South Asia Studies

Hong Kong struggles to control its fate

BY

The ball appears to be in Beijing’s court as protests grow in Hong Kong over how the former British colony should be governed, writes KERRY BROWN.

The Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region over late June and into early July coincided with the final stages of the consultations launched in December 2013 over what sort of format needs to be used when the next Chief Executive is due to be appointed in 2017.

Hong Kong, run as a British colony under a series of treaties from 1841 onwards, reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The Framework Agreement, along with the Basic Law derived from this, agreed between the UK and China in the run-up to the hand-back, promised there would be a `high level of autonomy’ for Hong Kong, post 1997. As part of this understanding, while the first 20 years of chief executives were to be appointed by a small franchise of legislators, the deal was that, from 2017, this would change. The year 2017 is not so far away, but it is now clear that the very broad language used two decades ago is not much help in deciding precisely what system should actually be used.

Preference for universal franchise

The current administration itself suggested a partial franchise, consisting of representatives of major social groups who would select a leader. But universal franchise is the strong preference of the democratic parties in Hong Kong, and it was to express support for this that many protested. One group set up an online survey asking citizens of the city directly what they wanted, claiming in early July that over 800 000 had taken this and that the vast majority wanted one person, one vote to be implemented. The local government declared the survey invalid and irrelevant.

For Beijing, however, it is not so simple. A White Paper—an official statement of government views—issued in June spelt out that whatever was finally decided, the core issue was that this needed to be something that both Hong Kong and Beijing could live with. The notion that Hong Kong had total say on this—whatever the demands of the more lively democrats were—was scotched. This tension over where the precise parameters of Hong Kong’s real autonomy are lies at the heart of the current political turmoil. But there are a number of associated issues exacerbating this.

C.Y. Leung (Wikimedia Commons)

One of the main irritants of the protesters in June and July was that they have little confidence in the current political leadership. C.Y. Leung (pictured), the serving Chief Executive, has suffered unprecedentedly low levels of support since coming to office in 2012. The fact that he won because of the ineptness of the favourite candidate, Henry Tang, felled through claims about irregularities in his financial affairs and personal life, meant Leung carried the stigma of a runner-up who had struck it lucky—a burden he has yet to shake off.

Attempts to introduce unpopular laws like the aborted Patriotic Education Act have convinced many locals that Leung is a puppet of Beijing, lacking real credibility. Things are made worse by the fact that, since 1997, not a single Chief Executive has managed to serve out two full terms. Popular anger at the remoteness and general incompetence of political elites therefore is similar to that which has ignited protests in other places,  from the Middle East to Latin America.

A second issue is one of social cohesion and cultural threat. Put simply, Hong Kongese feel overwhelmed by the sudden, and epic, influence of the mainland in their lives. In 1991, during my first visit to the city, Mandarin was an oddity, and the main local forms of communication were Cantonese and English. These days, Mandarin is ubiquitous. Fifteen million mainlanders either visited or transited Hong Kong in 2013. Their tourist money is welcome. But their sheer impact on the cultural environment of the city has created numerous flare ups. One video of a mainland woman allowing her infant son to urinate in the street and then being abused and shouted at by locals went viral early in 2014.

Impact of mainlanders

There are many other cases of resentment about mainlanders purchasing property in the city, or coming to use its generally excellent health services. Relaxation of entry permit controls, the rising numbers of wealthy mainlanders, and their new interest in travelling are all likely to cause this phenomenon to increase. But the impact on many natives in Hong Kong is ambiguous. Surveys show that they feel overwhelmed, and that their own lifestyles are either threatened or eroded.

Finally, there are more specifically domestic issues. Hong Kong is a great international finance centre, but it suffers from steep inequality, with one of the world’s worst housing markets for young people trying to get a foothold. Away from the swanky streets of Central, many live in tiny accommodation, often sharing with parents and grandparents, and working long hours to make ends meet.

There is plenty of wealth in Hong Kong, but in the view of many locals it is in the hands of just a few people. Anger about poor public services, rising taxes, and the irritants that come from inequality fuel the protests. The problem is that Hong Kongese feel that the government is either not listening, or simply unable to do anything for them. So they have taken affairs into their own hands and expressed their anger on the streets.

The Beijing government has made it clear that these days, it and it alone is the chief interpreter, and British attempts to reinvolve themselves have been given short shrift.

The final outcome of the `consultation’ process outlined by CY Leung in mid-July, after having received over a quarter of a million submissions, makes it clear that something between universal suffrage and a limited cabal of `advisors’ nominating approved candidates will be the preferred 2017 model. C.Y. Leung himself has stated, perhaps unwisely, that he wishes to stand in this process.

Many have commented that it is clear Beijing is too nervous about introducing full participatory democracy so soon in a part of its own sovereign territory, and it is hard to get much direct guidance from the deal agreed between the British and Chinese prior to 1997.  It was broad, abstract and largely subject to interpretation. The Beijing government has made it clear that these days, it and it alone is the chief interpreter, and British attempts to reinvolve themselves have been given short shrift.

This is not a problem that is going to disappear in a puff of smoke. Hong Kong is a huge financial asset, one of the world’s great international finance and capital centres; everyone wants to preserve that. An act of skilful negotiation and compromise seems necessary, where more than has been currently promised is given to local citizens in terms of, say, how their region is run, while being something that Beijing still feels it is able to control if it needs to. A skilful politician would be able to bring the main parties together and hammer out a common deal—but C.Y. Leung looks increasingly unlikely to be the person to do this.

The ball now looks to be in Beijing’s court. It could ram through an imposed settlement, and has the force to do this, no matter how much the world outside protests. But its real problem is the huge resentment this will cause in its most developed and globalised region, and one that has, until now, been a bastion of stability and law.

For a government handling as many as 200 000 protests within the mainland itself, the possibility of having Hong Kong add to this will be a profoundly unappealing one. For this reason, to preserve the peace Beijing might be willing to offer Hong Kongese a better deal than anyone would expect. Finally, after all the promises, the people of Hong Kong might be able to control their own fate. That was what the June and July protests were fundamentally about.

Main photo:
Umbrella Square, 2014 Hong Kong protests, on 18 November (Citobun. Wikimedia Commons).

About Kerry Brown

Kerry Brown is Director of the Lau China Institute and Professor of Chinese Politics at King’s College, London.

Published:
16th August, 2014

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