HONG KONG — Since massive protests for freedom, justice and democracy erupted here almost six months ago, China’s puppet chief executive for Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, has been trying to impose “calm” and “order” by way of threats, force, emergency laws, tear gas, water cannon, bullets and more than 5,000 arrests. Call it the Communist China method. It hasn’t worked for her.
On Sunday, Hong Kong’s people succeeded quite adeptly in doing what Carrie Lam could not. They imposed calm and order on themselves, for the reason that they actually had a chance to vote, in very local elections, held once every four years. The posts directly up for grabs were relatively trivial. China has stolen from Hong Kongers the promised power to elect their own chief executive and full legislature. So, for any real voice at the ballot box, Hong Kongers have had to make do with elections to the relatively toothless district councils. These councils deal chiefly with such matters as traffic flows and trash collection. But at least these are elections in which popular will can translate directly into results at the ballot box — ergo, finally a systematic way to send a message without having to resort to protests in the streets.
And hey, presto! When voting day rolled around, the protests halted. In a pervasive display of public choice — clearly deliberate — calm and order prevailed, while almost three million people lined up peacefully at polling stations, many waiting patiently for hours, to cast their votes.
It turned into a pro-democracy landslide. In a city of some 7.5 million, a record-breaking 2.94 million people turned out to vote — amounting to more than 70% of a record-breaking 4.1 million registered voters. Hong Kong has 18 District Councils, all of which were controlled by pro-government figures prior to this election. On Sunday, that switched radically. Voters gave Hong Kong’s pro-democracy contingent control over 17 of the 18 District Councils.
This was a show of support for Hong Kong’s democracy movement so clear, so big, so indisputable, that even China’s propaganda organs were briefly flummoxed — reporting on the election, but without including the results.
Here, if I might intrude with a personal note, I will add that for 33 years I have been following this saga — going back to British colonial days when I worked in Hong Kong as editorial-page editor of what was then the print edition of The Asian Wall Street Journal (in which we argued the case over and over for Hong Kong’s right to elect its own chief executive and full legislature). I have always had great respect for Hong Kong’s people — for their grit, their astounding ability to get almost anything done when they set their minds to it, and their creativity and frequent dash of humor in finding ways to do so.
Never, in all that time, have I had more respect for Hong Kong’s people than I did this past Sunday, as they turned out in record numbers to vote. On the surface, it was mainly a lovely autumn weekend, with a breeze off the harbor, sparse traffic, lots of election banners and many campaigners handing out pamphlets to people strolling the streets.
But underneath, there was nothing ordinary or trivial going on. This is a free society, fighting for its soul, under terrible threat from Beijing, where Xi Jinping’s rising techno-totalitarian sequel to communism leaves ever less room for dissent. Under China’s flag, even in officially semi-autonomous Hong Kong, any bid for freedom carries risks. We should assume that applies not only to protesting in the streets, or running for even the most modest office on a pro-democracy platform, but also to simply showing your face at a polling station (if Beijing doesn’t like the results).
If anyone in authority in either Beijing or its puppet administration in Hong Kong genuinely wants to know how to resolve Hong Kong’s protests peacefully, there it was, on display this past Sunday to the entire world. This needs no “dialogue platform,” as Lam has styled her farcical attempts at occasional interaction with the Hong Kong public. With Sunday’s vote, Hong Kong’s people have sent a message so clear that even the most robotically obtuse idiots in Beijing’s upper chains of command, or Hong Kong’s Government House, should find it easy to decipher.
Hong Kong’s people deeply desire democracy. The power to elect their own leaders is probably the only chance they have of any systematic protection from China’s predations. They want the full 50 years of a “high degree of autonomy” that China promised them under terms of the handover from British rule in 1997. They want China to honor its treaty promises of respecting their accustomed rights and freedoms, and independent rule of law.
With Sunday’s vote, Hong Kong’s people were sending a message to each other, to Beijing, and to the world. We’re watching a free society trying everything in its power to fend off the chokehold of a tyranny that increasingly threatens us all — but Hong Kong first and foremost. Hong Kongers, in their incredible campaign of defiance, have seized on what are basically local elections for posts just a cut above dog-catcher, and transformed the votes into a mighty call for freedom. In any way we can, we should answer.