EDITORIAL by Peter WestmoreNews Weekly
Hong Kong: China's litmus test
, October 11, 2014
Over recent weeks, mass protests have erupted in Hong Kong, following the decision by the Chinese Communist Party and, clearly, its leader Xi Jinping, to control who can stand for election as Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in elections in 2017.
The issue gives a very clear indication of the Chinese Communist Party’s attitude towards internal dissent, democratisation and, more broadly, its relationship with the rest of the world.
To understand why recent events in Hong Kong are of such importance, we need to go back to the British handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Britain had ruled Hong Kong for about 150 years under treaties signed with China in the 19th century.
Although freedom of association and the press were freely practised, the people of Hong Kong enjoyed very limited political freedom.
In response to popular pressure in Hong Kong, and concerns about China’s intentions towards the five million people living in the then British colony, the British government secured an undertaking by China that it would not impose the communist system on Hong Kong for 50 years, and would move towards popular elections with universal suffrage.
Under the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, described in shorthand as “one country, two systems”, Beijing promised that the communist political system would not be imposed on Hong Kong, which was designated as a Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), and Hong Kong’s free market system and its way of life would remain unchanged for a period of time.
The Joint Declaration provided that these policies would be stipulated in the Hong Kong Basic Law, effectively Hong Kong’s constitution; but the most contentious clauses dealt with the government of Hong Kong.
There are two main levels of government in Hong Kong: the Legislative Council (Legco) and the Chief Executive. The Legislative Council comprises a majority nominated by different sectors (but effectively controlled by Beijing) and a minority elected by popular vote.
The Chief Executive was appointed by the Chinese National Peoples Congress, in reality by the Chinese Communist Party, but the ultimate intention was that the post would be filled by direct election.
Since then, Beijing has used its power to prevent any further shift towards direct elections, for either the Legco or the Chief Executive.
The people of Hong Kong — many of whom grew up on the mainland — see this as evidence of Beijing’s determination to thwart democracy in Hong Kong. Their conviction is strengthened by the increasingly threatening behaviour of pro-Beijing activists in Hong Kong towards human rights protests, as well as both subtle and blatant attacks on pro-democracy activists.
Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have long called for direct elections for both the Legco and Chief Executive.
In January 2013, an associate professor at a Hong Kong university, Benny Tai, wrote an article which called for public protests in favour of direct elections. This evolved in March last year into the formation of the Occupy Central movement, a coalition of different pro-democracy parties and organisations.
It conducted mass protest meetings to express the popular view to both the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, and in June this year, organised an unofficial plebiscite, in which all citizens of Hong Kong were given the opportunity to vote on various proposals for direct democracy.
Around 800,000 people, and an overwhelming majority supported democratic elections. Interestingly, almost 90 per cent also voted that if Beijing refused to accept direct elections, they wanted the pro-democracy parties in the Legco to veto Beijing’s electoral law.
When the National Peoples Congress in Beijing recently met to consider the election method to be used in 2017, the Congress unanimously decided that candidates to stand for election had to be approved by an election committee dominated by Beijing’s supporters.
The threshold for nominations was raised, giving Beijing even more power over the election outcome. As repeated elections in Hong Kong have shown a majority in favour of pro-democracy parties, resentment against Beijing’s heavy hand reached fever pitch.
Mass protests were held in Hong Kong, culminating in the occupation of the central business district of Hong Kong. The protesters faced riot police using pepper spray and tear gas.
It may well be that the minority of pro-democracy legislators in the Legco have enough votes to veto Beijing’s plans.
If this eventuates, it will be possible for a pro-democracy candidate to get on the ballot paper for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive.
If this happens, Beijing’s hard line anti-democratic stance could actually strengthen the hand of Hong Kong’s people who are determined to shape their own future — whether Beijing likes it, or not.
Peter Westmore is national president of the National Civic Council.