Protests, China’s tightening grip, uncertainty put Hong Kong’s status as global financial center at risk.
By Michael C. Davis*
As the world looks on in horror at China locking up hundreds of human rights lawyers, tightening censorship over its internet, and scolding academics for use of Western materials, Hong Kong lingers in a struggle with Beijing over democratic development. The Chinese Communist Party’s passion for repressive control and interference has clearly intruded into Hong Kong, along with the rest of the country. With the CCP increasingly paranoid over its power there appears little hope of resolution. Can Hong Kong find a way to relax Beijing’s tightening grip?
Beijing’s decisions over the past year reflect a profound change in the “one country, two systems” model upon which Hong Kong and its international investors have long relied. The extreme liberty Beijing has taken in interpreting the human-rights and democratic commitments in the Hong Kong Basic Law have signaled a profound attitudinal change. Hong Kong may not survive as one of the world’s leading financial centers in the tightening restrictions of one of the world’s most hardline regimes.
Much more than elections is at stake in Hong Kong’s battle over democracy. The protesters’ calls for democracy have aimed to relax Beijing’s controls. Democracy has been seen as crucial to defending the autonomy and rule of law so instrumental to the integrity of the Hong Kong system.
Relations were not always so tense. In the can-do spirit of the early reform era Deng Xiaoping had called for Hong Kong investors in 1979 to “put their hearts at ease.” To ensure such confidence, the Sino-British treaty promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy,” Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong under democratic principles, liberal human-rights protections, and independence and finality of the courts to maintain Hong Kong’s existing rule of law. Commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was included, and all such commitments were stipulated for inclusion in a basic law. The 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law generally fulfilled such promises. For selecting Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, it expressed an “ultimate aim” of “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” The same liberal list of human rights was guaranteed. While the independence and finality of the local courts were put at risk by providing the ultimate power of interpretation with China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the committee early on showed restraint and rarely exercised such power.
These documents were taken to the capitals of the world to gain international support for treating Hong Kong distinctly from the mainland for purposes of trade and investment and a variety of social and cultural relations.
This restraint began to break down in the middle of the last decade. Beijing began to tighten its grip, as Hong Kong protestors increasingly demanded compliance with Beijing’s promises. Beijing’s foot-dragging over democratic reforms, demands for national security laws and efforts to institute patriotic education met with massive protests. That the local Hong Kong government has shown no inclination to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy and is often seen to represent Beijing’s interest over Hong Kong concerns has ratcheted up the calls for democracy.
In this distrustful atmosphere, as the debate over going forward on the promised universal suffrage took shape in 2014, Hong Kong activists launched a civil disobedience campaign. The Occupy Central campaign, now called the umbrella movement after protestors used umbrellas to deflect tear gas, only hardened Beijing’s resolve to block genuine democratic reform.
The June 2014 Beijing White Paper on “One Country, Two Systems” revealed Beijing passion for control. Accusing Hong Kongers of a “confused and lopsided view,” Beijing attacked core Hong Kong values and institutions. Portraying Beijing’s NPC Standing Committee as the guardian of the rule of law, Hong Kong judges were characterized as administrators and told of their responsibility to guard national security. A “high degree of autonomy” was “not full autonomy.” The Sino-British treaty was effectively abandoned.
In the wake of the white paper, a June civil referendum organized by the Occupy Central founders overshot the expected 100,000 voters to attract 800,000 voters for an electoral model involving civil nominations as a device to bypass Beijing’s control. Voters were angered both by the white paper and a Hong Kong government consultation report that appeared to misrepresent Hong Kong views as effectively supporting Beijing’s pronouncements.
Claiming universal suffrage only meant everyone could vote, Beijing then issued its August 31, 2014, decision allowing for “universal suffrage.” The voters would be allowed to vote for up to three candidates selected by a pro-Beijing nominating committee.
The Hong Kong government in lockstep followed Beijing’s directives. Proposals of compromise by either the pan-democratic camp or the pro-Beijing camp were uniformly rejected. With such official indifference, the pan-democrats choice to veto the proposal in the June 2015 legislative vote was a forgone conclusion.
A battle for Hong Kong has emerged. Consistent with increasing repression on the mainland, Beijing’s tightening restrictions have replaced promises of Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong with only limited mainland interference. The complete lack of voice by an allegedly autonomous government has left Hong Kong with a political battle between the street and Beijing.
This battle certainly diminishes confidence in China’s promises and offers little stability for Hong Kong. Even some business people are transferring some investments overseas. Both the democratic camp and the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing find themselves at impasse with little clarity on the road ahead.
Most efforts at breaking the impasse seem doomed. An optimal way would be for Beijing to appreciate that a completely submissive Hong Kong government is not in the national interest. A vital Hong Kong, able to perform its role as China’s international financial center, requires a government willing to represent Hong Kong and guard its core human rights and rule-of-law values. Deng’s democratic promises aimed to achieve this. The 2014 white paper and August 31 democratic reform decision appear to withdraw that promise.
Weakened autonomy and rule of law not only pose danger to the local way of life, but will also undermine foreign justification for treating Hong Kong differently than other Chinese city. Foreigners will be deprived of a valued rule-of-law-base in China. China will be deprived of the many advantages of the “one country, two systems” model.
The Hong Kong street also faces a dilemma. Surrendering to Beijing’s demands would destroy Hong Kong as we know it. Carrying on an unlimited protest may also endanger Hong Kong. The public was already showing signs of protest fatigue when the occupy movement wound down late last year. Protest leaders cannot be sure that calls for renewed demonstrations would gain popular support.
Clearly, Hong Kong democrats need to do a better job of communicating such stakes with Beijing supporters, especially the business elite. It’s not in the interest of local Hong Kong people or global investors for Beijing to increase its grip on Hong Kong. The Hong Kong government and foreign friends in the capitals of the world need to find their voice to facilitate this dialogue process.
The repressive turn on the mainland may have to run its course before this effort can gain traction. The deep contradictions between Chinese promises of the rule of law and policies of extreme repression weigh heavily on both the mainland and Hong Kong.
*Michael C. Davis, a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, has published widely on human rights and development in Asia. As a public intellectual, Professor Davis has contributed to the debate over constitutional reform and human rights in Hong Kong for more than two decades.