follow Joe Leahy on Twitter at @leahyjoseph