Hong Kong Election Landslide Will Energize Anti-China Protests, Pro-Democracy Leader Says: 'We Are Still Very Eager'

Anti-government activists in Hong Kong are celebrating after securing a landslide in the territory's local elections, increasing the share of pro-democracy local councilors by more than 200 percent and seizing control of 17 out of 18 local councils.

Elections for Hong Kong's local councils have traditionally not been of great significance. But this year's poll served as a referendum on the pro-China government led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the encroaching authority of the Chinese Communist Party in Beijing.

Energized by almost six months of mass protests against the government, more than 71 percent of eligible voters—2.94 million people—headed to the polls this weekend, up from 47 percent the last time councilors were chosen in 2015.

Shaken, Lam has already said she will "seriously reflect" on the results, which present a damning verdict on her government's handling of the protests.

The movement—sparked by a proposed extradition bill that would have allowed fugitives to be sent from Hong Kong to face trial in China—has evolved into a broad anti-Beijing campaign, seeking to establish universal suffrage in the former British colony.

The protests have become steadily more violent as activists try to match the aggressive tactics of police, but recent weeks have seen the situation deteriorate even further with several people seriously injured or killed.

Indeed, even as Hong Kongers went to the polls some students were still trapped inside Hong Kong's Polytechnic University, which earlier this month was besieged by riot police and became a battleground chocked with acrid smoke and tear gas.

Such was the unrest that the government was reportedly considering postponing or even canceling the local council vote. But now, as Hong Kongers digest the election results, pro-democracy lawmakers and activists are enjoying a rare—and potentially seismic—victory.

Legislative Council member Alvin Yeung, who leads the pro-democracy Civic Party and its other four council members, told Newsweek he felt "half-dead" after a whirlwind two days, in which his party increased its number of local councils from 12 to 32.

"The victory doesn't belong to any individual political party or individual candidate," Yeung explained. He suggested the "historical" result represented the anger and frustration of Hong Kong people, who for months have faced police brutality and misgovernance.

"This government cannot turn a blind eye to this unambiguous result," Yeung added. "This de facto referendum equals the strongest voice from Hong Kong people—it's loud and clear."

The Chinese establishment has been trying to depict protesters as extremists and "rioters," who no longer have the support of the general public because of the destruction and disruption they have brought onto the streets.

But the weekend's election result shows that Hong Kongers, even those who might be scared or frustrated by activists' more confrontational actions, still yearn for self-determination.

"It's quite clear that no matter how much inconvenience is caused to most of the people around Hong Kong, the people still embrace—or at least tolerate—what's happening," Yeung said, recalling many conversations with voters.

"They understand what's going on," he added. "They understand why these young men and women had to sacrifice themselves. We're not talking about simply getting injured, but some of them losing their lives...We owe those young people a great deal."

The results make Lam's difficult position even more precarious. She has become a despised symbol of Chinese influence over Hong Kong, and so toxic that recent reports suggested Beijing might replace her with another chief executive before her term ends in 2022.

"To resolve the political crisis, you have to resolve it politically," Yeung said, calling on Lam to "stop beating around the bush."

The one significant concession Lam has made—fully withdrawing the extradition bill— was dismissed as too little too late, offered when the protests had already developed into a far broader movement. Faced with a resounding electoral defeat, Lam and her backers in Beijing appear to have lost control of Hong Kong's story.

"Actions speak louder than words, and so Carrie Lam has no excuse not to act positively or react soon to the election results," Yeung argued. Failure to do so would be "a reflection of self-denial" for both Lam and her allies in Beijing, he added.

Pro-democracy activists have also been celebrating the results. Joshua Wong—who came to prominence during the 2014 Umbrella Movement and was the only candidate banned from running in the local elections—posted his reaction on Twitter.

"Every way you look at it, this is historic," he wrote. "As our city plummets from being semi-autonomous to semi-authoritarian, we react by showing what's DEMOCRACY IN ACTION."

The U.S.-based Hong Kong Democracy Council, meanwhile, said in a statement that the results show that "if you abandon Hong Kongers and our struggle for democracy, we will abandon you in the ballot box."

The 2019 Hong Kong protests have been remarkable in their tenacity, and look set to continue through to the new year.

Yeung told Newsweek that despite months of disruption, clashes with police, condemnation from the government and mainland, and mass arrests, the election shows that Hong Kongers "are still very eager to continue this movement."

Hong Kong, elections, pro-democracy, Alvin Yeung, Lam
A pro-democracy supporter opens a bottle of champagne outside a polling station to celebrate after as district council election results are announced in Tuen Mun, Hong Kong, early on November 25, 2019. PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images/Getty

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