At the end of the last century, as Indonesia held its democratic presidential election following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship, a colleague at Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post asked me plaintively: “Why can those Indonesians choose their ruler and we cannot?” It is a question that takes on a special resonance as the former colony bridles at the price of its history, analyst Jonathan Fenby writes for the Financial Times:
The transfer to Chinese sovereignty 17 years ago last week was calm as Beijing treated its new golden goose with caution and pursued the policy of “one country, two systems”. But there was always a central misunderstanding. Hong Kong people (and the outgoing British) stressed the second part of the formula advanced by the late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping, as a guarantee that their way of life would continue for the 50 years laid down in the handover agreement.
But many of those 7m people thought that, as inhabitants of an advanced, law-abiding city, they were entitled to exercise democratic rights. They grew resentful at the way central authorities sought to exercise control of the Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of Hong Kong through three ineffective chief executives selected by a small circle of electors approved by Beijing. That resentment deepened by the prospect of the next choice of chief executive in 2017, with a wider franchise, still being controlled from the centre by the stipulation that only candidates who “love China” be allowed to stand.
The publication of a White Paper in Beijing last month raised the temperature significantly by stating that China’s central government had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over local administrations and that “the high degree of autonomy of the HKSAR is not full autonomy nor decentralised power” but only “the power to run local affairs as authorised by the central leadership”. There was particular concern at the assertion in the 14,500-word document that judges should be “patriotic”.
Despite hundreds of thousands voicing support for democracy in Occupy Central’s unofficial referendum and the July 1 march, the size of the pro-democracy camp is still not enough to take on Beijing, says the former head of the government’s top think tank:
And Lau Siu-kai warned that continued political unrest would make the city ungovernable, but stopped short of suggesting the People’s Liberation Army might be deployed on Hong Kong streets. Lau is the former head of the Central Policy Unit, and is now the vice-president of a pro-Beijing think tank, the Chinese Association of Hong Kong and Macau Studies. He was previously an adviser to Beijing on Hong Kong affairs.
Last week Lau warned of “bloody conflicts” if confrontation between Beijing and Hong Kong worsened, the South China Morning Post reports.
China’s effort to put pressure on the “special administrative region”, as Hong Kong is now unglamorously known, has backfired, some say.
“When Hong Kong reverted to China, there weren’t supposed to be any fundamental changes for 50 years,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based historian. “But so much seems to have changed after just 17 years,” he told the FT:
Mr Zhang said Beijing was less concerned about the situation in Hong Kong per se, and more worried about spurring demand for universal suffrage on the mainland.
For Hong Kong, the battle is not just about democracy. The territory has enjoyed a business-friendly reputation precisely because it is seen as the one place in China where the rule of law is upheld. Even the four big international accountancy firms, nervous about the impact that unrest could have on business, took out an advertisement declaring they were against the pro-democracy movement.
Thus Hong Kong’s reputation as a business centre could receive a double blow. On the one hand, the institutions that underpin it could be weakened as Beijing asserts more authority. On the other, the backlash against such perceived threats could create an instability that makes international companies think twice about basing operations there.
The strength of feeling was shown when nearly 800,000 people voted in an unofficial online poll for a democratic system for selection of the next chief executive, Fenby notes:
More than 100,000 joined a rally to call for democracy. Further protests are planned. Beijing criticised “outside forces” for interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs after the British and US consuls-general spoke about democracy. Business is worried at the effect of the protests on its links with the mainland. The big four global accounting firms ran a joint advertisement in local newspapers opposing the democracy movement. Ming Pao, a Chinese-language HKSAR newspaper, worried that the “one country, two systems” concept had become an “empty shell” with Hong Kong likely to turn into an “ordinary Chinese city”.