Hong Kong District Elections 2019: The Will of the People

Quick Facts and Stats

  • Summary: Elections that will decide the local representatives in Hong Kong’s legislature
  • 2019 Date: 24th of November
  • Celebrated by: The people of Hong Kong

Background and Theological Significance

Elections, like all festivals, are ritualised acts aimed at refreshing a society. The theology behind elections is driven by a recognition of the partial divinity, or at least inherent dignity and sovereignty, of every person. Based upon this, the society is refreshed through a direct appeal to the divinity of that society; ‘the people’. In this election, the people of Hong Kong are imagined as a collective that is facing a decision about the future of their society. The legitimacy of the society’s leadership is subsequently determined through how well they reflect the will of ‘the people’, the will of an abstracted collective ‘Hong Kong’.

Elections are not a recent invention, but they have exploded in popularity across the world as a major theological shift has taken place. Divinity, and therefore the source of a society’s legitimacy, has been associated less and less with some abstracted ideal or ruler that governs from above. Instead, societies have increasingly imagined themselves as a community that is in its own way divine and sovereign. This means that anybody who seeks to govern such a society must gain the permission of the people.

Such ideals have been on the rise in Hong Kong since at least the 1800s when the island was a British colony. Participation in elections has gradually expanded, but there still remain many obstacles. This can be seen as a conflict between two competing theologies. Currently the forces standing in the way for increased elections, is the Chinese Communist party. The Chinese communist party, as a nationalist group, operates from a similar starting point: that the Chinese people are sovereign. The disagreement comes later, first with the disagreement over who is and is not Chinese; many in Hong Kong would see their identity as people of Hong Kong taking priority over their identity as Chinese. Second, the conflict comes from the Chinese Communist Party’s insistence that it is uniquely placed as the sole interpreter of the will of the Chinese people. Something that many in Hong Kong would also dispute.

This particular election comes against the backdrop of widespread unrest in Hong Kong. Much is riding on this election and the direction that it points Hong Kong in for the next few years. For the first time, all the seats are being contested. 1,104 nomination forms were received in the allotted two week period, a number that greatly exceeds all previous elections. These facts would suggest that turnout will be high. Does Hong Kong become more defined by the theology of the pro-democracy camp, or does it fall further under the influence of China’s national theology.

History

The Pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong has been up against stiff opposition historically from two of the world’s great powers. First, as a British Colony, all attempts and proposals for democratisation were blocked for fear that it would destabilise the colony against British rule. Then, after World War II, they were blocked by the Chinese government, who wanted Hong Kong to remain a colony deprived of self-rule, to ease an eventual transition to Beijing rule.

However, the people of Hong Kong won their slow and indirect fight for democratic representation against these forces with a series of victories in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This, mirrors Taiwan and South Korea, which went through similar transitions around the same time. This is also around the same time that a similar movement calling for democracy in China was being crushed in Tiananmen Square. In fact it could be argued that seeing the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square massacre is one factor that spurred the people of Hong Kong into action and won support for direct elections.

The handover of Hong Kong from British rule to Chinese rule in 1997 was performed under the agreement ‘One Country, Two Systems’. This entailed the Chinese government promising Hong Kong the autonomy to decide its own future, under the condition that Beijing was recognised as ultimately sovereign over the territory. However, since the handover, the Chinese government worked to stifle the pro-democracy movement, including the support of reforms that limited the amount of directly elected seats in the legislature. This caused two main political factions to develop: the pro-beijing camp and the pro-democracy camp. Hong Kong politics since this time has been defined by the pro-democracy camp pushing for greater democratic representation as soon as possible, and their efforts being frustrated and delayed by the pro-beijing camp.

In recent years this struggle has come closer and closer to the surface. This can perhaps be traced back to 2014 when the precedent was set for future electoral reform that any expansion of voting rights would be mirrored by institutional, pro-beijing, reforms that would undoubtedly limit future democratisation efforts. This resulted in the Umbrella Movement, a mass-protest that fizzled after its student leaders were imprisoned. Since that time, pro-Beijing leaders, including the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, have said that democratisation is not a priority. Alongside this, candidates for election in Hong Kong since this time have been screened, with many pro-democracy candidates being banned from standing; the reason given is often that these candidates hold “unconstitutional” views. 

This laid the ground for the current mass-protests which were triggered by a proposed extradition bill, which would have enabled people from Hong Kong who committed crimes to be moved to mainland China for their trial. This was widely seen as a further erosion of Hong Kong’s proudly independent judiciary system. The demands of the movement has evolved in scale alongside the protests. Increasingly violent responses from the authorities has led to widespread damage of property and violence in the streets as the unrest spreads. Regardless of this ongoing unrest, the general elections are scheduled to go forward as planned on the 24th of November. The pro-democracy movement is hoping first that they will not be postponed or cancelled, and secondly that they could leverage support to enact real change in the Hong Kong government and restart the democratisation process.

What Happens?

On the 24th of November the registered voters of Hong Kong, permanent residents over the age of 18, will go to the appropriate places to vote for their district councillors. This takes place between 7.30am and 10.30pm. Participants must bring the original copy of their Hong Kong ID card. They are given a card upon which they tick the box next to their preferred candidate.

452 seats are up for election, out of a total 479, in all 18 districts in Hong Kong. This is the maximum amount of seats up for election, because the remaining 27 seats are not decided by popular election. These Councillors form the main body that communicates the will of the people to Hong Kong’s leaders in the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s lawmaking body. They play a key role in deciding the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, as the largest party at the district level gains an extra 117 votes (out of 1,200) when it comes to deciding the next Chief Executive.

These elections take place every four years, and regardless of the actual power over the laws that the councillors do, or in fact do not, wield, these elections provide an opportunity for the public of Hong Kong to express their will. Taking into account everything that has happened this year, this election is perhaps one of the most significant that the people of Hong Kong have ever faced.

“7M1A2606” by gmacfadyen is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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