Hong Kong’s Ongoing Battle For Democracy

Twenty years ago, Hong Kong was returned to China’s control under a policy called “one country, two systems.” This policy was outlined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and was to give Hong Kong 50 years of no change. The policy was embodied in a “mini constitution” known as the Basic Law and was supposed to ensure that the Hong Kong people retained a dominant voice in running their own affairs. However, as time has passed, Hong Kongers have increasingly become aware of a gradual loss of freedoms.

Surveys such as those conducted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association in 2015-2016 have revealed that popular opinion is that Hong Kong-based media have been forced to self-censor. Those who refuse, such as Beijing-critic publisher Lee Bo, have disappeared from Hong Kong, only to turn up in mainland China “assisting the authorities with an investigation.” Furthermore, it also appears that mainland culture is becoming increasingly prevalent in everyday Hong Kong life. This can be seen in the compulsory teaching of Mandarin at schools, an influx of mainland tourists, and changes to the history curriculum which commend the Chinese Communist Party.

While some are generally apathetic about the situation, many of the younger generation are demanding greater independence from Beijing.  This came to a head in 2014, when thousands of Hong Kongers occupied some of the city’s most prominent streets in a protest, widely known as the Umbrella Movement, against proposed electoral reforms that would have increased mainland control of Hong Kong’s voting system.

Against this political background, this year’s election for the new Chief Executive has been a hot topic. The current Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has been widely criticized as being a Beijing loyalist and failed to win the trust of the people. With his five-year term now drawing to a close, everyone is interested to see if anyone is able to use this position to look after Hong Kong’s interests while keeping Beijing happy.

On Sunday 26 March, the new Chief Executive will be voted on and elected. There are three candidates this year. First is Carrie Lam, former Chief Secretary for Administration and Beijing’s favoured candidate. Second is former financial secretary John Tsang, who has been widely accepted as the preferred candidate of Hong Kongers based on recent polls. The third and final candidate is Woo Kwok-hing, the former judge and Vice President of the Court of Appeal of the High Court. Although considered the most progressive of the three, he has also been criticized for being a “closet” Beijing supporter.

The selection and appointment of the Chief Executive is supposed to give the Hong Kong people the ability to run their affairs separate from China. However, time has shown that the reality of the Basic Law is very different. In a city of over 7 million, a select committee of 1200 will decide its next leader. This committee is made up of representatives of districts and special interest groups (commerce, performing arts, education, religion and professional unions). This system has been criticized as undemocratic, particularly due to the disproportionate way in which votes have been allocated. The election committee has also been accused of being packed with Beijing supporters. Pro-democracy legislator Lam Cheuk-ting has criticized the system, saying, “The central government might as well just tell us directly who to vote for.”

Although a pessimistic view, it currently seems that there is little Hong Kong can do to loosen the control of mainland China. Lawyer Jason Y. Ng, says that Hong Kong people now face an “overwhelming sensation … of resignation.”

In this air of helplessness, the younger generation of Hong Kong are becoming increasingly impatient for reform and more autonomy from Beijing. Although protests have dwindled since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the desire for a measure of political removal, and in some cases complete independence, from China has not. Despite this, in 2015, pro-democracy legislators voted against universal suffrage in elections for the Chief Executive. This was due to the condition that only three candidates, all of whom would be screened by Beijing, would not be appointed unless they loved both Hong Kong and China. Although the law would have done little to change the fact that the Chief Executive would still need Beijing’s approval, it might have been a very small step towards greater democracy and one that would have been achieved quietly, without the confrontation that Hong Kong can ill afford.

Political unrest and violent demonstrations would be unwise. As Legal Chief of the Mainland Liaison Office, Wang Zhenmin, has warned, discussion of independence for Hong Kong is potentially treasonous and that the inevitable chaos caused by an independence movement would hurt Hong Kong far more than it would China. Was this a veiled threat that Beijing would physically intervene if the situation in Hong Kong got out of hand?

In the early years after 1997, that would have been unthinkable, but it must be remembered that the dynamic between China and Hong Kong has changed. Back then, Hong Kong was one of the world’s major trading and financial centres from which China reaped huge economic benefits. Hong Kong could also have served as a model for reunification with Taiwan. However, Hong Kong’s value as an economic asset has since decreased, and relations between China and Taiwan have grown increasingly sour.

Nor can Hong Kong expect international help, because China is growing and has become a dominant international power. Few would be prepared to risk damaging relations with Beijing for the sake of increased democracy in Hong Kong. Even Britain, which in the past has expressed the desire to see Hong Kong progress to a “more democratic and accountable system of government,” have since tempered their comments for the sake of improving trade with China.

Ultimately, it seems that Hong Kong’s ongoing battle for democracy is unlikely to end anytime soon. The people of Hong Kong will have to be patient and be satisfied with small victories. Perhaps they should imitate the Chinese Communist Party’s early methods when co-operation with the Kuomintang and quiet infiltration to effect change from within were the order of the day. But one thing is certain: confrontation on the streets will only lead to chaos and greater control from Beijing, the very thing they want to avoid.

Kimberley Mobbs