The city of Hong Kong has for months been embroiled in violent pro-democracy protests, and a recent election during which pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide has proven that the majority of Hong Kong citizens support the expansion of civil liberties in the territory. While the election was relatively minor politically, as it was limited to district councils, it was broadly seen both by people in Hong Kong and in China as a referendum on the protests. In a historic victory for Hong Kong democracy, around 70% of the eligible population turned out to vote, resulting in several pro-China officials being replaced with candidates favored by protestors across the territory.
Beijing was caught off-guard by the results of the election, as the Chinese government believed that a silent pro-Beijing majority lived in Hong Kong and that voters would side with pro-Beijing politicians in order to end the chaos and violence. After the election disproved this theory, however, Chinese state-run media was initially silent, marking a major change from its pre-election rhetoric, which consisted of arguments predicting an electoral rebuke of protestors. In fact, the state-run media did not even report the results of the election at first, instead announcing that the ballots had been cast and that protests had disrupted the electoral process. Eventually, the Chinese government decided on a strategy for framing their electoral loss by placing the blame on a foreign actor, namely the United States.
Blaming the West for domestic problems is a favorite tactic among Chinese officials, and the Chinese people react positively to nationalistic messages of this sort. However, the fact that the Chinese government had to switch propaganda tactics so suddenly reflects not only the extent of their loss, but also their own lack of understanding of the political crisis that has animated six months of massive protests. Although there’s no strong evidence that the US interfered with Hong Kong’s recent election, this message is useful for the Chinese as it allows them to shift blame away from themselves and away from the people of Hong Kong.
For months, Beijing’s portrayal of the Hong Kong protestors was that they were violent thugs looking to tear apart the party by colluding with foreign powers. There is little, if any truth to this claim, which has lost a significant amount of credibility after the election, which represented a tremendous embrace of democracy by the Hong Kong people, both in terms of the number of people who voted and how they voted. The fact that Beijing was caught so off-guard by this result also suggests that the Chinese government, at least in part, believes their own propaganda, and doesn’t understand the extent of the outrage felt by the people of Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s leadership, which remains firmly in the pro-Beijing camp, sought to downplay the results of the election. Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam acknowledged that people in the territory are upset, but argued against the view that the election had broad implications. After the election, Chinese officials complained about a bill passed by the US Congress called the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which supports the protests. Notably, however, President Trump has remained relatively quiet about the protests, instead focusing on his trade war with China.
The future of Hong Kong’s government remains unclear, but neither side of the conflict shows signs of backing down. Hong Kong protests continue to this day, and enjoy wide support from the territory’s citizens, but China is an extremely powerful country that has ramped up its attacks on the pro-democracy advocates. For the citizens of Hong Kong, particularly the young protestors, the gradual loss of democracy in the territory is unacceptable, and they will go to remarkable lengths to ensure that Hong Kong maintains its autonomy.