A portentous decision was made in the halls of the National Peoples’ Congress on the 31st of August, 2014. Chinese officials called it ‘ a leap forward’ for democracy in Hong Kong. Yet, their decision to grant the people of Hong Kong ‘universal suffrage’ has only been met with indifference, and perhaps, given the cataclysmic chain of events in the past few days, outrage. In any other country, a transition from authoritarian rule towards full democracy would have been met with tears of joy and ecstasy. Joy, instead is conspicuously absent on the streets of Hong Kong. The prevailing sentiment is one of disenfranchisement, dissatisfaction and resentment at what demonstrators see as the ‘broken promises’ by Chief Executive, Mr CY Leung, and Beijing.
China never ceases to remind Britain, and the West, that as much as they have begun to ‘express concern’ at the increasingly debilitating situation in Hong Kong and urging the Chinese government to recognise the legitimate aspirations and rights of the demonstrators, that Britain ruled Hong Kong as a colony. Under a joint agreement with China, it was decided that Hong Kong was to be ruled through a ‘one country, two systems’ form of control upon the ceding of Hong Kong to China in 1997. This would mean that while Beijing took up the portfolios of defence and foreign affairs, Hong Kong was able to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, i.e. limited self-rule and civil liberties, such as the independent judiciary and a free press. Indeed, ‘one country, two systems’ was an ingenious solution to resolve differences between the Chinese and the British over the handover of Hong Kong, thus ensuring a seamless handover of power. The Basic Law, which serves as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, thus outlines the delegation of power between Beijing and the HK authorities. It also stipulates that ‘universal suffrage’ for the election of the chief executive post would eventually be granted in 2017. To Hong Kongers, that meant a right to choose a leader themselves; a direct election.
Yet, with all the concessions, autonomy and liberties China has ceded to Hong Kong, why the sentiments of distrust and resentment? Simple. China has stuck to its promise, I’ll give them that, but they have failed to honour the spirit of the Basic Law and failed to honour the legitimate aspirations of Hong Kong-ers, that is, public nomination of the Chief Executive.
In 2012, as in previous Chief Executive appointments, the chief executive was chosen by a 1,200 strong electoral committee, stacked with the rich and powerful, with similar vested interests as Beijing. Inevitably, this led to a system which precluded any possibility of a pro-democrat being elected as Chief Executive. All four leaders since 1997 were chosen by Beijing, in a sense, and ‘rubber-stamped’ into office. A government in thrall to the central government in Beijing have inevitably, been unpopular with the public. The incumbent, CY Leung, is set to hit the nadir of his popularity with the announcement by Beijing to implement a system of ‘universal suffrage, China-style’: voters will be able to choose leaders, provided a similar pro-Beijing committee vets the candidates first, and restricts the number of candidates to a maximum of three.
Such an arrangement is a travesty of what democracy stands for, and essentially renders the new electoral system a ‘faux democracy’. An elaborately designed construct by China, democracy would stand for so much as it does in China: nothing. In China, locals are allowed to cast votes to elect local legislators; provided these legislators are handpicked by Beijing first. It proved inevitable that the people of Hong Kong had felt like they were being scammed; now trust between Beijing and Hong Kong has broken down irrevocably. The protests are set to be a protracted one, a long drawn-out process.
It is hard not to draw parallels with the current protests with that of the botched Tiananmen Democracy Movement of 1989, which was eventually put down by brutal force by the PLA. Both protests share a common aim of agitating for democratic reform, both are peaceful civil disobedience campaigns with a resolute commitment to non-violence, both sets of protesters also faced the dilemma of whether to stay or to go, as well as the prospect of crackdowns by the central government. Given such eerie resemblances, it all makes for a bleak prognosis for the ‘Umbrella Movement’.
This leads to an examination of how China and the CY Leung administration will deal with the movement, which poses the single biggest threat to Chinese rule since the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Clearly, Mr CY Leung has refused to step down from his post, a key demand of the protesters, who see him as an acolyte of China. Also, he has remained intransigent in the face of demands by demonstrators to restart the constitutional reform process, remaining resolutely in favour of the current elections system. Furthermore, the Beijing elite have unequivocally thrown their full weight behind the National Peoples’ Congress proposal to first vet candidates before the Hong Kong public are allowed to vote. The Chinese state owned media have further fanned the flames of resentment by calling the demonstrators ‘extremists’ and calling on Hong Kong residents to support ‘resolute police action’ against the protesters, warning the protest movement that they would ‘reap what they sow’. Such actions clearly signify a China that remains intractable on its stance. Coupled with the fierce determination and intransigence of the movement, tensions are palpably high. The stakes are high for all parties, and Mr Xi faces a choice between climbdown or crackdown. Beijing will clearly refuse any further democratic developments in Hong Kong, and has shown that it remains fearful of the spread of such democratic sentiment to the mainland. Faced with the challenge of containing the restive regions of Xinjiang and Tibet which both exhibit secessionist tendencies, Mr Xi would hardly wish for Hong Kong to set an unwanted precedent that would trigger further seperatist movements and plunge China into instability. Thus remains the option of a crackdown on the movement.
A crackdown however, may not be the panacea to Mr Xi’s predicament as he probably hopes it will be. After all, China is constrained by the desire to keep Hong Kong free of bloodshed, and prosperous. A crackdown would be a botched response, risk badly damaging its own reputation and image, and thus its economy. Apart from the fraying of ties with the West, any crackdown would also have implications on the prospect of cross-strait ties with Taiwan. Beijing, in its quest for the eventual reunification with Taiwan, aspires to use the ‘one country two systems’ model as a cornerstone for a possible relationship with Taiwan. Taiwanese President, Ma Ying-Jeou, has expressed concern that Beijing should exercise ‘delicacy’ when dealing with Hong Kong and hopes that China will respect the legitimate aspirations and will of the Hong Kong people. Surely, China would not risk alienating Taiwan further when it values cross-strait ties immensely.
Then again, the unwillingness to compromise, coupled with further brazen attempts at pushing its own agenda in Hong Kong, such as its release of the White Paper urging the judiciary to be ‘patriotic’ to China, would indicate that control remains paramount to China, and would rather maintain the status quo of control over Hong Kong while risking international condemnation and fraying cross-strait ties. Gag orders on mass media, such as that of censorship of developments in Hong Kong, would indicate that China wants to prevent setting an unwanted precedent of sparking seperatism and mass protests on the mainland, rather than lose control of Hong Kong.
Yet, there maintains an air of rationality on both camps. China will not resort to capricious, impulsive use of force. Instead, recognising the spontaneity of the Umbrella Revolution, one strategy that the CCP and CY Leung have employed is to simply wait and watch. Wear down the protesters while remaining resolute on their election proposals and insouciant to the peoples’ aspirations. CY Leung has tried to vilify the movement by turning public opinion against the demonstrators by criticising them for disrupting key public services. The prospect of further clashes with anti-demonstrators will surely scare some of the students and demonstrators back home. Furthermore, should Beijing refuse to budge, Hong Kongers are pragmatic enough to know the protests cannot last forever. This remains to be seen.
Another option to pacify the movement would be the removal of key officials like Chief Executive CY Leung and Carrie Lam. This could potentially lead to an ease in the protests. Beijing must surely be dismayed at CY Leung’s inability to engage in face-to-face dialogue with demonstrators and his bungling of the situation by sending in riot police. The brutality of the riot police, such as acts like pepper spraying protesters from point-blank range and the use of tear gas has only served to further inflame public opinion and brought new waves of sympathisers onto the streets. While the removal of CY Leung would honour the requests of demonstrators for the resignation of CY Leung, such a solution can only serve as a stop gap measure and can barely be a panacea for the long term prospects of Hong Kong. After all, you can swap the man, but you can’t swap the system. China will continue to rubber stamp new waves of chief executives via the election committee, dominated by pro-Beijing personnel.
China, and Mr Xi needs to realise that while autocracy enables stability and security;the cornerstones of economic progess, this is merely a short term panacea. The only guarantor of a stable, effective government is one that respects the aspirations of its people, when the people are satisfied by their government. There is no doubt that while we outsiders and the CCP leaders may feel that the Chinese electorate view stability as sacrosanct and would not want to upset or overturn the status quo, the reality on the ground is starkly different. How much trust does the Chinese people have in their leaders? Decisions to fire and crackdown on the peaceful non-violent protests in Tiananmen in 1989 have set a precedent of mutual distrust not just with the West, but also with its own electorate. If a government is willing to shoot and murder indiscriminately its own people, turn a deaf ear to their pleas, how can the people truly entrust the government to lead them in the long run? If the Chinese people really trust the CCP, why have they resorted to running to Hong Kong to purchase foreign milk powder brands in bulk? Simple. The malfeasance and inefficacy of the Beijing government, coupled with endemic corruption and public mismanagement has led to strings of scandals, such as that of the tainted milk powders. Autocracy, without accountability, breeds inherent complacency, and thus ineffective government.
China may have been able to prove to doubters wrong that autocracy leads to economic stagnation, but as recent economic data shows, that growth has slowed, and inequality is widening as a result of mismanaged growth. Inequality, as in any country, is is symptomatic of deeper societal problems. Inequality breeds resentment, disenfranchisement and alienation. China needs to embark on a new set of reforms. Hong Kong would have been the perfect testbed for such reforms, by showing that democracy can indeed work in China. If China had been more accomodating of Hong Kong, it would at least have mollified dissenters, and given that Hong Kongers too, are rational and understand that sticking to Beijing will continue to reap economic benefits, the possiblity of Hong Kong electing a pro-Beijing candidate for Chief Executive via public nominations and direct elections would have been likely. That could have set new precedents in China, where incremental democratic reform could have been set into place, just as how Deng’s ‘Special Economic Zones’ and economic policies were incrementally implemented to gauge their effectiveness and feasibility. One can now only hope for a Chinese glasnost.
It has been heartening to see the rise of student activism in Hong Kong. Youths should act as the vanguard for change. Unlike the students of Tiananmen, these students harbour no illusions that the Hong Kong government, acting under Beijing’s instructions, is totally resistant to change. The very act of coming onto the streets and agitating for what is dear to them is symbolic of the indomitable human spirit. We can take away a few lessons from the students of Scholarism. They have never learnt nor accepted the idea of defeat and surrender. Joshua Wong, the leader of Scholarism, resisted Beijing’s proposals in 2012 to push the implementation of ‘National Education’. His persistence succeeded in China’s withdrawal of this policy. Joshua and Scholarism now face off with the central government again over a new set of issues and controversies. National education may not have mattered that much to Beijing, but surely, the prospect of losing sway over Hong Kong would be a prospect China would not relish. Whether Joshua Wong succeeds in pushing through change for Hong Kong remains to be seen.