Carmen Lau expected the taste of victory to be sweeter.
At the age of 24, she had never stood for office before the district council elections in Hong Kong on Sunday. She had reason to think she would win as a pro-democracy candidate in the midst of a pro-democracy movement. And she had reason to celebrate Monday, with pro-democracy candidates staging an electoral rout, winning 389 of 452 seats – up from just 124 – and taking command of 17 of 18 district councils.
It was a landslide win fuelled by an unprecedented 71-per-cent turnout that replaced coteries of Beijing loyalists with fresh-faced political neophytes – and prompted at least one person to crack open a bottle of bubbly on the streets.
But “I’m not as excited as I thought,” Ms. Lau said on Monday evening.
She listed issues that remain unresolved: demands from demonstrators that Hong Kong’s leadership has dismissed; protesters still inside a university, with police maintaining a siege at the exits; a city where large numbers of people have sought greater democratic freedoms that Beijing has been loath to grant.
The election is “not the end,” said Ms. Lau, the legislative assistant for pro-democracy lawmaker Jeremy Tam, who won in Wang Tau Hom district. What’s more important, she added, is to “continue our protests and continuously raise the social concerns of the whole movement.”
The vote brought a self-effacing response from Carrie Lam, the Beijing-backed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, who acknowledged that “quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society.” The city’s government “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect,” she said in a statement.
Authorities in China adopted a less amenable posture. “No matter what happens, Hong Kong is a part of China and a special administrative region of China,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Monday. “Any attempt to mess up Hong Kong, or even damage its prosperity and stability, will not succeed.”
Some Chinese state-run media described the election without mentioning the results, with Xinhua reporting only that “452 seats of 18 electoral districts have all been decided.
“On the election day, some rioters harassed patriotic candidates,” the news agency reported. “The most pressing task for Hong Kong at present is still to bring the violence and chaos to an end and restore order.”
If the weekend vote held little prospect of an immediate solution to the unrest, it at least suggested a longer-lasting change to the city’s bedrock of political power.
Voters ushered into local council seats an entire new generation of politicians – people such as Ms. Lau, who are now entitled to offices, budgets and public platforms. Winners of the weekend elections also included Jimmy Sham, Roy Kwong, Tommy Cheung, Lester Shum and Kelvin Lam – all prominent figures in the pro-democracy and protest movement.
“It’s really a game-changer. I think at this point our movement is so much more empowered,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a historian and chief researcher for Demosisto, a youth activist group in the city.
If anything, the election suggests that public demands for change in Hong Kong have only strengthened, with large numbers of voters refusing to condemn the violent radicals who have frequently set fire to streets, destroyed subway stations and attacked Chinese-linked businesses and banks.
“We have tried basically every possible method to tell the government what we actually want,” said William Li, 28, who won in the Laguna City district. “We’ve tried going out onto the street peacefully. Some have tried to have an escalation in actions. But the government doesn’t seem to be listening.”
His own election victory suggested the strength of the protest vote. His opponent, Tang Wing-chun, was a 12-year incumbent with a history of supporting previous chief executive Leung Chun-ying, whom critics have accused of being loyal to Beijing.
Mr. Li faulted pro-establishment councillors for “most of the time supporting government reforms or supporting government projects,” some of them “with outrageous budgets.”
“With nearly three million people voting, it shows that people in Hong Kong want more democracy, not less,” said Lord David Alton, a member of Britain’s House of Lords who came to Hong Kong as part of an informal electoral-observation group. "There’s a real thumbs-up that has just been given to democracy, the rule of law, free speech – the values that Hong Kong has embraced over many decades and does not wish to see surrendered or disappear.”
For Ms. Lau, meanwhile, her new political position offers a platform to further build public support for the demands she and others have made of the city’s leadership.
“Serving society as a district councillor,” she said, “is the first step toward introducing some of our ideology to residents in local society.”
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