Hong Kong Analysis: By-elections to be held for four seats in Hong Kong legislature on March 11; protests likely although opposition continues to weaken
• On March 11, elections will be held for four seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo). Multiple candidates have been disqualified and high-profile dissidents jailed in the lead-up to the election.
• The pro-Beijing establishment in Hong Kong continues to grow in strength at the expense of pan-democrat and localist party freedoms.
• Beijing appears to be growing less and less concerned with Western criticism and is likely to continue to escalate the pace of unification with Hong Kong.
• Protests during the election period remain likely, although turnout is anticipated to be less than in recent years and the potential for participants to face police scrutiny is high.
• Travel to Hong Kong can continue as normal while adhering to basic security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime and protests.
By-elections for four LegCo seats to be held on March 11
• On March 11, elections will be held for four seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) that were vacated in 2016 and 2017 following an oath-taking controversy, representing Hong Kong Island, Kowloon West, New Territories East, and the Architectural, Surveying, Planning and Landscape Functional Constituency.
• On October 12, 2016, six pro-democracy or localist lawmakers who were elected the week before caused controversy when they purposefully altered portions of their swearing-in ceremony in protest of pro-Beijing language. By July 14, 2017, all six had been disqualified from taking office by the Hong Kong judiciary following an unprecedented intervention by China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC). Two of the six disqualified lawmakers are still appealing their decisions.
Multiple potential candidates disqualified in lead-up to elections
• On January 27, Agnes Chow was disqualified from running in the Hong Kong Island election due to the platform of Hong Kong self-determination espoused by her party, Demosisto. This was followed by similar disqualifications handed to Ventus Lau and James Chand of New Territories East, both independent candidates. Election officials referenced the duo’s past pro-independence stances in their decisions, although both publicly disavowed such a platform prior to their disqualifications.
• Election officials cite Hong Kong independence as a rejection of Basic Law (the governing legal document of the territory that enshrined the “one country, two systems” policy between Beijing and Hong Kong) and therefore grounds for disqualification. A protest against Chow’s disqualification was held on January 28 at Civic Square, which saw a reported turnout of approximately 2,000.
Arrests of Hong Kong dissidents increase, target foreign national despite Western condemnation
• On January 20, a Swedish national based in Hong Kong who published books on the personal lives of Communist Party leaders was allegedly arrested by plainclothes police while in the company of two Swedish diplomats who were escorting him to Beijing for medical attention. Sweden summoned China’s ambassador in connection with the incident while the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs denied knowledge of the situation, per January 22 reports.
• On January 17, pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Raphael Wong Ho-ming were denied bail for jail sentences of three and four months, respectively, over their roles in the 2014 Occupy protests. At the time, Joshua Wong was on bail during an appeal for a different Occupy-related charge. Overall, 16 defendants were sentenced in January over contempt of court charges in relation to the case, bringing the total to 20; only two received jail time. Reports quoting Hong Kong’s chief prosecutor indicate that more than 700 other individuals remain under investigation for their participation in the protests.In response to recent developments, both the EU and US issued rebukes, with the US Congress nominating Joshua Wong for a Nobel Peace Prize on February 1. On February 6, the prison sentences of Hong Kong protest leader Joshua Wong and an associate were nullified by the Court of Final Appeal (CFA). The CFA decision that was published the same day endorsed harsher penalties for public order offenses but refused to apply the order to Wong’s case, which originated from his actions during the 2014 Occupy protests and was outside the statute of limitations.
Pro-Beijing establishment benefitting from disqualifications to control political climate
- Amendments put forward by lawmakers in the LegCo must pass majority votes in both 35-member geographic and functional constituencies. As a result of the disqualifications, the majority in the geographical constituencies is no longer held by the combined pan-democrats and localists. To regain their voting majority there, they need to take all three seats being contested in the geographical constituencies. Given that these seats initially went to pan-democrats, and that candidates with similar platforms are running in the constituencies, pan-democrat or localist-leaning candidates have a likely advantage, although no polling data is available as of the publication of this report.
- With the potential for the mechanics of the LegCo to remain unchanged relative to the original 2016 composition of the geographical constituency, the recent disqualifications are more likely to be an attempt to control the general political atmosphere and not the actual seats. By blunting the extremes of potential candidates through disqualification, authorities are likely banking on their ability to gradually shift the movement on the whole closer to the political center, thus neutralizing it in effect. This type of long-term strategy is one of the hallmarks of classical Chinese foreign policy.
- The precedence being established by the disqualifications is that candidates that are deemed to be too overtly anti-establishment risk losing approval by election officials. This is evidenced by recent behavioral requirements demanded by the Election Committee, most notably including the controversial LegCo oath of office and abstinence from potentially pro-independence activity. The vagueness of these requirements and the lack of a statute of limitations on perceived anti-state activity mean that as time goes on, they can be reapplied under more and more stringent terms, further enabling the pro-Beijing establishment to squeeze these individuals out of politics.
Beijing unswayed by Western criticism aimed at accelerated unification efforts
- President Xi Jinping’s near-total consolidation of power in China and hesitation to confront Beijing directly by Western countries including the US have contributed to a bolder foreign policy in recent months. The recent arrest of the Hong Kong-based Swedish national is indicative of a larger trend regarding Beijing’s renewed confidence in defying Western expectations, and decreasing concern with reactions to perceived oversteps, especially those regarding Hong Kong. The NPCSC’s entry into Hong Kong election politics has been the most outright intervention thus far and is likely a harbinger of Beijing’s new attitude and the perception of their role in Hong Kong affairs. The mostly rhetorical response from the West, including the symbolic gesture of Joshua Wong’s Nobel nomination, highlights the little desire to challenge China, further encouraging this bolder attitude.
Protests likely in lead-up to March 11 elections although opposition appears diminished
- The precedent established by the recent electoral disqualifications are likely to discourage future support for the pro-independence and localist movements, at least in public. This is because party affiliations, social media activity, and past statements have all been used as grounds for disqualification without any uniformity, meaning that any perceived anti-Beijing bias in a potential candidate’s history could mean a ban on participating in government.
- In addition to the unclear precedent set by the recent disqualifications, authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong have both illustrated throughout January the willingness to use the threat of jail time in the face of perceived anti-state activities. Holding investigations over hundreds of more participants in the Occupy protests is likely an effort to leverage this threat in order to discourage future activism. The release of Joshua Wong, while applauded by Western observers, has also illustrated that the highest court in the territory also supports a more hardline approach to sentencing demonstrators in the future.
- These efforts have resulted in the pan-democratic movement drawing diminished turnout to events in recent months, even over issues that could have drawn thousands in past years. The 2,000 person turnout for a recent protest for Agnes Chow was a notable outlier, although the number was still small considering the highly controversial nature of her disqualification. Protests during the election period leading into mid-March remain highly likely, although turnouts are not anticipated to reach levels seen in previous years. Potential venues include Golden Bauhinia Square, Civic Square, and the LegCo offices. Although unrest in the form of clashes with security forces are unlikely given recent precedence, the potential for police dispersal and arrests, even in a relatively orderly manner, remains high.
- Travel to Hong Kong can continue as normal while adhering to basic security precautions regarding civil unrest, crime and protests.
- Maintain vigilance around government buildings on Hong Kong Island, which are often used as protest sites, such as the LegCo Building, Central Government Complex, Hong Kong Police Headquarters, and Chief Executive’s Office.
- Those operating or residing in Hong Kong are advised to avoid large public rallies and political-related demonstrations.
- We generally advise avoiding discussing politics with locals given current political sensitivities.