In the months leading up to Hong Kong’s local elections this past weekend, pro-Beijing politicians expressed confidence. The elections — usually sleepy contests to elect representatives who deal with trash pickup and wild boar population control — transformed into a hotly contested referendum on the Hong Kong protest movement, which has disrupted the semi-autonomous territory’s social and economic order this year.
The pro-government faction claimed that Hong Kong’s so-called “silent majority” of older voters would show up and vote to restore mainland China’s supremacy in the region, which has been controlled by China since the handover from British rule in 1997. They argued that the youth-led protest movement doesn’t actually represent the people’s will in Hong Kong, even though the demonstrations brought millions of people into the streets to denounce Chinese authoritarianism.
They were wrong. The turnout in Sunday’s elections surged to a never-before-seen 71%, and a slate of pro-democracy candidates trounced their Beijing-supporting opponents. They took control of 17 of 18 districts, and won 389 of the 452 district council seats that were up for grabs. Young candidates explicitly used their participation in protests as a frame for their campaigns — according to The Washington Post, some campaigns used images of candidates wearing all-black clothes, respirators, and goggles, the unofficial uniform of the pro-democracy movement. Upset victories included a 25-year-old who defeated the vice chairman of the largest pro-Beijing party.
This doesn’t mean that the protesters have suddenly seized control of the territory’s government. Hong Kong’s chief executive — currently the pro-Beijing Carrie Lam — is not democratically elected, but rather appointed by a committee of 1,200 members, and most of those committee members are appointed by the mainland government. Still, 117 of those members will come from the pro-democracy bloc, giving them a much larger voice than before, even if their actual voting power is limited.
Lam’s successor will be appointed in 2022. But until then, after her party’s steep losses over the weekend, Lam said that she would keep an “open mind” going forward. The protest movement, which initially was in response to a bill that would allow extradition to the Chinese mainland, has expanded its demands to include an investigation of police brutality and free elections in Hong Kong. Behind all of this lies the awareness that Hong Kong is subject to the whims of an increasingly brutal China.
“It is a protest vote against an authoritarian government,” said a protester speaking to The Atlantic about his vote. “We cannot tolerate this government’s policies anymore.”
The youth protest movement has made a concerted effort to wage an information war, using memes and digital activism to raise the visibility of their plight to Western audiences. Most famously, Winnie the Pooh has been banned from the Chinese internet after images of the cartoon were to mock Chinese President Xi Jinping. Incidents like the uproar over Houston Rockets owner Daryl Morey’s tweet and a professional gamer being banned by a video game company for supporting Hong Kong have only cemented the movement’s sympathetic status in America.
The massive increase in voter turnout in Hong Kong’s elections underscores the stakes. While the incumbent government in Hong Kong has tried to make the election about safety and order, voters clearly have something far more important in mind: their lives. “If we lose, Hong Kong will become Xinjiang,” a pro-democracy protester told the Hong Kong Free Press.
It’s a stark quote. Over the past several years, China has ramped up its repressive tactics against both sovereign territories like Hong Kong and regional ethnic minorities, including the Uighur Muslim minority population in Xinjiang, located in the far reaches of Western China. Leaked documents published over the past month by The New York Times and the International Coalition of Investigative Journalists have revealed the horrific abuses committed against the Uighurs. In the early part of this decade, Uighur separatists carried out terrorist attacks; in response, Xi ordered the government to build so-called “vocational skills training centers” for mass “re-education” of Uighurs. These are essentially concentration camps, in which hundreds of thousands — potentially even millions — of Xinjiang residents have been not-so-secretly detained, cut off from their families, fed a constant diet of propaganda, and, reportedly, tortured.
People in Hong Kong have good reason to fear that a similar fate could befall them. A recent investigation by Quartz explored how the Chinese government has used similar language in talk about Xinjiang and the protest movement. The leaked documents described Uighurs as “infected” by the “virus” of Islamic radicalism, and they referred to “unhealthy thoughts,” which can only be eradicated through forcible “re-education.” This same disturbing rhetoric has appeared in statements made about Hong Kong protesters: Last Thursday, the Hong Kong police representative John Tse gave a press conference where he attacked protesters for occupying universities. “This alarming trend,” he said, “has spread like cancer cells to other universities in Hong Kong.” The police have also repeatedly referred to demonstrators as “cockroaches,” which echoes a long, dark history of authoritarians describing oppressed minorities as unsanitary or less than human.
In graffiti across the city, protesters have made the parallel clear. "Today [Xinjiang], tomorrow Hong Kong, we have no path of retreat," wrote one message scrawled on a wall. “China will pay for its crimes against Uighur Muslims,” read another.
The protest movement’s all-consuming dedication to democracy, and the stakes underlying that belief, cannot be questioned. What’s far less clear is how China will react to its losses in the local elections. So far, its play has been to blame losses on thin claims of Western interference. “China will respond tit-for-tat and resolutely counter any move by the U.S. that undermines China’s interests, and will never let them act willfully on Hong Kong affairs,” read an editorial in the state media outlet Xinhua News Agency. The U.S. House and Senate voted last week in support of the protesters, but there is no evidence that the protest movement is anything other than a legitimate homegrown effort.
Beijing hoped that these elections would be a show of support for its continued dominance in Hong Kong. Clearly, that’s not the case. This leaves Xi with two choices: He can ease up and consider granting some of the protesters’ demands, or he can intensify the crackdown and likely further alienate the people of Hong Kong. If his course of action in Xinjiang is any indication, dark times in Hong Kong may be ahead.