Hong Kong is facing its most serious political crisis since the former British colony was returned to China in 1997. At issue is what kind of electoral system the “special administrative region” should have for the 2017 election of chief executive, the equivalent of mayor.
Under the so-called Basic Law, the city’s “mini-constitution”, Beijing has agreed that Hongkongers should be able to elect their leader by universal suffrage. But its idea of what that means differs substantially from what many in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement aspire to. It has ruled out popular nomination of candidates, all of whom must be screened by a nomination committee. It also says only candidates who “love China” should be eligible, a stipulation widely interpreted as meaning allegiance to the Communist party.
Over the past 10 days nearly 800,000 people, in a city of just over 7m, have taken part in a “referendum” on the type of democracy Hong Kong should implement. Voters chose between three proposals, each of which would allow some form of public nomination process. Beijing has reacted angrily. It called the exercise “illegal and invalid”, an odd thing to say about a process that claimed no legal status. This week, Hongkongers showed their displeasure by turning out in huge numbers for the annual July 1 pro-democracy demonstration. Occupy Central, a pro-democracy group, has pledged to bring the central district to a standstill if electoral proposals fail to meet what it calls international standards.
Everyone has overreacted. A former senior Communist party official chillingly warned that the People’s Liberation Army could be deployed if protests escalated. Days before the referendum the central government spelt out the limits of Hong Kong’s autonomy, saying that “one country, two systems” was not a right but a privilege granted by Beijing. Even the Big Four accounting firms took out a foolish advertisement saying they were opposed to the democracy movement because of its potential to destabilise business. They have no business meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Beijing’s heavy-handed approach shows signs of backfiring. First, it has stirred up opposition among Hong Kong moderates. Many who understand the limits of autonomy are nevertheless angered that it has been spelt out so brutally. Even barristers marched last week to express their concern that judicial independence was under threat. Second, Beijing’s insistence that it calls the shots in Hong Kong is not likely to go unnoticed in Taiwan, where many will draw the conclusion that it is dangerous to edge closer towards China. Finally, Beijing’s threats to crack down on Occupy Central are wholly unnecessary. Hong Kong has a strong tradition of peaceful protests and responsible policing.
Most Hongkongers accept the reality that Beijing is not going to allow full voter sovereignty on any part of its territory. They do, however, want a big advance on the present system in which the city’s leader is elected by a 1,200-strong committee of mostly pro-Beijing and pro-business members. It is here that some sort of compromise may be feasible. The Hong Kong government should propose expanding the committee as widely as possible such that it is properly representative of the electorate.
At stake is more than just the meaning of universal suffrage. What many in Hong Kong fear is that the freedoms they have grown used to – freedom to protest, freedom of speech and equality before the law – are being steadily eroded. It is not just a matter of what is right. Without those freedoms, Hong Kong’s role as an offshore financial centre and a vibrant hub for trade and investment would be jeopardised. If such freedoms were indeed to be threatened, it would be a tragedy for Hong Kong – and ultimately for China itself.