Hong Kong's young activists run for office

With names like Demosisto and Youngspiration, which sound more like cellphone apps than political parties, the young activists who two years ago brought Hong Kong’s traffic to a standstill for 79 days with huge demonstrations, are running for office.

'Umbrella movement' protesters hope to get foothold in Legislative Council elections Sunday

Pro-democracy protesters who shut down Hong Kong streets during a 79-day protest in 2014 are among the candidates running in Sunday's Legislative Council election. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

With names like Demosisto and Youngspiration — which sound more like cellphone apps than political parties — the young activists who two years ago brought Hong Kong's traffic to a standstill for 79 days with huge demonstrations, are running for office.

In the slang of Hong Kong's four-yearly Legislative Council election coming up this Sunday, they're known as "paratroops."

Umbrellas were the symbol of the student-led protest, and have now become the emblem of a the 'paratroops,' a cohort of young candidates from small political parties who hope to form an opposition to Hong Kong's current pro-Beijing administration. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

It's a charming image of young candidates floating down, Mary-Poppins-like, towards the polls using the umbrellas that were the symbol of the student-led movement that pushed, unsuccessfully, for more democracy in 2014.

Six of the "paratroops" have already been brought down to earth by a sudden change last month in the rules for candidates.

Administrative tricks 

Election officials ruled that candidates who have advocated — or even discussed — independence for the former British colony, could not meet the new requirement of an oath of loyalty to Hong Kong as an inalienable part of China.

Even without administrative tricks like this, Hong Kong's electoral system is overwhelmingly slanted in favour of the status quo.

After ruling Hong Kong as a colony for almost 150 years, Britain created the Legislative Council on the eve of the handover to China in 1997.

Only half of the 70 seats are directly elected in geographical constituencies. The others, known as "functional constituencies," are chosen by much smaller groups — such as business associations — that are packed with administration supporters.

The system was expressly designed to make sure that voters could not overturn the administration, headed under Britain by a governor appointed in London, and under China by a chief executive answerable to Beijing.

Grudging, limited and incomplete though Britain's introduction of a measure of democracy was, the Legislative Council election nevertheless provides a space for opposition, which the "paratroops" are now trying to access.

With 213 candidates running in the 35 geographical constituencies, it's a crowded and argumentative space.

The umbrella revolution

Two years ago, the umbrella movement won widespread support with a simple and coherent demand that China live up to the promises it made before the handover, by allowing Hong Kong voters to choose their own chief executive in free elections next year.

Stonewalled by Beijing and current Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, the protests eventually ran out of steam as people grew tired of the disruptions, and student leaders settled for talks that have been predictably inconclusive.

Protesters held umbrellas as they faced policemen at the Mongkok shopping district of Hong Kong during protests in 2014. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

One consequence of the movement's failure to bring about any change is that many activists — having concluded that China will never allow real democracy — have begun talking more about other options, including independence.

The notion of an independent Hong Kong, confined to a tiny lunatic fringe only a couple of years ago, has ironically gained at least some traction because of Beijing's fear of any alternative voices.

China promised that Hong Kong's way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years after the handover. Only 19 years on, "localist" opposition to gradual "mainlandization" is Hong Kong's most potent political issue.

Too much of a good thing?

The armies of tourists and traders buying up goods — scarce across the border — are disparaged as "locusts," even though they are good for the economy.

Interference with an investigation of Leung's business dealings has raised fears about the integrity of the Independent Commission against Corruption (ICAC), a critical institution vital to Hong Kong's stature as a world financial centre. Leung was accused of failing to disclose a payment of more than $8 million (fyi HKD50m = CAD$8.5m) made to him by his former company after he became chief executive. However, a senior ICAC officer was removed from her post during her investigation of Leung. 

The promotion of China's official language, Putonghua, or Mandarin, at the expense of the local language, Cantonese, and plans to change the school curriculum in both language and history, are deeply resented.

There's a feeling that Beijing is breaking the promise of "Hong Kong people running Hong Kong," but the opposition parties are too numerous and fragmented to take effective advantage of this powerful issue.

Beijing's visceral reaction to any mention of independence anywhere in China is leading to a witch-hunt against candidates who are seeking only the autonomy that Beijing itself promised.

Hair-splitting arguments and debate among activist candidates have not helped the prospects of electing a significant number of opposition legislators on Sunday.

Old guard holds strong

On the outgoing council, the more traditional older generation of democracy-minded councillors have managed to block Beijing's efforts to tinker with the rules for next year's chief executive election.

The umbrella protests two years ago were sparked off by its plan to allow a free vote, but restrict contenders to those hand-picked by Beijing.

Although the current system is equally undemocratic, the democracy camp preferred to retain it rather than acquiesce to the new one.

Pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan gives a thumbs-down beside Emily Lau, chairperson of Democratic Party, during voting at Legislative Council in Hong Kong last year. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

They were able to do so by holding enough seats to deny the two-thirds majority needed for constitutional change.

The most significant question of Sunday's Legislative Council election is whether the administration can win enough seats to get that two-thirds majority.

If it does, then Beijing can not only proceed as it wants in Hong Kong — which it will do anyway — but it will also be able to claim that it does so with the support of a democratically elected council.

The other interesting question is whether any of the "paratroops" can get elected. They may not be able to change much, but they would spice up council debates for the next four years.


Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts