Why anti-China sentiment is surging in Hong Kong

Elections for the Hong Kong Legislative Council were held Sunday with near-record turnout in the city. Many are voting for younger, more democratic candidates who want to become more independent from increasingly authoritative mainland China.

Kin Cheung/AP
Voters queue outside a polling station for the legislative council election Sunday. Hong Kongers voted Sunday in the specially administered Chinese city's most crucial election since the handover from Britain in 1997, the outcome of which could pave the way for a fresh round of political confrontations over Beijing's control of the city.

In 1997, when Hong Kong underwent its "handover" from the British government to China, the deal carried with it the promise that, for the next 50 years at least, the former British colony would be largely autonomous from the Chinese mainland. The historic agreement created an unusual bond between the largely democratic island and the authoritarian communist state of which it is now a part.

In recent years, however, the handover that created "one country, two systems" has been called into question, as mainland China has increasingly tried to impose its will on the city.

On Sunday, these questions were brought to the forefront as Hong Kong voters turned out in near-record numbers to decide this term's members of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo). Pro-democracy candidates hope to win enough seats to resist the pro-Beijing establishment in the first election following the student-led "Umbrella Movement" protests in 2014.

At least by Chinese standards, LegCo is a significantly democratic institution. The council consists of 70 seats that accept both pro-Beijing politicians as well as the "pan-democrats," politicians who support the idea that the civil liberties enjoyed under the British can be preserved only through democratic action. But of those 70 seats, only 40 are directly elected by citizens of Hong Kong. According to the Economist, the remaining 30 seats belong to “functional constituencies," which are chosen by groups representing business interests, professionals, and rural communities. The design of the constituencies has ensured that the majority of LegCo legislators have been pro-Beijing since the handover.

According to Reuters, Hong Kong's pan-democratic opposition currently controls just 27 seats in LegCo, giving it the power to block policies and some laws, but little else. While Hong Kong enjoys a great deal more freedom and democratic leeway than mainland China, many citizens feel the Beijing holds too much sway in city elections.

"It is an open secret that they [Beijing] ... pull strings, they make threats, they plant votes," Anson Chan, a former senior Hong Kong official, told Business Insider.

Beijing's string-pulling in Hong Kong is nothing new. But mainland China seems to have become more aggressive towards opposition movements in recent years. Hong Kong's police force, once referred to as "Asia's finest," has increasingly been seen as an arm of the Chinese state, and last year China made headlines after it abducted five anticommunist booksellers from the city, according to Time.

On top of concerns that China is seeking to eliminate the democratic system in the city, a slowing economy has hit young Hongkongers hard as they try to enter the workforce. Many young voters say they hope that this election is an opportunity to fight both problems.

“I’m hoping there will be a new dawn for our city," Candy Lam, 21, who voted for student protest leader Nathan Law, told Bloomberg. “For too long, it’s been the same people using the same tactics and they haven’t made a difference. Maybe new blood will bring about another era in Hong Kong politics."

Concerns about Beijing's influence have given strength to radical groups such as the Hong Kong National Party, which supports complete independence from mainland China. The growing popularity of independence movement has caught the attention of the pro-Beijing majority, which in July instituted a requirement that all prospective candidates declare Hong Kong an “inalienable” part of China, according to The Economist. Six candidates who refused to make the declaration, or seemed insincere in doing so, were not allowed to run in this election.

While the most radical candidates were banned, many pan-democratic and even a few independence candidates remain in the running, some of which are expected to win seats. Political analyst Joseph Cheng told the Guardian that he expected many new, younger faces to be announced on the election results Monday morning. 

"This election is very much characterized by an inter-generational change of politicians and political leaders.” 

Voter turnout has been immense, according to Bloomberg. About 2 million ballots were cast, with turnout at about 52.6 percent as of 9:30 PM local time. The previous high was 55.6 percent in 2004. The election comes as China hosts G20 leaders in the eastern city of Hangzhou.

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