Hong Kong democracy and Beijing’s promise

Author: Joseph Cheng, City University of Hong Kong

In 2007, Beijing promised the people of Hong Kong elections by universal suffrage for the position of chief executive in 2017, and the entire legislature by the same method in 2020. Last year, the pro-democracy movement started its campaign to fight for the implementation of Beijing’s promise.

In Hong Kong, demonstrators sit in a street of the central district during a pro-democracy rally on 1 July 2014. (Photo: AAP).

But the position of the Chinese authorities has hardened since 2007. Officials are indicating that candidates have to ‘love China, love Hong Kong’. There will also be a nomination committee that will exercise ‘institutional nomination, implementing the majority will’. What seems to be intended is that a pro-Beijing elite will capture the majority of seats on the nomination committee, which would then control the list of candidates for the chief executive election. The requirement that candidates have to ‘love China, love Hong Kong’ will therefore form the basis of a political screening process.

Such insincerity on the part of the Chinese authorities has led to impatience in the pro-democracy movement. The situation is becoming more confrontational as Beijing shows no inclination to back down: suggestions for compromise initiated by moderate groups have been given the cold shoulder. More significant still, the pro-Beijing united front has formed many ‘patriotic organisations’ which have been engaging in numerous confrontations in political seminars and gatherings. Civilised political discourse in the territory has been deteriorating and this in turn contributes to the political polarisation of society.

There are also deeper structural factors involved that can be seen across East Asia, and grievances are accumulating. Globalisation and economic integration with Mainland China have led to a widening gap between the rich and the poor. And, for the bulk of the population, especially for young graduates, real wages have been in decline for more than a decade. Many young people cannot afford their own home — and there are also widespread complaints about the general difficulties of getting married and having children.

Against this backdrop of growing social grievances, the people of Hong Kong are also seriously concerned by the collusion between top government officials and big businesses. In the past this was a vague concern, but with the investigations of former chief executive Donald Tsang and former independent commissioner against corruption Timothy Tong, as well as the current corruption court case involving the former chief secretary for administration, Rafael Hui, and the Sun Hung Kai Properties tycoons, the collusion has become more than apparent.

People increasingly realise that policies favouring big businesses come at their expense, especially those concerning land sales, provident fund management, the absence of collective bargaining rights for trade unions and the lack of competition in many sectors, including supermarkets.

Since the massive protests on 1 July 2003 against the proposed Basic Law Article 23, the Chinese authorities have increased their interference in Hong Kong politics, leading to a vicious circle: as the Chinese leaders become more worried, they interfere more, triggering more resentment, and the Chinese authorities in turn believe that they have to intervene more.

The anti-patriotic education campaign in 2012 was a good example. Former president Hu Jintao considered that ‘the hearts of Hong Kong people had not returned to the Motherland’. They therefore had to be better educated. But the patriotic education program was rejected by parents and students as brainwashing, and as going against the community’s core values.

On 10 June 2014, the State Council Information Office released a white paper on the implementation of the ‘one country, two systems’ model, with the intention of lowering the expectations of the people of Hong Kong about political reform. The basic message was that whatever power Hong Kong has derives from Beijing. It also asserts that local ‘judges have a “basic political requirement” to love the country’. This has alarmed the people of Hong Kong because the independence of the judiciary is one of their most significant core values. The white paper probably contributed to the huge turnout (around half a million people) for the following pro-democracy rally on 1 July.

It seems unlikely that Beijing will grant Hong Kong genuine democracy. But widespread unrest is also unlikely: most people in Hong Kong are moderate and value stability and prosperity. Still, the government will lose legitimacy in the eyes of the people, and society will be further polarised.

Joseph Cheng is Professor of Political Science at the City University of Hong Kong.

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