'Umbrella' Candidates Win Seats in Hong Kong District Polls

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Candidates compete for votes in Hong Kong's Tunmen Yuecui district, Nov. 22, 2015.
Candidates compete for votes in Hong Kong's Tunmen Yuecui district, Nov. 22, 2015.

At least eight seats on Hong Kong's directly elected district councils have been won by candidates who emerged into public view during the pro-democracy "Umbrella Movement" that occupied the city's streets for 79 days last year.

The success of the "Umbrella Soldiers" at Sunday's poll suggests strong and continuing public engagement with the political life of the former British colony, whose pan-democratic lawmakers last June voted down a limited electoral reform plan imposed by Beijing's parliament.

Two veteran pan-democrats and two veteran pro-Beijing politicians lost seats in the poll, including heavyweight political activists Albert Ho and Frederick Fung, as well as pro-Beijing candidate Elizabeth Quat and Christopher Chung, whose defeat came at the hands of unknown "Umbrella Soldier" Chui Chi-kin, local media reported.

Meanwhile, pan-democratic candidate Lam Cheuk-ting saw off a pro-Beijing opponent for his seat on Hong Kong Island's Northern district council, he told RFA on Monday.

"I was able to persuade voters that they needed a change, because the way my opponent handled things in the past was less than ideal," Lam told RFA.

He said of great concern to voters was the issue of "parallel traders" who cross the internal immigration border from mainland China to buy up retail goods in bulk for resale back home.

"The parallel trading issue was a huge one, and it's very serious," Lam said. "They didn't deal with it very well, so I had the opportunity to gain more public support."

Appetite for change

Academic and district council candidate Cheng Chung-tai said he believes there is still plenty of appetite for political change in Hong Kong, in spite of the fact that the Occupy Central movement failed to achieve full democracy in 2017 elections following weeks of disruptive street protests.

"Maybe a lot of people feel that there is a world of difference between a passionate street protest and the work of district councils," Cheng said.

"But I have pretty positive feedback from quite a lot of the older women," he said.

Many of the "Umbrella Soldiers" have also campaigned in the "localist" movement, a bid to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy and special characteristics as distinct from the rest of China.

Localist group Youngspiration fielded nine candidates, one of whom, Kwong Po-yin, won in the Whampoa West constituency of Kowloon City.

Other winners from community groups included Tai Po Sunshine’s Lau Yung-wai and Wong Hok-lai of Shatin Community Network, the Economic Journal newspaper said in a commentary article.

Gary Fan of relative newcomers the NeoDemocrats, which won 15 out of the 16 seats it contested, said voters had used their votes to show dissatisfaction with established political parties.

"I think our share of the vote and the fall of some major pro-establishment figures have something to do with the Umbrella Movement," Fan told RFA.

"We are seeing a generational transition and the rise of younger people, of a new kind of nonpartisan, nonprofessional politics," he said.

Inspired to vote

Ma Ngok, political scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said the Umbrella Movement had probably inspired more people to vote for the first time, boosting turnout to a record 47 percent.

"I think the after-effect of Occupy Central has been to encourage more and more people to go to the polls," Ma said.

"I think it raised political awareness across the entire spectrum."

According to the Economic Journal, the record turnout suggests voters are taking the district elections more seriously as political awareness, especially among first-time voters, has risen following the Occupy campaign.

"The younger generation is bored of the traditional struggle for power between pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps, and wants to bring in new voices to local affairs," the paper said.

"Politics played only a small part in the game."

It said voters are now more concerned with livelihood issues at the district level and an improved living environment.

'A huge precedent'

A voter who gave only his surname Dai said he had been influenced by the Umbrella Movement, however.

"This set a huge precedent, and political factors are really important, what each political party did," Dai said. "It goes down in history."

"Of course it will influence people's voting, although of course ... we want them to work on behalf of our district."

Hong Kong's Umbrella Movement, so named after thousands of protesters used umbrellas to stave off pepper spray and tear gas in clashes with riot police on Sept. 28, 2014, brought hundreds of thousands of people onto the city's streets at its height amid widespread calls for fully democratic elections.

A decree from China's parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC), which activists and pan-democratic politicians dismissed as "fake universal suffrage," would have required any candidates running for chief executive in 2017 to be approved by Beijing.

However, the NPC's reform package was eventually voted down in the city's Legislative Council last June, and the current system of election by a pro-Beijing committee still stands.

Reported by Wong Si-lam for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xin Lin for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.





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