After months of protest, Hong Kong’s interest in local elections soars

JUDY WOODRUFF: People in Hong Kong will vote
on Sunday for members of the District Council. That’s a body that usually focuses on local
community issues. But because this is the first election since
the beginning of protests that have gripped Hong Kong since May, Sunday’s vote could show
just how much support the demonstrators have built. Special correspondent Divya Gopalan is in
Hong Kong and has the story. DIVYA GOPALAN: Over the past week, some of
the most dramatic clashes between police and protesters took place at some of Hong Kong’s
leading universities. Nearly 1,000 people barricaded themselves
in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus, bricks, Molotov cocktails, stones catapulted
and even bows and arrows pit against tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannon and sponge
grenades. And while students and police fight in the
hearts of the city’s financial district, an almost daily routine unfolds. Mass protesters face off against police on
streets flanked by luxury shops, banks and international companies just around the corner
from the stock exchange. Despite the escalation in violence, there’s
still widespread support for the young protesters. For more than a week now, every lunchtime,
office workers swarm the heart of Hong Kong’s financial center, bringing the city to a standstill. They chant popular protest slogans. And they say they want to highlight what’s
perceived as police brutality and the excessive force used by police. Parts of the outrage on the streets is due
to the fact that Beijing is seen as having backtracked on its promises to allow the Hong
Kong people to directly choose their leader. Currently, a committee representing various
sectors of industry, the legislative council and interest groups vote for the chief executive,
who’s then endorsed by the Communist Party. But, this weekend, Hong Kongers will be able
to express their discontent at the ballot box at the District Council elections. Local district councillors to usually deal
with community issues, and they don’t wield much power, but they could impact the makeup
of Hong Kong’s government, as councillors hold nearly 10 percent of the seats in the
committee that will eventually choose the city’s leader. This year, it’s seen as a barometer of how
much the wider population supports the protest movement. For the first time ever, each of the 400-plus
seats is hotly contested. A record number of people have registered
to vote. And there has been a surge in candidates,
with 20 percent of them running for the first time, with most of the candidates are presenting
the interests of the protesters or the Hong Kong government. HO TSZ-CHUNG, District Council Elections Candidate
(through translator): I wish to represent both the citizens and the protesters in the
government. DIVYA GOPALAN: It’s been a long road for 22-year-old
Ho Tsz-Chung. He has been joining pro-democracy protests
since he was 17 and has taken part in this movement since it started in June. But, in September, he was arrested after a
confrontation with the police. They have yet to charge him. His father’s kicked him out of his home for
his activism and now feels that the street protests haven’t been able to achieve enough. So he’s taking a different approach by working
within the system. HO TSZ-CHUNG (through translator): I want
to try to broaden the battle line for the resistance. I believe that if there is only resistance
on the streets, we won’t be able to win this fight. So I believe that only by going through the
district council can we defeat this government. I love Hong Kong. I don’t want it to be like the rest of China,
the place with no democracy, no freedom, no culture, and no human rights. DIVYA GOPALAN: For U.K. educator Jason Chong,
working within the system means understanding and accepting that Hong Kong is part of China. The 28-year-old aspiring politician has joined
one of Hong Kong’s most established pro-Beijing party and was inspired to run in these elections
because of the unrest. JASON CHONG, District Council Elections Candidate:
Some of the youngsters, They misunderstood what freedom and democracy means. If they’re really tracing for a strong democratic
city, they go and vote. Destroying anything opportunity help at all. Destroying the facilities against the government
in this violent way is not the right path. DIVYA GOPALAN: The district council elections
is the only time Hong Kong people will get to directly choose who represents them. It is one man, one vote, which is why it is
being given so much importance this year. But not everyone is free to run for office. One candidate is barred from running, democracy
activist Joshua Wong. The Hong Kong election officials say it’s
because he still believes independence could be an option for Hong Kong’s future, which
goes against the city’s constitution. But Hong Kong’s highest-profile activist says
that even this election has been influenced by China’s communist government. JOSHUA WONG, Pro-Democracy Activist: With
my international advocacy, Beijing hoped to ignore my words and to restrict me to enter
the institution. DIVYA GOPALAN: Twenty-three-year-old Joshua
Wong started pushing for democratic reform in the city as a teenager, spearheading the
landmark pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014. He spent time in jail on charges related to
those protests. He is considered to be one of Hong Kong’s
first political prisoners. He has remained at the forefront of the latest
protest movement, calling for international attention to the situation in Hong Kong. Wong and team of democracy activists have
been lobbying the U.S. Congress to hold officials in mainland China and Hong Kong to account
for human rights abuses. The bill was passed this week. JOSHUA WONG: Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy
Act is the act that was — sanctioned individuals who suppress on Hong Kong people’s human rights,
including government officials, police force, and also the election officers that apply
political censorship and with their abuse of power. DIVYA GOPALAN: Thousands of people matched
to the U.S. Consulate in September to call on Congress to push the bill through at a
time of confrontation between Beijing and Washington, with the two sides in the middle
of a trade war. Both Beijing and the Hong Kong government
denounced the U.S. move. Regina Ip, the former secretary for security
of Hong Kong and a current Cabinet member, says the move could backfire, adversely affecting
U.S.-Hong Kong trade and diplomatic relations. REGINA IP, Member, Legislative Council: Beijing
has said there will be countermeasures. Hong Kong might take countermeasures. If they impose sanctions on people in charge,
quite unnecessarily, totally unwarranted, we might have to take countermeasures. DIVYA GOPALAN: The authorities have tried
to quell the unrest by using a colonial era emergency measure to ban face masks, which
had become a symbol of the leaderless movement. This week, the high court overturned that
ruling, saying it was unconstitutional, according to Hong Kong’s basic law. But the Chinese government waded in, saying
the court’s ruling was a blatant challenge to their authority and that only they had
the right to decide on issues regarding the constitution. So now the courts have reinstated the ban
for seven days, until the Hong Kong government can appeal the ruling. ANSON CHAN, Former Chief Secretary of Hong
Kong: Who will ever believe that our courts in Hong Kong are independent? As chief secretary, Anson Chan oversaw the
transition of Hong Kong from a British colony to special administrative region, or SAR,
of China. And she says it’s this kind of interference
by the Chinese government that has angered many people in Hong Kong. ANSON CHAN: This protest movement is not about
overthrowing the SAR government or the central government. It is about reminding the central government,
you promised Hong Kong people a high degree of autonomy. And you must stick to these promises. DIVYA GOPALAN: The Beijing government says
it’s living up to its commitment to provide autonomy to Hong Kong. And while Sunday’s elections are seen as important,
the results are not likely to quell the crisis gripping the city. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Divya Gopalan
in Hong Kong.

About the author

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *