What happened? The post-Occupy effect evaporated, and the sympathy vote did not materialize. Hong Kong’s democracy activists had been expecting they would do well in the special by-election on March 11, and so did everyone else. The election was held to replace four legislators who were disqualified (DQ) and removed from the Legislative Council (LegCo) after winning their seats in the September 2016 election.

The by-election was billed by all as a referendum on the disqualifications: whether for or against. Pro-Beijing and pro-Hong Kong establishment partisans were all in favor of the disqualifications and thought they were well deserved. Democrats, including both older generation moderates and latter-day activists, were uniformly against.

The four legislators were removed by court order, retroactively and selectively, due to the pro-democracy embellishments they had added to their oaths-of-office during the October 2016 swearing-in ceremony. But the way the disqualifications were imposed … by Hong Kong government and judicial authorities acting on Beijing’s initiative … was widely seen as being if not unjust then at least unfair and alien to Hong Kong’s common law legal tradition. Democrats saw it as another Beijing imposition that was violating Beijing’s original pre-1997 promises about Hong Kong autonomy, judicial independence, universal suffrage elections, and freedom of political expression.

Yet not only did pro-democracy candidates fail to win back all four seats. They won only two of the four, and their usually reliable voting public did not even turn out in sufficient numbers to sustain the 60:40 ratio advantage, or thereabouts, they typically enjoy when in direct competition with their pro-Beijing pro-establishment opponents. That has been the pattern especially when proportional representation, mandated for regular LegCo elections, does not impact vote totals. With only one seat being contested in each constituency, votes were counted on a simple first-past-the-post basis.


The question is why the lackluster result for the democratic camp after it had been consistently doing “better than expected” in the wake of Hong Kong’s big 2014 political protest street blockades. Activists then, in 2014, hoped the Occupy Movement … launched to protest Beijing’s restrictive decision about electoral reform … would have a democratic consciousness-raising effect on the general public.

As for Hong Kong’s contemporary democracy movement itself, those ideas about universal suffrage elections date back to its inception in the 1980s. Despite some initial post-2014 doubts, the hopes were not ill-founded. In every electoral contest since then, candidates who expressed the defiant Occupy resistance spirit most forcefully always did “better than expected” (March 14, 2018 post).

Hence short of a serious opinion poll asking the no-shows why they didn’t vote on March 11, which no one seems to be conducting, the best that can be done in trying to answer the question is search the available evidence for plausible reasons.

The inescapable preliminary conclusion is that voters were not as angry as the principals … pro-democracy post-Occupy activists … over the political removals project initiated by Beijing. Or if voters were as angry, they didn’t consider the ballot box to be a good way of expressing it. Or maybe the memory had already faded, although it’s hard to see how that could happen given the climate of constant protest for and against the disqualifications.

But for whatever reason, the sequence … leading from popular anger over Beijing’s growing political intrusions, to the 2014 Occupy resistance movement, and the continuing post-Occupy spirit of defiance … has been broken. Reflecting that break, the authorities, in Beijing and Hong Kong, are congratulating themselves on a job well done. They see the election results as popular ballot-box vindication, proof that the official slow-motion post-Occupy payback strategy is finally working in their favor. Whether the back of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy resistance movement has finally been broken is another matter.

To re-cap the official strategy, counting the potential candidates who were eliminated before the September 2016 Legislative Council election and the three who similarly didn’t make it to the starting line before the March by-election, there have been nine disqualified candidates and six disqualified legislators. All are among those who articulate the Occupy spirit of defiance most forcefully.

The potential candidates were eliminated for advocating various degrees of what Beijing denounces as “separatism,” known here by various names that gained attention in the post-Occupy atmosphere: independence, self-determination, genuine autonomy, localism, and all such advocacies. These derive in turn from the conclusion that since Beijing is not honoring its pre-1997 promises made to Hong Kong about autonomy, universal suffrage elections, judicial independence, and all the rest, Hong Kong should strive to go its own way to the greatest extent possible.

The six newly-elected Legislative Councilors were disqualified for expressing such sentiments during the October 2016 swearing-in ceremony. Beijing subsequently issued a strict new Interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking, which was widely publicized and condemned.

By official count, 15 legislators were actually at fault during the 2016 swearing-in ceremony (Nov. 14, 2016 post).   But only six were singled out for prosecution, presumably to teach the others a lesson. Hong Kong’s judiciary ruled in favor of Beijing’s new oath-taking standards, albeit without explaining to the public how those rules could be applied retroactively when Hong Kong’s common law principles do not generally allow retroactive judgements, and when Beijing’s relevant rulings did not stipulate retroactive enforcement (Sept. 6, 2017 post).   Reasons for the selective targeting of only six when 15 were allegedly at fault has also not been adequately explained (July 20, 2017 post).

The special March 11 by-election was held to fill four of the six empty seats. Judicial appeals are pending for the other two. Voters, in any case, could hardly claim to be unaware of the issues at stake since all of these disqualifications have been widely publicized in the wake of the Occupy Movement, which was itself the culmination of a decade-long public debate over Beijing’s pre-1997 promises about universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council.


Democrats had initially advertised their aim of recapturing all four seats. The loss of one of those seats was nevertheless preordained by the special circumstances of the Functional Constituency (architects and surveyors) at stake. Those circumstances entailed the selective nature of the disqualification procedure, and the likely reason for targeting the incumbent of that particular seat for his oath-taking indiscretions, when others not prosecuted were just as remiss (March 14 post).

Campaign strategists could have minimized the political impact of losing this seat by publicly explaining those circumstances but failed to do so beforehand, nor have they done so since. Presumably, that lapse derived from a desire to maintain the fiction that their substitute candidate, Paul Zimmerman, had a fair chance of winning when in fact he did not.

Paul Zimmerman also had a minor problem that pro-Beijing campaigners were sure to exploit, and did, since democrats had just done the same for a new government appointee. Zimmerman had allowed “illegal” renovations to remain at his residence in violation of Hong Kong’s arcane building codes … an awkward indiscretion for an environmentalist and urban designer.

Actually, only one of the remaining three candidates was flawed in the sense of carrying baggage from his past that might at least have been publicly acknowledged with pledges to turn over a new leaf. But except for the usual campaign platitudes, no such candor was forthcoming from Gary Fan Kwok-wai, the candidate in New Territories East.

Democrats had nevertheless vowed to abandon their usual factional infighting and abide by their advance selection procedures. Gary Fan emerged the constituency favorite in those preliminaries and Gary Fan was accepted as the candidate (Jan. 22, 2018 post).  But predictably, he provoked the same sort of factional backlash that derived from his own flawed past.

Gary Fan is well-known in the constituency but has a mixed record. It includes presenting himself one way but behaving in another, a not uncommon trait among professional politicians. In this case, however, New Territories East has in recent years become a stronghold of young dedicated post-Occupy idealists who are not fond of professional politicians. Some among the younger generation found his localist “Hong Kong First” protestations unconvincing and reportedly boycotted the vote.

Nevertheless, they seem not to account for too many lost votes according to post-election calculations. In the 2016 general election, ordinary pan-democrats’ vote share of the total was about 47%. Additionally, 10% was won by localists including Youngspiration’s Baggio Leung, DQ in the oath-taking saga. The by-election was held in NTE to fill his seat.

On March 11, Gary Fan was the sole democratic candidate and received 44.6% of the vote. The pro-Beijing candidate won the second highest share of votes with 37%. Gary Fan: 183,762; Bill Tang: 152,904 (South China Morning Post, March 12, online). But if the loss in Gary Fan’s vote share was caused by localist no-shows, that loss was overshadowed by competition of the opposite kind.

There was a third serious candidate in the race, a perennial in NTE, who has tried and failed several times to win one of its Legislative Council seats. A former member of the pro-business pro-establishment Liberal Party, which has a substantial following in the district, Christine Fong likes to present herself as someone who stands above the noise of pro-democracy pro-Beijing adversarial politics the better to concentrate on livelihood issues.

Since the Liberal Party had no candidate in this race, Fong was able to benefit from their absence and pitched her appeal to all moderate centrists who see Hong Kong elections primarily in a-political local terms. These voters are still unable to appreciate local elections as an arena where the struggle between dictatorship and democracy is being played out.  Fong’s message appealed to 64,905 NTE voters (also, Ming Pao data column, Mar. 23).

Among the three Geographic Constituency candidates, however, Edward Yiu Chung-yim in Kowloon West was the most problematic. This was not  because of any intrinsic baggage he carried with him when he parachuted into the constituency but only because he was such a political outsider there. Although pro-Beijing paparazzi did try to make the most of an “effeminate bald-headed man” they photographed with him (Ta Kung Pao, Mar. 8). Most important, however, was that despite democrats’ best efforts, they could not escape the destructive taint of factionalism.

Ironically, Kowloon West should have been the easiest of the three to recapture, but therein lay the root of the problem. In the last election, in 2016, only two of its six seats went to pro-Beijing candidates. Four were won by pro-democracy women, two of whom were DQ in the oath-taking saga. They are Younspiration’s Yau Wai-ching and Teacher Lau Siu-lai. In 2016 they even managed to defeat old-time radical Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man, who conceded his loss with ill-concealed bad grace. The overall pro-democracy pro-establishment vote ratio in KNW in 2016 was: 63% to 37% (Ming Pao, Mar. 7, 2018).

Edward Yiu lost to his pro-Beijing challenger by 2,000 votes: 105,060 votes for Yiu; 107,479 for Vincent Cheng. It was the first defeat for democrats in a one-on-one match-up since 1997. Recriminations were fast and furious. Despite the best of intentions at the start, everything had gone wrong by the end.

Edward Yiu was actually one of the legislators originally disqualified in the oath-taking saga and democrats were keen to highlight the absurdity of overturning an election because of oath-taking embellishments. Since officials could cite no rule against allowing him to run again as one of the by-election replacement candidates, he transferred from his architects/surveyors Functional Constituency to Kowloon West.

Despite being a complete outsider, he was able to prevail in the January preliminary straw poll, but that had been based on only a few thousand activist voters. Nevertheless, his preliminary success created the impression that he could ride the DQ sympathy wave to victory on March 11. Two weeks passed, however, between his straw poll victory and the government’s last-minute confirmation of his candidacy. During that time, democrats had to decide on a backup plan with no clue as to whether he would be disqualified again, whereupon the factional bugbear reared its destructive head once more.

This was because the number two man on the straw-poll preference list was Frederick Fung Kin-kee, an old-school centrist democrat and veteran grassroots campaigner in the district. He was already under something of a cloud for trying to exploit the by-election opportunity to make one last comeback bid.

At that point, straw poll organizer and candidate coordinator Joseph Cheng Yu-shek explained the rules, again, to Fung and his challengers. Democrats would honor their agreed-upon commitment to Fung and campaign for him as planned. But if the now disenfranchised localists and self-determination activists tried to break free from their prior agreement and run a candidate of their own, the democratic camp would be sure to lose the seat (Hsinpao/HK Economic Journal, Mar. 16, 2018). Whereupon Fung, in a fit of pique, decided maybe it really was time for him to retire. He withdrew from the race, throwing the KNW campaign into a brief period of chaos (Apple, Jan. 22; Ming Pao, Jan 23, 24).

Ultimately, Edward Yiu was cleared to run and parachuted into the district as an unknown novice Functional Constituency politician with no grassroots campaign experience whatsoever. Since time was limited, only six weeks between his official confirmation and Election Day, Yiu did his best with an online campaign and bicycle tours around the district. Also since time was limited, no one tried to conduct opinion polls, which candidates usually rely on as Election Day nears for their last minute get-out-the-vote drives. So, no one realized just how close the race was likely to be, especially since everyone assumed it was his to lose.

Edward Yiu’s loss was registered especially among working class voters who benefit most from the pro-Beijing community service centers now blanketing every Hong Kong district that are sponsored by pro-Beijing District Councilors. Together with their like-minded pro-establishment allies, these councilors hold majorities on all 18 of Hong Kong’s District Councils.

Frederick Fung naturally couldn’t resist rubbing salt in the wound. He said the district, which he knew well, was full of the old and poor and people living in subdivided flats. Edward Yiu had won the January straw poll with the activist DQ sympathy vote, not likely to be repeated in a general contest where other concerns inevitably intervened. For whatever reason, campaigning for Edward Yiu in some of those neighborhoods was reportedly tepid at best (Apple, March 12, 13.).

Nor were Edward Yiu’s problems just with working class voters and their livlihood concerns. The 2016 spotlight in KNW had been focused on its most forceful post-Occupy personalities: Yau Wai-ching and Teacher Lai, plus the competition between them and their pre-Occupy radical predecessor Raymond Wong. Always a magnet for attention and controversy, Wong was nowhere to be seen helping out on the by-election campaign trail. The most basic problem, of course, was that the most energetic campaigners of 2016 did not have a candidate they could call their own in this race (also, Ming Pao data column, Mar. 16).

Hong Kong Island had such a candidate, but Agnes Chow was called out before the competition began, DQ for her party’s advocacy of self-determination. She was everybody’s favorite, so much so that Hong Kong Island democrats didn’t need to participate in the January winnowing-out straw poll. Chow made her name as a middle school student activist in Joshua Wong’s campaign against the government’s proposed compulsory national political education curriculum, and later as a member of his new Demosisto political party. She would have been contesting the seat vacated by her party-mate Nathan Law who was DQ in the oath-taking controversy.

Hong Kong Island’s back-up candidate was also someone all could agree on. But he was well known only among activists, not the wider public or even the wider voting public. Not as outgoing or confident in the media spotlight as Chow, Au Nok-hin introduced himself with a diffident defeatist message, appropriate for the time but minus much inspirational force.

Au Nok-hin declared the Legislative Council … central to democrats’ decades-old electoral reform quest … to be a lost cause. Instead, he advocates grassroots community organizing with a focus on winning seats in the District Councils.

But he neglects to add that these, too, are probably a lost cause for democrats since all 18 have pro-Beijing pro-establishment majorities. Their dominance is based in turn on the enormous resources underpinning the community services provided by the 38,000-member pro-Beijing political party (Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB), and the Federation of Trade Unions with an estimated 400,000 affiliated members. Together the DAB and FTU should be regarded as the electoral and service wings of Hong Kong’s as yet still underground and therefore unacknowledged branch of the Chinese Communist Party.*

Were it not for the non-stop campaigning by Agnes and Joshua and all the big names from Hong Kong’s democracy movement including Martin Lee and Anson Chan, Au Nok-hin’s victory margin would no doubt have been even narrower than 9,547 votes (also, Ming Pao data column, Mar. 13).

IMPLICATIONS: Break in a Long Campaign

Regardless of the political perspective, post-election commentaries have all reached the same conclusion: Hong Kong’s democracy movement has suffered an important setback. Conversely, Beijing has won a major victory by securing, at least for now, its more intrusive approach to Hong Kong affairs without provoking another upsurge of dissent.  That’s the one thing Beijing seems to fear most  … popular dissent in the form of Hong Kong’s 2003 and 2014 uprisings …  because Beijing officials know the cost of a hardline show of force on the streets. They learned it the hard way firsthand in 1989.

If the March 11 by-election is any indication, that potential has been contained. Hong Kong voters, plus all those who didn’t bother to show up on Election Day, have signaled their acceptance of Beijing’s interventions, or at least a fatalistic resignation to the growing impositions. In the words of one editor struggling to answer the question why voters turned out in 2016 but not in 2018:  “It’s plausible they were disillusioned with the authorities’ high-handed policy to disqualify pro-democracy lawmakers, and no longer bothered to vote; or that they approved of the disqualification measures” (Standard, Mar. 13).

In fact, the setback registered on March 11 and Beijing’s tougher approach did not begin with Occupy. Occupy was actually Hong Kong’s response to that approach, which has been in the making since 2003-4. That was when Beijing … unprepared for Hong Kong’s rebellion against the national security legislation mandated by Article 23 of its new post-colonial Basic Law constitution … began tinkering with the Basic Law’s original rules for electoral reform. More recently, Beijing signaled its developing hardline approach with the August 31, 2014 decision on electoral reform and the June 2014 White Paper on Hong Kong governance that was issued to prepare the public for that decision.

In the post-Occupy period, Beijing then set in motion a chain of events, inaugurated by the new candidate confirmation form. It was introduced without much fanfare or any advance notice, ahead of the September 2016 Legislative Council election (Feb. 27, 2018 post).  As a result, anyone who wants to participate as a candidate in a Legislative Council election must undergo a loyalty check. Several candidates failed to qualify in 2016.

The litmus test was the degree of autonomy from the central government that prospective candidates were known to advocate. One hopeful banned from contesting the election that year was independence advocate Andy Chan. Another was Edward Leung Tin-kei. He is currently being held in prison as a flight risk while on trial for his role in the 2016 Lunar New Year Mong Kok riot.

Had Edward Leung been allowed to contest the 2016 election, he seemed set to win the seat in New Territories East that went to his friend Baggio Leung instead, and has just been won by Gary Fan. Since 2016, the entire “class” of rising young politicians from the Occupy generation has been sidelined and removed from active participation in the one Hong Kong political institution still open to them and the one that matters most:  the Legislative Council.

This is the generation that reached a new set of conclusions, different from Hong Kong’s first generation of democracy activists. Barrister Martin Lee and his Democratic Party were among the leaders of that first generation. They took Hong Kong’s new post-colonial Basic law constitution at its word and spent the better part of two decades working to realize those promises.

The Occupy generation, reacting to Beijing’s 2014 declarations and decisions, concluded that Beijing did not mean what Martin Lee and the first generation assumed it did.  The successor generation concluded that Beijing was never going to allow Hong Kong what is commonly understood to be universal suffrage elections. That realization evolved into the advocacies that have now all been uniformly tarred by Beijing with a “separatist” brush.

For their part, however, Hong Kong’s executive and judicial branches concluded that they must uncritically accept and categorically enforce Beijing’s definitions and political concepts.  And now Hong Kong voters have signaled their acquiescence as well.

Reflecting that acceptance, moderate election commentaries focused not on the sequence leading from Occupy through the 2016 election, or on to what has been a political purge of the new generation of post-Occupy talents who were beginning to win elections and take their seats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. Instead, the Occupy experience and its effect seemed to evaporate.  Commentaries returned to conventional concerns … almost as though nothing had happened between 2014 and 2018.

Who to blame for what happened on March 11?  Former legislator and long-time advocate for the disadvantaged Fernando Cheung told a TV audience the blame lay with “a portion of middle class voters who refused to come out” on Election Day. Others blamed the “youth vote.”  Perhaps it was the younger generation that had failed to perform its civic duty. Politicians must work harder to engage with them.

In contrast, the pro-Beijing pro-establishment camp could rely on its disciplined voter-mobilization effort and was unaffected by the low turnout. Their campaigners seemed energized by the political climate.

But beyond noting the comparative turnout rates that validated the democratic camp’s territory-wide losses, commentators seemed to lose sight of the forest for the trees and returned to the mundane technicalities of grassroots electioneering.

The Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal blasted democrats in its March 13 editorial, saying they had no one to blame but themselves. The reasons: factionalism and disunity within the democratic camp. Editors noted the problems especially in Kowloon West when the potential back-up candidates for Edward Yiu were being discussed.

This was the dispute that had provoked Frederick Fung’s stand-down … a dispute between localist/self-determination advocates who had lost all their 2016 gains in the DQ drive … and others of a more moderate bent … with Joseph Cheng serving in his role as candidate-coordinator and enforcer.

Probably, speculated the editors, it was Frederick Fung ‘s many supporters who were responsible for Edward Yiu’s loss … by only 2,000 votes.  But the editors did not ask KNW’s petulant elders  …   Frederick Fung and Raymond Wong  …  to accept a measure of blame for the fiasco.  Presumably, they’re all still working for the same cause and understood the by-election’s significance in the larger scheme of things.

Many commentators chose to target Edward Yiu’s detached campaign style, online and by bicycle … not likely to impress residents in working class neighborhoods. Yet if Frederick Fung’s supporters failed to come out for anyone but him, they were probably not alone.

Localist and self-determination advocates were disenfranchised as well, first by the DQ of the two legislators they elected in 2016, and then by Joseph Cheng who, with the best of intentions, vetoed their insurgent attempt to introduce a last-minute replacement candidate of their own.

The fault lines thus divided the constituency between pre- and post-Occupy “radicals,” and between all of them and moderate democrats who were, in turn, divided by varying shades of moderation … with Frederick Fung the least radical of all democrats!

Ming Pao Daily slammed democrats’ arrogance and factionalism, but especially their failure to emphasize the importance of community service and tending to grassroots needs … defects accentuated by reliance on the echo-chamber of social media campaigning (Ming Pao, March 13,14).

Few seemed inclined to comment on the implications of Beijing’s growing intrusions … perhaps because everyone had already absorbed its consequences, namely, that the new Occupy generation’s supply of potential candidates had been depleted in the DQ purge.  As a result, they had no candidates of their own and thus  deprived of its source of renewal,  the post-Occupy turnout effect evaporated.

Non-voters for whatever reason seem to have let immediate personal perceptions and interests trump the concerns about Beijing’s cross-border interventions, now being sanctioned by Hong Kong’s own executive and judicial authorities.

That turned the by-election back into just another district-level exercise: focused not on the exhilarating challenge between dictatorship and democracy but on ordinary livelihood issues and neighborhood amenities. That also turned the election back full circle to the message repeated constantly by pro-Beijing, pro-establishment candidates, as well as centrists like Christine Fong..

They all like to say, as did their British colonial predecessors many decades ago, that Hong Kongers are a practical people who prefer to focus not on endless political arguments but on the mundane matters that impact their daily lives.

Of course, those would be issues where the combined forces of the pro-Beijing left, and their pro-establishment allies have now built the insurmountable advantage that is very much concerned with politics and is also being registered in their ever-growing ballot-box victories.   


*  For an introduction to the Hong Kong party branch, see, Christine Loh, Underground Front:  the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong  (HKU Press, 2010).


Posted by Suzanne Pepper on March 27, 2018.

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