The day Hong Kong’s true “silent majority” spoke

The landslide election victory for pro-democracy parties was a profound rebuke to those who dismissed the protesters. 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Hong Kong had never seen a protest like 16 June, when as many as two million citizens took to the streets to protest Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s attempt to push through an extradition bill that would allow accused criminals in Hong Kong to stand trial in China. The historic gathering drew an unprecedented one-quarter of the city’s population. 

But in a city of over seven million, even that is still, technically, a minority. During the past five months of unrest that have roiled Hong Kong, its leaders and others with pro-government sympathies have consistently invoked a so-called “silent majority”: the overwhelming mass of patriotic Hong Kong people who stand with their beleaguered government and vehemently oppose the protests, but are too industrious and obedient to make their voices heard. As long as she believed in this group’s existence, Lam could dismiss the protesters as a radical, isolated fringe, and reject opinion polls that suggested her popularity had plummeted to lower than 20 per cent. 

Sunday’s landslide victory for pro-democracy parties showed once and for all that the “silent majority” is a myth, and that behind the frontline protesters she calls “rioters” stand the majority of voters who share their vision for a fully democratic Hong Kong and a more accountable police force, and who, whether or not they take to the streets, will not stay silent. 

Even before the polls opened on Monday, it was already clear that this would be a historic election. It was the first time that all 452 district council seats had been contested, and in the preceding months some 400,000 new voters were registered. As dawn broke, lines of voters stretched around city blocks, augering a record turnout of over 71 per cent. But the results were the real surprise. 

More than 80 per cent of seats fell to the democratic camp, which gained control of 17 of the 18 district councils (the only exception remained in pro-government hands, despite democrats winning the popular vote, due to unelected “ex officio” members). China’s state media was at a loss for words. When state broadcaster Xinhua finally reported the election it made no mention of the results and simply alluded to unsubstantiated accusations of interference and the perennial fallback of “foreign meddling”. Its response – or lack thereof – suggested a complete failure by Beijing to anticipate this outcome, having been fed for months on reports by the same functionaries responsible for public opinion work and eager to show the success of their work. 

It’s a dynamic sadly familiar to students of Chinese history, reminiscent of the Mao-era Great Leap Forward when officials more concerned with their own jobs than others’ lives sent glowing reports of bumper harvests and “Sputnik fields” to the capital while famines killed millions. If holding on to power means letting go of reality, then so be it.

For protesters, the next move is uncertain. Although they have been delighted by the bloody nose inflicted on the pro-Beijing parties, they are mindful that this isn’t the endgame but just one small but significant victory on the long road to democracy. While some press for an immediate continuation of protests, others suggest first giving the government an ultimatum. In either case, they refuse to simply move on when thousands have been arrested and the siege of the Polytechnic University has still not been lifted. 

District councillors, of course, are not lawmakers. They do not have the power to realise protesters’ “five demands”, including an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, an amnesty for arrested comrades and a directly elected government. That’s not to say they’re powerless: councillors can have a direct impact on the lives of their constituents and they send 117 of their own to the 1,200-member committee that selects the chief executive, giving pan-democrats a greater say within a political system weighed against them. 

But the greatest victory achieved by pro-democracy voters was symbolic. They have shown not only Lam but people around the world how deeply they value representative government and how united they are in their core demands. It could also provide a way out for the government, offering grounds for the administration to accede to some of the protesters’ demands without having to face accusations from Beijing of giving in to violent “rioters”. 

For an administration as determined as Lam’s not to lead, this might be asking too much. But while the government may continue to act against protesters, it can no longer do so in the name of the “silent majority”.

The majority spoke with one voice on Sunday and the whole world sat up to hear them. Will Carrie Lam at last do the same?

Ryan Ho Kilpatrick is a freelance writer and archaeologist born and based in Hong Kong.