Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, China. Picture: REUTERS
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, China. Picture: REUTERS

Before the vote at the weekend, local elections in Hong Kong were said to be decidedly nonpolitical affairs. They tended to be nonevents and dominated by truly local issues, such as levels of noise pollution.

While under the “one country, two systems” arrangement the region is semi-autonomous, political power has firmly stayed in Beijing since China regained control of the territory from the UK in 1997.

And while there was bound to be tension between the Chinese desire for control and consolidating a unity of vision and purpose for the world’s most populous country and the elements yearning for greater self-determination in Hong Kong, the protests that broke out six months ago came as a surprise. It was even more of a surprise when they proved not to be a passing event.

They have turned violent at times, and had some people with memories of events in Tiananmen Square in 1989 fearing the worst. Fortunately, it hasn’t come to that and Chinese authorities have been relatively restrained in their response, despite their frustration, and no little embarrassment over the scenes of chaos dominating the world press.

There is no disputing that the protests and the violence have been damaging for the economy of Hong Kong, one of the world’s major financial centres along with the likes of New York and London. The latest data showed that the economy entered a recession in the third quarter — defined as two consecutive three-month periods of negative output —shrinking by 3.2%.

With tourists staying away and the violence not conducive to a booming retail trade, the situation can only get worse if a solution that returns calm to the region cannot be found. The region was already facing headwinds from the China-US trade dispute and the disruption of the last six months is something it could have done without.

The big question is, where to go from here, and how will China interpret the results?

The vote was in many ways interpreted as a referendum on the protesters. Did they represent a genuine hunger in the region for democracy or were they anarchists bent on intimidating the silent majority?

In the end, the prodemocracy forces emerged with a convincing victory, prompting Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam to acknowledge that the result reflected “unhappiness” with government policy.

According to the Financial Times, the prodemocracy forces’ victory in 17 district councils, compared to one for nominees aligned with Beijing, presented a complete reversal from four years ago when prodemocracy candidates won no seats at all.

While China has shown no appetite for a damaging violent crackdown, there also seems very little room for meaningful compromise.

International media reports suggest that Lam’s proposals don’t go far enough, with her critics saying she is putting on the table what was on offer, and rejected before the elections.

“Everybody wants to go back to their normal life and this requires the concerted efforts of every one of us,” she was quoted by Bloomberg as saying at a press conference.

Most will endorse the latter part of the statement, without necessarily agreeing that officials have done enough to deal with the protesters’ demands, which have evolved from a complaint about a proposed extradition treaty, to more meaningful democracy that includes the popular election of the city’s leader.

Reported comments from Beijing suggest that officials there have not necessarily been swayed by the results, and are emphasising the need to restore order rather than deal with grievances. And the radical elements within the protest movement represent a hard-to-predict force. Will they maintain their patience and discipline and show tolerance for those who voted differently?

From far away in SA, what we can only hope for is that a spirit of tolerance reigns and that a negotiated solution can be found to return one of the world’s major financial centres back to normalcy.

What we can say with a degree of certainty is that a violent endgame would be disastrous for Hong Kong and China as a whole. Instability in one of our major trading partners and most important economic partners is not good for us either.