End of innocence for Hong Kong

End of innocence for Hong Kong

Even if Hong Kong returns to normal, tensions are likely to simmer, says KERRY BROWN.

For a place stereotyped as apolitical and wholly business orientated, the protests convulsing Hong Kong have revealed a different face to the city.

As a place of contract and rule of law, Hong Kong has always been appreciated by Mainland companies and politicians along with the outside world. The desire to preserve this, and the business confidence it brought, lay behind the Framework Agreement with the British in 1984 and the Basic Law, drawn up later, which guided the handover process from Britain to China and acted as a de facto constitution after the reversion of sovereignty in 1997.

Ensuring that Hong Kong continued to be a place of legal protection and predictability was important, as was maintaining the Special Administrative Region as a major capital and finance centre, and as the interface between the growing Chinese economy and the rest of the world.

Ironically, it is this sense of Hong Kong being a place where promises are not easily broken that has been most traumatised by Beijing’s decisions on the election of a chief executive for the region in 2017. While the Basic Law is unspecific, there was a sense that universal suffrage and complete freedom over the choice of candidates was fundamental to the agreement. Beijing’s recent refusal to honour this has created the depth of local response seen over the past few weeks.

Cause of demonstrations

Consultations locally since late 2013 and public discussions, including an unofficial online questionnaire, were all terminated when the local government declared in August that, while the five million eligible voters would get a chance to vote from 2017 for their leader, they would do so from a group of two or three preselected candidates screened by an election committee. This issue of preselection has infuriated many in the city, and been the root cause of the demonstrations.

The failure of the current chief executive, CY Leung, to sell this deal to the people is only the latest of his many political missteps. In the mere two years since his election in 2012, Leung has become the most unpopular leader Hong Kong has ever had. His blank statement to protestors at the end of September that there was no way Beijing would change its mind was no doubt true, but hardly tactful. There were a thousand-and-one other statements he could have made to show he had tried to promote Hong Kong’s interests in Beijing.

The end of Hong Kong’s illusions has been short and sharp. In just a few weeks, hopes for a new system from 2017 have been dashed.

The `one country, two systems’ principle meant—in the minds of the Beijing leadership—that Hong Kong could have its own currency and economic and legal systems, but not its own political identity. The idea of a system being in place in 2017 where a region of the sovereign territory of the People’s Republic might elect an opponent of Beijing through universal suffrage, was evidently a step too far for the Beijing overlords. They have proposed a system that will ensure this will not happen.

The end of Hong Kong’s illusions has been short and sharp. In just a few weeks, hopes for a new system from 2017 have been dashed. Protesters have admitted there is little chance Beijing will change its mind. But they have fired a tactical shot across Beijing’s bow. Hong Kong might secure concessions within the framework proposed—more candidates, a larger candidate selection committee—but this time, at least, there will be no universal suffrage in the territory for 2017.

Beijing doesn’t have it all its own way, however. It is likely protestors will get off the streets, or at least that their numbers will dwindle. Business might return to normal. But resentments are likely to simmer. Trust in Beijing is low. Since 1997, three chief executives have largely failed—the first removed from power half way through his second term, the second after serving only eight of a possible 10 years, and CY Leung, who is unlikely to see a full first term, let alone get into a second.

Tough to rule

For a place with such a high per capita GDP and world-class, modern economy, Hong Kong has proved tough to rule. Perhaps this would be solved by giving its citizens more direct choice in who runs their city so that they might feel, at least, like stakeholders with some vested interest in seeing their leaders succeed. If leadership failure continues after 2017, Beijing will have to think again.

Beijing will also pay a geopolitical price for the Hong Kong settlement it sanctioned. `One country, two systems’ has been lauded as the deal that will finally solve the Taiwan issue—though its hollowness will make the few Taiwanese who thought this could be used towards them change their mind.

Economic relations across the Taiwan Strait might be good now, but deep down there is distrust. President Xi Jinping’s proposal in September to apply the ‘one country, two systems’ rubric to Taiwan was rejected by his Taiwanese counterpart, President Ma Ying-jeou. There is no way the `one country, two systems’ solution is politically saleable in Taiwan now in view of the lack of safeguards it has delivered in Hong Kong.

And finally, the settlement has managed to politicise a generation of the young in Hong Kong. The impact of this is hard to predict. The age of innocence is over. Hong Kongese evidently feel their leaders are incapable of protecting and promoting their interests. They will be harder to convince in the future.

Perhaps, in 2017, Hong Kong will have a leader who will surprise everyone. The search is on for someone who, at least, can restore faith and credibility in the leadership—something that both the people of Hong Kong and the leaders in Beijing need critically. Otherwise, protests and failed leaders like CY Leung might become the norm in the place once branded `Asia’s global city’.

Photo: Hong Kong protests have revealed a different face to the city. Photo:

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

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