HONG KONG (Reuters) - Hong Kong’s leader said on Monday she would listen to public opinion after a landslide election victory by opponents of Chinese rule amid months of sometimes violent pro-democracy unrest.
Democratic candidates secured almost 90% of 452 district council seats in Sunday’s poll, held during a rare weekend lull in clashes with police, despite a strongly resourced and mobilised pro-establishment opposition.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, said the government respected the results and wished “the peaceful, safe and orderly situation to continue”.
“Quite a few are of the view that the results reflect people’s dissatisfaction with the current situation and the deep-seated problems in society,” Lam said.
The government would “listen to the opinions of members of the public humbly and seriously reflect”, her statement said.
The elections brought a record turnout after six months of protests and upset wins for democrats against heavyweight pro-Beijing opponents, greeted in some voting centres by chants of “Liberate Hong Kong” and “Revolution Now”.
District councils deal with local issues such as transport, but their members also form part of the election committee for Hong Kong’s chief executive. This could give them some influence over the next vote in 2022, although they account for only 117 of its 1,200 members.
Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai described the election as the first step on the way to full democracy. “This district election shows that the central government needs to face the demands of a democratic system,” he said.
Along with universal suffrage, the protesters’ demands include an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality.
The voting ended with no major disruptions across the city of 7.4 million people.
“This is the power of democracy. This is a democratic tsunami,” said Tommy Cheung, a former student protest leader who won a seat in the Yuen Long district close to China’s border.
Asked whether the chief executive should consider her position in light of the election results, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Beijing “firmly supports” Lam’s leadership. Hong Kong’s most urgent task was to restore order and stop the violence, Geng told a daily briefing.
In self-ruled Taiwan, which China claims as its own, the presidential office expressed “great admiration” for the election result which it said demonstrated Hong Kong’s will to pursue freedom and democracy.
In Washington, a senior official with President Donald Trump’s administration said the United States congratulates Hong Kong “for conducting and participating in free, fair, and peaceful” elections.
“The American people support all those who cherish liberty and democracy,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
The number of seats held by the pro-democracy camp more than quadrupled and turnout, at 71%, was almost double the number in the previous polls four years ago.
Starry Lee, chairwoman of the city’s largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, apologised for her party’s performance.
“For this major defeat, we do not want to find any excuses and reasons,” said Lee. She said the party rejected her offer to resign earlier on Monday.
Former student leader Lester Shum, who won a seat, said district councils were just one path to democracy. “In future, we must find other paths of struggle to keep fighting,” he said.
China’s state-run Xinhua news agency announced the completion of the election, but did not say which side had won.
Demonstrators are angry at what they see as Chinese meddling in the freedoms promised to the former British colony when it returned to Chinese rule in 1997.
China denies interfering and says it is committed to the “one country, two systems” formula put in place at that time. Police say they have shown restraint in the face of potentially deadly attacks.
Britain said it welcomed Lam’s promise to “seriously reflect” on the result.
Jimmy Sham, a leader of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised some of the anti-government rallies, won his electoral contest, while some pro-Beijing heavyweights lost.
Sham and other democrats entered the Polytechnic University to urge police to end a standoff and allow humanitarian assistance to the few protesters trapped inside, with fears rising about their physical and emotional health. They left after meeting two protesters whom they were unable to convince to leave.
The university is surrounded by riot police, after about 1,100 were arrested last week, some while trying to escape. There was a small standoff between police and protesters outside the campus on Monday evening, with many shouting “come out” and hurling abuse at police.
The protests started over a now-withdrawn extradition bill that would have allowed people to be sent to mainland China for trial but rapidly evolved into calls for full democracy, posing the biggest populist challenge to Chinese President Xi Jinping since he came to power in 2012.
Reporting by Clare Jim, Felix Tam, Twinnie Siu, Jessie Pang, Kate Lamb, Sarah Wu and Josh Smith in Hong Kong, Yimou Lee in Taipei and Vincent Lee and Gabriel Crossley in Beijing and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Writing by James Pomfret, Marius Zaharia and Nick Macfie; Editing by Paul Tait, Simon Cameron-Moore, Philippa Fletcher and Timothy Heritage