Richard Bush on Hong Kong’s 2016 elections

Richard Bush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, holds the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, and is director of its Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP). He also holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow in the Brookings John L. Thornton China Center. CEAP is a center for research, analysis, and debate to enhance policy development on the pressing political, economic, and security issues facing East Asia and U.S. interests in the region. He spoke to Aaron Yang CMC ‘17 on Sept. 19, 2016.

Photo and bio source: "Richard C. Bush III." Brookings. The Brookings Institution, 2016. Web.

The September 4, 2016 Legislative Council Elections in Hong Kong resulted in a record turnout of voters. How did the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2015 Fishball Protests affect the election and the election results?

There are a lot of factors that led to the results and the turnout. It is hard to disaggregate those factors and measure their individual effect. Certainly, the Umbrella Movement and the Fishball Protests had some impact, but there were other things as well. There was the detention of a bookseller, Mr. Lee Bo, in late December 2015 and the removal of him to China. That created a great degree of concern in Hong Kong because if somebody like that can be picked up by people from across the border, then anybody can be picked up. It was a manifest violation of Hong Kong law. A lot of different things mattered, including the way that people draw conclusions about China and its allies from those individual episodes and events. But certainly, the results of the election were an endorsement of the democratic camp. If Beijing was hoping that the public was frustrated by the Umbrella Movement and the failure of democratic members of the Legislative Council to accept the proposal that was on offer, Beijing was sorely disappointed.

What actions did Beijing take, directly or indirectly, to influence the competitiveness of the Hong Kong elections? Was the disqualification of a handful of candidates important to turnout levels or to the final results? Also, over the past weekend there were reports of ballot stuffing or irregularities between the ballots given out and the ballots counted. Do you think this is of any importance?

Until studies can determine what actually happened, it is hard to know. Like the issue of the turnout, it is not very easy to disaggregate the impact of each individual factor on the final result. The disqualifying of some of the pro-independent candidates may have actually helped the anti-establishment camp because it meant that the votes were not spread among so many candidates. In the kind of election system that they have in Hong Kong, which is with multi-member districts, each side, each party, or each coalition of parties has to make sure it does not have too many candidates. Otherwise that will divide up the vote and nobody will get through. One could have argued that the smartest thing Beijing could have done would have been to allow as many pro-independence people to run as possible because it might have split up the vote. To turn to the basic question, the one thing that needs to be kept in mind is the unique character of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. There are 30 seats that are not elected by voters at large but by a particular sector of people, whether it is an economic sector, a social sector, or what not. The number of people in the electorate for each of these so-called functional constituencies is set by the functional constituency itself. So it could be the owners of a set of companies; it could be old members of the board of directors of these companies; or it could be all of the employees. How many people are in a particular electorate makes a big difference. China set up this system back when it was writing the Basic Law in order to ensure that people who felt more loyal and supportive of its aims in Hong Kong had a special advantage in dominating the legislature. Once again, these candidates did as expected in functional constituency races. As we have already discussed, some of the actions that Beijing took – its response to the Umbrella Movement, the Hong Kong government’s response to the Fishball Protests, the tension of Mr. Lee Bo – may have made it more competitive for the democrats and gave Hong Kong voters more of a reason to come out and vote.  But we do not know for sure. It appears from some reporting that the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong was trying to encourage pro-establishment candidates, or some of those candidates, not to run to avoid dividing up the vote. But the liaison office has been involved behind the scenes, trying to improve the prospects for people that support Beijing and its policies.

Given the great success of anti-Beijing and pro-autonomy candidates in the September 2016 elections, the pro-Beijing camp cannot count on majority support in the Council.  Do you expect this to prompt changes to the role, the functioning, or the voting system of the Council in the near future? 

Probably not, there are a lot of things wrong with the Legislative Council, and I think that reform of the Legislative Council, if it ever comes, will come after they fix the election system for the chief executive. There was something of a promise that once the chief executive was reformed, such that it was elected by universal suffrage, then the system for electing the Legislative Council would be reformed, such that the functional constituencies would be abolished. My recollection is that the pro-establishment parties have 40 seats, so they do have a majority in the council.  But what makes it complicated is that for a lot of pieces of legislation, you need a majority from the functional constituencies and a majority from the geographic constituencies. This is sometimes hard to put together.  In the geographic constituencies, the pro-Beijing camp does not have a majority, but it does have a majority in the other one.  Therefore, the two are checking each other. The other effect of this election is that for reform of the electoral system, it was decided that you needed two-thirds of the Legislative Council to pass electoral reform law, regardless of what kind of constituency they came from. Beijing was not able to get that two-thirds for the proposal that was put forward in 2015. Now, the democratic camp has gained a few seats and so it’s even harder to get that two-thirds. The one impact that this election has had, which I would say is not good for the democratic camp, is that it further fragmented that camp. Before you had moderate democrats and more radical democrats, but now in addition you have localists. So getting consensus among those groups is going to be harder than it was before.

How were the election results received in Beijing?  Is China’s leadership worried about or surprised by the election’s outcomes?   

Well, I do not know because there is not much information. As I said before, if there was hope that Hong Kong voters would punish the democrats for the outcome of the electoral reform, they were sorely disappointed because the democrats ended up with a better situation than they were in before. Their concern about localism will only be intensified. But with the results of this election, there may be some reflection on the role that the central government’s liaison office plays in politics, whether it is being as effective as it could be. A potential danger that I see is that Beijing is so frustrated with the electoral results and the culture to protest that it tightens up on the political freedoms that allow people to demonstrate, protest, and speak out in the first place. There is, finally, a more cynical interpretation about how Beijing might view the results of the election. One might ask the question, “Might leaders in Beijing see it in their interest that there be a certain amount of turmoil in Hong Kong because that justifies certain kinds of policies?” A stable Hong Kong is not good for people in Beijing who worry about public security. Their view has always been that the more democracy Hong Kong has, the more likely that there will be people who come to power and use Hong Kong as a base to destabilize the mainland. There may be people in Beijing who are actually happy that localism is strengthening in Hong Kong, and independence is rearing its head, because it justifies greater power for themselves.

What should we expect from the new democratic or localist representatives following the election? Might there be gridlock in the Legislative Council afterwards or from now on?

There already was a fair amount of gridlock in the Legislative Council. It depends of course on what issues are being debated because the democratic camp has increased its support somewhat and this increase has come from the localist camp. I expect that obstructionism will be more frequent. As I mentioned before, one effect of the election has been to further divide the democratic camp, which I am not sure is good for the cause. You have a situation where not only is there mistrust between Beijing and the pro-democracy camp, but there is already also a good bit of mistrust within the democratic camp – broadly defined. I hope I am wrong on this, but I expect that the political situation will become more complicated.

Do you expect any more change on any issues or any progress at all? Or do you hold a more pessimistic perspective?

The key here is who is picked to be chief executive in March of next year. That will be a clue of what sort of policy approach Beijing wants to take and which sectors of society it wants to benefit. It could go a couple of different ways, but we’ll have to wait and see, first of all, who runs for selection by the selection committee and who wins.

How deep is the support for the “radical” post-Occupy localists in Hong Kong?

It is not that widespread. We have not had sophisticated polling that would give us a better sense of that, however. Clearly, there is some support for it. I am not sure that it is as broad as the number of seats they have in the legislature. That may be an artifact of the electoral system. What is clear, though, is that over 50 percent, and probably 60 percent, of the people remain committed to the idea of a democratic Hong Kong. More than 50 percent and up to 60 percent are unhappy with the role that Beijing has played and continues to play in Hong Kong. They see democratization as the only way to address the broader set of policy problems that Hong Kong faces. Within that 60 percent, those who have localist sentiment, is only a fraction. Those who actually believe in formal and legal independence constitute probably an even smaller fraction. One could say that the fragmentation of the democratic camp actually makes progress harder rather than easier.

Aaron Yang CMC '17Student Journalist
Image Source: “Tram in Johnston Road, Wan Chai, HK in August 2016” by Marche Lungsom — Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
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