Ever since Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 by British colonisers, an unresolved question has hung like smog over the city. Would it eventually be able to elect its representatives?
Hong Kong’s “mini-constitution” states the ultimate aim is for the city to choose its leadership by universal suffrage, not a bad concession given its decidedly undemocratic history under British rule. Beijing subsequently agreed in principle to the idea that Hong Kong’s mayor, known as the chief executive, could be popularly elected in 2017, and its Legislative Council in 2020. Yet what Beijing means by “universal suffrage” and what democracy advocates in Hong Kong mean by it are – surprise, surprise – not the same thing. The gap in interpretation threatens to put Beijing and Hong Kong on a dangerous collision course.
Beijing has made its bottom line clear. As stated in the Basic Law agreed with Britain, China expects candidates for election to be put forward by a nominating committee. Democrats say that is simply a ruse to screen out “undesirable” candidates. Indeed, Beijing insists all nominees must “love China”, a stipulation that under the country’s current political set-up may equate to loving the Communist party.
To underline its resolve, this month Beijing took the unusual step of issuing a policy document in which it spelt out the relationship between Hong Kong and the central government. Under “one country, two systems”, it said, Hong Kong enjoys its “high degree of autonomy” solely at Beijing’s discretion. The special administrative zone, as Hong Kong is officially referred to, may have free courts, freedom of speech and freedom to protest. It even holds a huge annual vigil to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, something inconceivable on the mainland. But all of this, when push comes to shove, is because Beijing allows it.
Pro-democracy advocates accuse Beijing of changing the goalposts. Occupy Central, the most prominent campaign group, is threatening to bring the city’s business district to a standstill if the Hong Kong government’s proposals for universal suffrage do not meet what it deems to be international standards. Many in business-minded Hong Kong, where the nature of both money and power is well understood, think Occupy Central has gone too far. Yet many harbour a sneaking admiration for its pluck. So far, more than 700,000 people have voted in a mock referendum to determine what kind of democracy Hongkongers really want. That is no small number in a city of 7m. They must choose between three options, each of which involves some sort of public nomination process and each of which thus goes beyond what Beijing is likely to allow.
China could have ignored the referendum. Instead it has blustered and bullied. It has labelled the poll “illegal and farcical”, an odd thing to say of an exercise that does not pretend to carry legal weight. The largely online poll has been the target of a massive cyber attack, raising suspicions of an orchestrated campaign to silence Hong Kong. Most chillingly, one former Chinese official has warned that, if the protest movement gets out of hand, the People’s Liberation Army could be brought in to quell it. Such threats have almost certainly encouraged more people to vote.
Hong Kong can feel like a city under siege. Rightly or wrongly, Hongkongers feel their way of life is under threat. Popular resentment takes many forms. Many are angry that mainland money has pushed property prices beyond their reach. Others, rather snobbily, mock mainlanders’ manners and supposedly vulgar shopping habits.
More fundamentally, there are fears that press and judicial freedoms are being eroded. Earlier this year, Ming Pao, a newspaper with a reputation for independence, sacked Kevin Lao, its editor, raising suspicion that he had been sacrificed under pressure from Beijing. Shortly afterwards, Mr Lao survived a savage knife attack by perpetrators unknown. Lawyers are also worried. Some say Beijing’s insistence on their “patriotism” undermines the principle of judicial independence.
The question is how far can Hong Kong push back? Few outside Beijing would dispute that its people and institutions are fully equipped for democracy. Beijing, however, will almost certainly not tolerate any such thing on its territory, even in a quasi-autonomous city. Nor is Hong Kong united in its quest for democratic rights. Much of the establishment, which has made a fortune by cosying up to Beijing, is in no hurry to turn voting over to the great unwashed. On this, Communist leaders and many capitalist tycoons can agree.
How can a potentially violent stand-off be avoided? The most promising area of compromise is the composition of the nominating committee. At present, a pathetically limited 1,200 people, mostly representing business and pro-Beijing interests, choose the chief executive. If Beijing wants the true definition of a farce, there you have it.
更为根本的是，香港担心出版自由和司法自由正受到侵蚀。今年早些时候，以报道独立而享有盛名的《明报》(Ming Pao)炒掉了总编辑刘进图(Kevin Lao)。人们怀疑《明报》是受到北京方面施压，把刘牺牲掉了。不久后，刘被不明身份的歹徒用刀袭击，所幸未伤及性命。律师们也感到担忧。有些人说，北京方面坚持要求他们“爱国”，这损害了司法独立原则。