Victory on Both Sides of Hong Kong Elections

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Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman and this is The World, the co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. The U.S. is so focused on the election here you might not have noticed that Hong Kong had elections over the weekend and results are now in. Pro-Beijing candidates ended up with a majority in the former British colonies legislature but pro-democracy candidates did well enough to secure a third of the seats and that gives them veto power. Hong Kong is governed by a hybrid political system set up after the territory was handed back to China in 1997. Under that system, only slightly over half of the legislative seats are directly elected by popular vote. The rest are chosen by members of special interest groups that tend to favor Beijing's interest and Hong Kong's Chief Executive is appointed by Beijing as well. The World's Mary Kay Magistad joins us right now. Mary Kay, to begin with, was this election good news for pro-democracy parties in Hong Kong Mary Kay? I mean, did it give them something to build on?

Mary Kay Magistad: Yeah, I think it did. The fact that 53% of the Hong Kong population turned out to vote (much higher than the 47% in the last election) is a very good sign for democracy in Hong Kong. Why did so many more people turn out to vote? Because there's been a very hot issue at play in the Hong Kong public over the last few weeks and it's drawn hundreds of thousands of people out into the streets in groups of fifty thousand, seventy thousand, a hundred thousand at a time.

Werman: Right. Let me ask you about that because the election this weekend played out against those protests. They're protesting a government patriotism education plan that apparently was being foisted on them by Beijing.

Magistad: Right. After the Tiananmen demonstrations in China in 1989, after the crackdown, the government imposed something called patriotic education and it's basically a set of courses, films, lessons that talk about the humiliation at the hands of foreign powers that China has suffered for 150 years until Hong Kong returned to the motherland. It really stresses that Chinese people are a great nation, a great people who need to bond together and make sure that China rises and retakes its rightful place in the world as its pre-eminent power.

Werman: So, those people who have to take those patriotism classes on the mainland, why were Hong Kongers so adamant not to take it?

Magistad: There's a fundamental lack of understanding that Hong Kongers really are used to a different way of life; are really used to being able to employ critical thinking and how they think about the way that their government is treating them, both in Hong Kong and in Beijing. And so, they've pushed back against the idea that their kids are going to be effectively brainwashed. That's how they see it in the schools. What ended up happening is on the day of the election, on Sunday, the government said, "Okay, well, we won't force the schools to start this patriot education by a particular deadline. It's up to them how they're going to play it."

Werman: Mary Kay, what's going on in the minds of Hong Kongers these days? Are they just more vigilant than ever about holding on to the liberties they do have?

Magistad: You know, it's interesting. I lived in Hong Kong just before the handover in the mid-nineties and at that time when I talked to people about how do you feel about the handover, a lot of people were really reticent to express political opinions. They'd say, "Look, I'm keeping my head down. I've got a business. I'm just getting one with life." As time has gone on and there's been a generational change, and also as Hong Kongers have seen some of their civil liberties eroded, there's been kind of a squeeze on the Hong Kong press. There have been other situations where it's a little less easy to demonstrate than it used to be. More people have felt that it's important to push back. A couple of examples: In 2003 and 2004, Beijing government was saying that there had to be anti-sedition legislation enacted in Hong Kong. This would have basically made it illegal to criticize the Beijing government. People could have been jailed for criticizing the central government in China. There were half a million people out on the streets in 2003 and almost that many again in 2004; when the Chinese government looked at that kind of reaction, that was one reason why they actually thought, "Okay, we need something like patriot education there." They're kind of at a loss about how you manage this kind of sentiment.

Werman: That was The World's China correspondent Mary Kay Magistad.