Hong Kong’s democratic dilemma

Tags: Op-ed
Hong Kong’s democratic dilemma
Bloomberg
STRONG STAND: Protesters carry banners during a rally toward the business district of Hong Kong, China, on July 1. Beijing has made it clear that if people do not agree to their procedure, the election will be scrapped altogether
The 19th and 20th centuries were very unkind to China. Through its own faults and through imperialistic designs of several European powers and of Japan, the Middle Kingdom suffered some of the worst humiliations in its history of several thousand years. The last dynasty, the Ch’ing dynasty, which in the 17th century had brought China to its biggest territorial expansion, was in decline and all kinds of rebellious internal forces and external predators took advantage of China’s weakness. Amongst the most infamous events in the 19th century were the two opium wars of 1839/42 and 1856/60.

The first opium war was started by Britain. London was increasingly worried about a massive trade deficit with China. While in England people grew fond of Chinese tea and Chinese silk, there was little that the UK could tempt the Chinese consumers with. In the end, the East India Company decided to enter into the opium trade. Huge quantities of opium where transported from eastern India to the south coast of China, notably to Canton. When the Chinese authorities, aware of the detrimental effects of opium consumption on the population, banned the import of opium, the British declared war arguing that the ban on opium was in violation of free trade. In the ensuing military conflict, the Chinese were defeated and as a trophy, the victorious British got the island of Hong Kong.

Shortly before the turn of the century, London acquired additional territories on the mainland for a hundred years’ lease that was to end in 1997. Without these territories, Hong Kong, which they held in perpetuity was not viable and, therefore, London had to enter into negotiations with Beijing about the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty. In December 1984, the then supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher concluded the Sino-British joint declaration that returned the British possession of Hong Kong to the Chinese by midnight of June 30, 1997. Under the agreement, Hong Kong was given a considerable degree of autonomy. While the overall sovereignty was undisputedly with Beijing. Hong Kong got the status of a special administrative region (SAR) within the People’s Republic of China.

The concept “one country, two systems” was a masterstroke of the great reformer Deng Xiaoping. As in his economic policies, he had shown a high degree of pragmatism. Obviously, Beijing did not want that the return of Hong Kong to the mainland would end in an economic disaster and in social unrest that could spread to neighboring areas of mainland China. Furthermore, as a highly successful international financial and trade centre, Hong Kong could make vital contributions to the general Chinese economy. Hong Kong’s capital and expertise were to prove very useful for the modernisation process on the mainland and Deng Xiaoping certainly did not want to kill the goose that laid golden eggs.

Once the transfer agreement was signed, there was considerable panic amongst the people of Hong Kong. Many wealthy Hong Kong residents acquired Australian and Canadian passports in order to have a safe haven. In the end, it was the great merit of Hong Kong’s first political governor, Chris Patten, to bring in political reforms that calmed the nerves. For the first time in the colonial history of Hong Kong, substantive and real democratic rights were introduced. Already in the Sino-British agreement, it was guaranteed that Hong Kong would keep its own rule of law and the institutions of a free and open society. Now the legislative council was to gradually become the body that, in its entirety, was to be elected by the general public.

The highest executive authority, the chief executive, has up till now been chosen by a small electoral college of some 1,200 persons, where the loyalists of Beijing have a decisive majority. The term of the current chief executive ends in 2017 and according to the timetable foreseen after the handover, it is now time for a general election to take place. Beijing and its supporters in Hong Kong have made it clear that only candidates that have been vetted by an electoral committee will be able to contest the election. The democratic camp sees this as a betrayal of the promises made and insists on a free election where anybody can be a candidate. Public protests have ensued from both sides and the pro-democratic forces that are seen with great suspicion by Beijing, have been able to mobilise much bigger crowds. In addition, an “occupy central” movement has appeared that worries the local and international business community a great deal, which in general, does not want a politicisation of Hong Kong and which is keen on avoiding any friction with Beijing.

Beijing and its supporters have made it clear that if people do not agree to their procedure, the election will be scrapped altogether and the old system with the electoral college choosing the chief executive will continue. This has, of course, further enraged the democratic camp. At present, the situation is a deadlock. Nobody wants to lose face, but everybody is aware that there is little chance of a Beijing giving up its position.

(The writer is the Far East correspondent of Swiss daily Neue Zurcher Zeitung)

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