Fate of Democracy in Hong Kong

By Frank Ching   Jan 14, 2010 

On New Year's Day, thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong marched to the office of the Chinese government to demand genuine democracy, the first such mass protest against the central government since the reversion of the former British colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 under the formula of "one country, two systems.''

Despite a huge police presence, some activists broke through and charged toward the building. Eventually, protesters were allowed to lay a coffin at the office's back entrance to symbolize the death of democracy in Hong Kong.

The protest shows that relations between Beijing and Hong Kong have entered a new stage.

In theory, anyone unhappy with the way Hong Kong was being run would demonstrate against the local administration of Chief Executive Donald Tsang and not the central government since the region is meant to enjoy a "high degree of autonomy.''

However, the march on the first day of the new decade reflected today's political realities: decisions about political reforms are not made in Hong Kong but in Beijing.

Before the handover, the Chinese government assured Hong Kong people that their future lay in their own hands.

Thus, the then director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, Lu Ping, said in 1993: "The future development of Hong Kong's democracy is a matter entirely within Hong Kong's autonomy. The central government will not intervene.''

However, 11 years later, the central government did intervene. In 2004, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress, China's parliament, decided that Hong Kong could not initiate the process leading to universal suffrage without first obtaining Beijing's approval.

The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, says if a two-thirds majority of members of the Legislative Council endorses an amendment for changing the way the legislature is chosen and if the chief executive consents, then the amendment can be sent to the standing committee not for approval but merely "for the record."

But that body decided in 2004 that it was not bound to record any such amendment.

By injecting itself so openly into Hong Kong's political processes, the central government made itself the potential target of protests. It is perhaps surprising that large-scale marches against the central government had not taken place until now.

To his credit, Peng Qinghua, head of the Chinese government's office, known formally as the Liaison Office of the Central People's Government, responded to the protest well.

He said that Hong Kong citizens' expressions of various views and demands were respected. He also voiced the hope that those expressions could take place in a rational and peaceful atmosphere.

Petitioning the government is an age-old tradition in China. Since Beijing has made it clear that the local administration does not have the authority to decide on major issues of political reform, it must be prepared to deal with modern-day petitioners, who in Hong Kong at least march and protest.

How has Beijing reacted historically to demonstrations in Hong Kong?

In 1989, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square crackdown when a million people took to the streets in Hong Kong, Beijing responded by strengthening the Basic Law to outlaw "subversion'' of the state.

And in 2003, after half a million people marched against the national security bill, Beijing reacted by ruling out universal suffrage in 2007-2008 and decided to reserve to itself the right to decide when to allow universal suffrage in elections to choose the chief executive and the legislature.

However, in December 2007, the standing committee decided that universal suffrage could be applied in the 2017 election of the chief executive. That decision certainly would not have been made if it were not for the fact that the demand for democracy in Hong Kong was so strong.

So China does respond to public pressure. However, it does not like to lose face, so the immediate reaction is almost always negative, possibly followed by a more conciliatory position later.

The New Year's Day demonstration was held largely because many people do not believe Beijing will allow genuine democracy, even in 2017.

However, Hong Kong's job now is to forge a consensus on how elections are to take place. A lack of consensus could give Beijing an excuse to renege on its commitment.

Of course, if Beijing then vetoes whatever Hong Kong comes up with, it will have to face the wrath of the community as well as see the formula of "one country, two systems'' subjected to international ridicule.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer whose book, "Ancestors: 900 Years in the Life of a Chinese Family,'' has just been reissued in paperback. He can be reached at Frank.ching@gmail.com.