Massive protests trigger uncertainty for Hong Kong, and accountability is required for China’s “one country, two systems”.
By Frank Ching*
With summer coming to a close, the protest movement of eight weeks nears an inflection point. Incidents of violence against protesters and unprecedented participation of civil servants in protests that have paralyzed the megacity present a challenge to Beijing. Armed suppression risks destroying the appeal of a global business center, but failure to resolve the crisis could encourage protesters in Hong Kong and elsewhere in China. The mass protests have brought into a sharp focus the fundamental flaw in Hong Kong’s relationship with China. Beijing exercises sovereignty, but the people of Hong Kong expect to choose their government.
The huge anti-government protests began with a single demand: Withdraw the extradition bill, which if passed would have made it legal for Hong Kong people to be sent to mainland China for trial. The government suspended the bill, but refuses to withdraw it despite widespread demands.
As a result, other demands have emerged, including one not within the power of the Hong Kong administration to grant – for democracy. This was so five years ago during the Occupy Central movement, and it remains the case today. On July 29, when the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, a cabinet-level agency under China’s State Council, held its first ever press conference, a reporter asked if there would be electoral changes “to alleviate the current pressure.” The answer, in brief, was no: “The election method in Hong Kong is stipulated by the Basic Law … and the relevant laws of Hong Kong,” responded spokeswoman Xu Luying. “We must follow the law, now and in the future.”
Chief Executive Carrie Lam clearly understands the hunger for democracy. At a press conference July 9, she linked the current movement to the Occupy Central campaign of 2014, suggesting she believed the protests reflect “fundamental and deep-seated problems” that have gone unaddressed. “But this time,” she said, “I don’t think we could continue to ignore those fundamental and deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society.”
Since the primary issue behind Occupy Central was election of the chief executive by universal suffrage without preselected candidates, a reporter asked if the government planned to “restart political reform and grant Hong Kong a genuine universal suffrage in the near future?” Lam immediately backed off that topic, saying the deep-seated problems could be economic or political and first must be identified.
One problem is the public feels she doesn’t listen, and protesters sang “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical Les Misérables about poverty and rebellion in France. After her apology on June 18, Lam promised that she would listen with humility and adopt a new style of governance. Disconcertingly, she offered the same promise two years ago.
Britain, in its 150 years as colonial master, did not allow democracy in Hong Kong. In fact, until 1984, when London agreed to hand the colony to China in 1997, the city’s legislature was appointed, and top government officials were British. But the colonial system did allow personal freedoms that were treasured. Hong Kong people were assured that under the creative formula of “one country, two systems” they would govern themselves and that existing legal, economic and social systems would remain unchanged for 50 years.
From the Hong Kong perspective, China hasn’t lived up to its promises, especially the one about the chief executive being elected by universal suffrage. Instead, since 1997, China has handpicked Hong Kong’s executives. As a result, they are perceived as Beijing’s man or woman in the city rather than leaders whose job is to defend Hong Kong and the interests of its people.
From Beijing’s angle, Hong Kong people – with so many more rights and freedoms than the 1.4 billion people on the mainland – appear ungrateful.
Inevitably, the massive protests, many of which end in pitched battles with the police, have had economic repercussions. Negative publicity has resulted in some countries, including Japan, South Korea and Canada, issuing travel advisories. Ireland has warned against visiting Hong Kong. Financial Secretary Paul Chan’s weekly blog reports that the unrest has harmed local retail and catering businesses.
The business community has responded by calling for action by the Hong Kong government. The Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce issued a statement July 22 condemning violence, including the attack on the Chinese Liaison Office the previous day, not to mention a a mob attack July 21 on people, including protesters on their way home, in the Yuen Long subway station leaving 45 people injured. The chamber called on the government to withdraw, not merely suspend, the extradition bill. It also called on key officials to resign and urged immediate establishment of an independent Commission of Inquiry to “examine the facts surrounding the events that are at the root of the tensions and their escalation to the current situation.”
A week later, the American Chamber of Commerce reported that a survey of its members disclosed “international businesses are feeling pessimistic about the short-term prospects for Hong Kong” with “perceptions that the city is becoming a riskier place.” That chamber called for action to restore the city’s international reputation, also asking for complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and urging the government to “convene an internationally credible independent inquiry into all aspects of unrest over the bill.”
The Lam administration has adamantly refused to act, and the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office reiterated China’s support for Lam. Yang Guang, the spokesman, said the first priority was to end violence and he saluted the Hong Kong police. Beijing clearly hopes Lam, with police support, will restore order.
The next day, Lam hosted a rare lunch meeting with more than 40 representatives of international and local chambers of commerce. The meeting, according to a press release, was “to exchange views on Hong Kong’s challenges and opportunities,” aimed at “formulating policy measures in the upcoming Policy Address.” The policy address is delivered annually in October.
That same day, reports emerged that the Independent Commission Against Corruption is investigating the police role in the mob attack at Yuen Long station. Meanwhile, police tactics have hardened. On July 31, police charged 43 protesters with rioting, punishable by 10 years in prison. They have also discontinued issuing permits for marches, and protesters turned to disrupting subway services. On the morning of July 30, train services on several lines faced long delays. Such tactics are likely to alarm the business community and lower public support for protest activities.
With summer’s end and school reopening, the protest movement may lose one of its major constituencies: students. Of the 43 charged with rioting July 31, 13 were students, the youngest a 16-year-old girl. But the movement’s intensity shows no signs of weakening and the historic protest by civil servants August 2 will add to its momentum. Moreover, there can be no return to normalcy without a public accounting of the extradition saga. In Lam’s words, the government must address “fundamental and deep-seated problems in Hong Kong society.”
China will not allow the kind of democracy that other countries take for granted. Beijing fears that if it grants Hong Kong genuine democracy, provinces across the mainland will make similar demands, rendering the country uncontrollable by the Communist party. In lieu of democracy, there is a need for accountability. Hong Kong’s first chief executive from 1997 to 2005, Tung Chee-hwa, created politically appointed ministers who would assume responsibility.
The system isn’t working. Hong Kong faces its biggest crisis in 22 years, but no official has assumed responsibility. Beijing is shielding the top person responsible, the chief executive. For proper governance in Hong Kong, Beijing must support a genuine system of accountability – which is possible with “one country, two systems.”
*Frank Ching is a journalist and author of Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family. Follow him on Twitter.