Over recent years I have watched the movement for democracy in Hong Kong unfold with a mixture of awe and concern.
Since meeting courageous young activists like Joshua Wong, who has been in prison three times and was disqualified from contesting last week’s local elections, and Nathan Law, the youngest elected legislator who was disqualified from his seat for quoting Mahatma Gandhi and then jailed, or Anson Chan, former head of the civil service and a pillar of the establishment who turned into a feisty champion of democracy, I have watched the inspiring scenes of peaceful protest, and seen how they were met with daily police brutality. It was clear that when a small number of protesters turned to violence, it was in desperation in the face of shocking police repression and a government that refused to listen. The scenes of teargas, pepper spray, beatings, rubber bullets and occasionally live ammunition on our television screens, and reports of torture in detention centres off-screen, should awaken the conscience of the world.
So it was with that background that I watched Hong Kong’s district council elections on 24 November with amazement.
In most democracies, local elections rarely generate high turnouts. In Britain it is unusual to be much above 30 per cent. Yet in Hong Kong ten days ago 71.2 per cent of voters cast their ballots in the largest democratic exercise in its history for representatives whose actual powers amount to responsibility for pavements, bins, drains and traffic.
They elected to those council seats an unprecedented swathe of pro-democracy candidates, leaving only one council controlled by the pro-Beijing camp. Previously, all 18 district councils were Beijing-controlled.
The pro-democracy camp won 388 out of 452 seats, while the pro-Beijing camp won just 59 seats, with the remaining five seats being of uncertain political persuasion.
An international, independent election observation mission consisting of 19 parliamentarians and experts from around the world, including my friend Lord Alton, went at the invitation of local civil society – not the government – to monitor the local elections. They found that, while there were some irregularities and infringements, it was a free and fair election. That civil society was anxious enough to organise an international election monitoring visit speaks volumes. Next year’s elections for the Legislative Council, which will be even more significant, will require even closer monitoring.
The people spoke clearly, and the pro-Beijing camp was routed. That says something about the power of the ballot over the bullet, and the desires of the people of Hong Kong for the universal values of freedom and democracy. It says that when given the chance to express their views peacefully, Hong Kong people are ready and willing to do so.
The challenge now is where do we go from here? That is a question for at least four audiences: the Hong Kong government, the regime in Beijing, the people of Hong Kong and the international community.
The Hong Kong government must wake up to the fact that unless they listen to the will of the people, Hong Kong as we know it is dead. To ignore such an overwhelming expression of public opinion would destroy whatever fragments may be left of “one country, two systems”, the principle upon which Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. That means immediately embarking on a widespread process of dialogue and reform leading to universal suffrage at all levels of government. For if there was one thing that the district council elections said, it was that Hong Kongers want to vote. The newly elected district councillors could be among the government’s first interlocutors for dialogue.
But it would be a mistake to think this means Hong Kong already has democracy. It doesn’t. Only local elections are run by first-past-the-post universal suffrage. The Legislative Council – Hong Kong’s parliament – is only half directly elected by the people. The other half is elected through so-called “functional” constituencies drawn mainly from the professions, who are mostly pro-Beijing. The result is a chamber stacked with tycoons and Communist agents out of tune with ordinary people. Hong Kongers feel they have no stake in the system.
Even worse is the process for election of Chief Executive, who is in effect the city’s Mayor. They are chosen by a 1,200-member electoral college elected by functional constituencies, of which at least 900 are controlled by Beijing. In other words, Beijing chooses its man or woman for the job, it is rubber-stamped by a sham vote, and the people have no say whatsoever.
If Hong Kong is to pull back from the brink, it must set out a timetable for democratic reform. To restore trust in government, people must have a stake in government. That means one person, one vote, every few years, at every level of government.
Beijing must wake up to the fact that democracy is not a threat but a safety valve. If it wants stability in Hong Kong, it has to address the people’s grievances. If it wants protesters to stop, it has to allow them a voice in politics. Yet over the past five years, pro-democracy legislators and candidates have been disqualified, jailed, and in the local elections physically assaulted. A stable society cannot function in this way. It is no wonder people have taken to the streets, because they had nowhere else to go.
To the people of Hong Kong, I say this: your courage, determination and dignity in these increasingly harsh times inspires me. You have shown that when given the chance, you prefer peaceful protest and a legitimate ballot to chaos and violence.
But now comes your next test. If your interlocutors are willing to initiate a dialogue and reform process, they not unreasonably might ask with whom do we talk? So the movement must unite, put differences aside, and choose a coalition of representatives – young and old, wise and idealistic – to begin those talks. Only then is there a chance of progress.
For the international community, and especially Britain, it is clear: Hong Kong is the new frontline in the struggle for freedom.
A vibrant, open, global financial centre now stands on the precipice of collapse, but it can be helped back from the brink if the world unites with one voice to defend the international rules-based system that itself is endangered by China’s aggression.
There is a myth that if we want to trade with China we must accept its behaviour. I do not buy that myth.
For a start, China’s economy is more fragile than the Chinese government would like us to think and less helpful to us than we might believe. Moreover, in certain sectors – particularly in the field of 5G telecommunications – it is a serious security and reputational threat.
It is possible to speak out for human rights and democracy and still trade where trade is desirable – because China, ultimately, is pragmatic and will sell us goods and services we wish to buy and buy those which we wish to sell. But at all costs the one thing we must not sell is our values – we must stand by them and defend them, and defend those in Hong Kong who are fighting for them on the frontlines.