Young Hong Kong Activists Win Seats As Democrats Hang Onto Veto

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Student activist Nathan Law, 23, a co-founder of the party Demosisto, becomes Hong Kong's youngest-ever legislator, winning a seat on the Legislative Council, Sept 5, 2016.
Student activist Nathan Law, 23, a co-founder of the party Demosisto, becomes Hong Kong's youngest-ever legislator, winning a seat on the Legislative Council, Sept 5, 2016.

A former leader of Hong Kong's 2014 pro-democracy movement has been elected to the city's legislature in elections that saw a surge of support for a younger generation of activists-turned-politicians.

Former Umbrella Movement leader Nathan Law, 23, will become Hong Kong's youngest-ever legislator after garnering 50,818 votes in the Hong Kong Island electoral district in Sunday's poll.

Law, who ran as a candidate for the newly formed party Demosisto, said he had now entered "a new stage of his life."

"You could say it was a miracle that I won," Law told reporters. "It was far beyond my expectation that I would win with more than 50,000 votes."

He said the support at the ballot box would remind him "not to let people down" during his four-year term as lawmaker.

Meanwhile, land rights activist Chu Hoi-dick won a record-breaking 84,121 votes to take a seat representing the New Territories West constituency, the largest number ever won by a single LegCo candidate.

However, veteran pan-democrats Lee Cheuk-yan and Frederick Fung of the Association for Democracy and People's Livelihood were ousted from their seats.

The pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) remains the largest party bloc in LegCo, while more moderate democrats failed to win a single seat, according to government broadcaster RTHK.

Overall, democratic politicians held onto their power to veto key political changes in the Legislative Council (LegCo) election, which saw higher-than-ever voter turnout at 58 percent.

Three young politicians from "localist" groups who want greater autonomy for the former British colony will join the pan-democrats, occupying 19 seats overall in the 70-seat council.

Retaining crucial veto

This will ensure pro-democracy parties retain a crucial veto, as any changes to the political system of Hong Kong must win the support of two-thirds of lawmakers to pass.

In the past, pan-democrats have succeeded in blocking unpopular national security legislation as well as electoral reforms slated as "fake universal suffrage" by the Occupy Central movement.

They will also be able to vote down proposals to change the council's Rules of Procedure to prevent filibusters, a key tactic in the minority bloc's political arsenal.

The majority of seats are held by pro-establishment figures loyal to the administration of chief executive Leung Chun-ying and to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, however.

Many of those were returned by professional and trade bodies comprising just six percent of the city's pool of five million registered voters.

"As new faces replace veterans, the council's relationship with the administration is poised to undergo profound changes," the station said in its report on the result.

Analysts said Leung's administration will likely face a more confrontational LegCo than before, amid wider social tensions over the erosion of Hong Kong's traditional freedoms and growing calls for independence and "self-determination."

Former government adviser Lau Sai-leung said the chief executive's reliance on Beijing for his direction has left him incapable of wielding real power in his own city.

"I think if [Beijing] had wanted to take a more liberal line, they would have had to remove Leung Chun-ying, because he's incapable of taking such a line," Lau said.

"He lacks genuine political allies inside LegCo, not even among pro-establishment parties," Lau said. "He had no hope of counteracting this emergence of separatist sentiment among the younger generation."

Independence taboo

Leung's administration, reportedly at Beijing's behest, disbarred six candidates in the recent LegCo elections, citing their "pro-independence" views.

Leung has also ordered schools to punish any talk of the topic among students, threatening teachers with deregistration if they are found encouraging it.

A recent opinion survey showed that almost 40 percent of young people in Hong Kong favor independence for the city in 2047, when existing arrangements with China expire.

Nearly two out of five people in the 15-24 age group said they want the city to go its own way when the "one country, two systems" policy, promised under the terms of the city's 1997 handover to China, ends.

Across the whole age range, 17.4 percent said they favor independence post-2047, compared with 39.2 percent of the 15-24 age group.

Veteran journalist and political commentator Ching Cheong said the emergence of "localists" who favor preserving Hong Kong's unique character and autonomy in LegCo, and the growing talk of independence among political activists, is possibly the biggest failure for Chinese rule in Hong Kong so far.

But he said reports in the pro-Beijing Sing Pao newspaper have alleged that some activists groups, including localist group Youngspiration, are backed by Beijing, as agents provocateurs.

"On the face of it, the anti-establishment bloc will still have its veto," Ching said.

"But we will have to observe a bit longer and wait to see whether these newly elected groups start looking like they're playing for the pro-establishment team."

Two Youngspiration leaders, Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, won seats in Sunday's poll.

Divided pan-democrats

Eddie Choi, senior lecturer in politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said localist candidates had won 11 percent of Sunday's vote, but that didn't necessarily mean they would be natural bedfellows for traditional democrats.

"The pan-democrats won't necessarily find it easy to work with them,"

Choi said. "The pan-democrats are beginning to be divided, and it's getting harder and harder to unite these disparate political forces."

"Of course there is room for cooperation, but there are a lot of differences on a whole host of political issues ... and things could get pretty awkward," he said.

Meanwhile, Nathan Law could face further legal action linked to his role in the Occupy Central movement.

Along with former student leaders Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, Law was found guilty of taking part in an unlawful assembly in connection with the start of the Occupy Central movement.

All three had pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum sentence of three years' imprisonment.

Wong was sentenced to 80 hours' community service on Monday, while Law received a community service order of 120 hours.

Chow was handed a three-week suspended jail sentence after the three occupied Civic Square outside government headquarters in September 2014, kickstarting the protests.

But last week, a Department of Justice spokesman said the government has asked the Eastern Court presiding magistrate to review the punishment, which it judged too lenient.

Hong Kong was promised a “high degree of autonomy” under the terms of its 1997 handover from Britain to China, but many fear the city’s traditional freedoms may now be a thing of the past, as Beijing seeks to wield ever greater influence over the city’s media, publishing, and political scene.

Calls for independence were rare in the city until the failure of the 2014 pro-democracy movement to overturn a decree from Beijing insisting that all electoral candidates for chief executive in 2017 be vetted by China's supporters.

Leaders of the 79-day civil disobedience movement rejected the Aug. 31, 2014 decree by the National People's Congress (NPC) as "fake universal suffrage."

Reported by Hai Nan and Lam Kwok-lap for RFA's Cantonese Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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