HONG KONG — The people of Hong Kong have said in no uncertain terms that they want change. The question is whether they will get it — or a return to the violent protests that have plagued the city for nearly six months.
Voters came as close as they can, in what is a semi-autonomous Chinese territory, to voting out the government.
They can’t directly select the city’s leader and elect only half the legislature. So they turned out in record numbers Sunday for the only fully democratic elections in town, kicking out the pro-government and pro-Beijing forces that dominated the city’s 18 district councils.
The election cleared up any doubts people may have had about Hong Kong’s silent majority.
The central government in Beijing has portrayed the protests as the work of a small group of rioters wreaking havoc, disrupting and even endangering the lives of Hong Kong’s 7.4 million people in the process.
Pro-government candidates said a vote for them would be a vote to end the violence and restore stability in the city.
The black-clad protesters believed they still had public support — the office workers who joined lunchtime demonstrations in a central business district — even as they smashed storefronts, threw gasoline bombs and blocked rush hour traffic and trains in escalating tactics designed to get the government to bend to their demands, including full democracy and police accountability.
The protesters, it seems, were right. The pro-democracy forces trounced the ruling pro-Beijing camp in the election, taking control of 17 of the 18 district councils.
It would be too simple to see it as an endorsement of violent protest.
“We have our point of view, we have our demand, but we are not willing to see Hong Kong in turmoil,” said Kim Wah Chung, a commentator and assistant professor at Hong Kong Polytechnic University. “We also want to restore stability like the Hong Kong government.”
Rather, voters are more likely to blame the intransigence of the government, and secondly the police for its harsh crackdown, before the youthful protesters themselves for the spiraling violence.
Many also share the concern of protesters about growing Chinese influence over the former British colony, which was returned to China in 1997, and the erosion of their rights under the “one country, two systems” framework that gives Hong Kong its own legal system and government.
What they want is for the government to address the demands of the protesters as a way to end the violence, rather than reject them and rely on the police to restore order.
City leader Carrie Lam has been adamant in saying that the violence must stop before real dialogue can begin.
Instead, the violence has gotten worse, as the police have progressed from pepper spray and tear gas to water cannons, and the protesters from bricks to gasoline bombs and bows and arrows.
“It seems that people in Hong Kong are quite determined to show the government that they are not happy about that,” Chung said. “They really want the government to change course and do something (else) to restore stability, instead of just trying to use force.”
Lam said in a statement Monday that her government “will listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect,” but gave no indication of any change in strategy.
After months of clashes, the police have become the enemy for many of the protesters, and one of their main demands is for an independent investigation into the use of force to suppress the demonstrations.
One way out could be a review of both police and protester actions during the months of unrest, but that would be a major reversal for Lam, who has steadfastly supported police officers and their actions.
In Beijing, the election results could prompt the government to reconsider its approach to the crisis, which has been to express support for Lam and the police while not intervening directly.
The military has several thousand troops in Hong Kong, but deploying them is a last resort as it would revive memories of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy student protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989 and bring widespread condemnation from the U.S. and other western powers.
Beijing has been firm in its refusal to make concessions to the democratic camp, reflecting its grip on political power in both Hong Kong and the mainland.
“I would suppose the central government must be aware that the majority of Hong Kong’s people are dissatisfied with Carrie Lam, her government and the police, but there is no other real option,” said Shi Yinhong, a Renmin University international relations specialist.
There may be some policy tweaks, but Beijing is likely to stay the course of supporting Lam, Shi said.
The election brought a respite in the unrest, as protesters focused on getting the vote out to support their cause — and not give the government a reason to postpone the vote because of the violence.
They haven’t made their plans clear or whether, if the government still doesn’t respond to their demands in the wake of the election setback, they will return to the streets.
Ken Moritsugu, the Greater China news director for AP, has covered Asia for more than a decade.
Ken Moritsugu, The Associated Press