Hong Kong by-election has territory on edge

By Kevin McQueen     May 12, 2010

HONG KONG (MarketWatch) -- China could weather political tensions if it plays smart. The resignation of five pro-democracy lawmakers in January in protest at the lack of a timetable for democratic reform, and the May 16 by-election to replace them, have unexpectedly breathed new life into Hong Kong's stagnant political scene. 

Hong Kong financial district
Hong Kong financial district

The walkout from the Legislative Council -- Hong Kong's half-elected, half-appointed lawmaking body -- was spearheaded by the three members of the leftist-but-pro-democratic League of Social Democrats, a fringe group with a penchant for protests and a reputation for plain speaking.

This, along with the outcry by pro-China lawmakers and their allies amid mutterings that the resignations were fundamentally illegal, has made Hong Kong's citizens jittery over possible unrest.

In fact, the League's willingness to face China's potential wrath over the failure to offer a firm roadmap to full democracy for Hong Kong by 2012 seems naïve, especially as other pro-democratic forces are themselves divided on the matter of preferred tactics.

And judging by some of the statements released by China, it is apparent that China regards such brazen challenges to its authority with alarm.

The resignations also seem like a serious misreading of the city-state's social and political temperature, because although the majority of Hong Kongers support democratic reforms, they have little stomach for radical action. In fact, polls taken by the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program consistently show quite high levels of trust in the Beijing regime, more so than in Hong Kong's own government.

But luckily for the local democrats contesting the upcoming polls, the response from the territory's pro-China politicians has been so inept that it is aiding their cause -- so far at least.

With the decision by the territory's China loyalists to boycott the by-elections, they have inadvertently kept the issue alive and firmly in the spotlight, while word on the street is that enthusiasm for the by-elections is growing ahead of the polls and turnout could still be much higher than the anemic 30% expected.

Pro-China elements continue to allege that the pro-democracy parties' main motivations are subversion and a lack of patriotism. This does not wash so well among Hong Kong's sophisticated electorate, where patriotism and ideas of the so-called "Chinese-ness" are not strictly bound in any way to the Communist Party's narrative.

Allegations made by the pro-China camp have in fact played right into their opponents' hands, and the Hong Kong government will have to tread carefully. By repeatedly attacking the motives of pan-democrats, they could also help to inadvertently or otherwise galvanize them.

This is not without precedent. Back in 2003, the Hong Kong government and its pro-China clients made a bad situation worse by misreading continued public anger in the wake of the SARS epidemic, a challenging economic climate, and mounting anxiety over the then-impending security bill that would have given the government more power to crack down on dissenting voices. The result was a series of huge street protests and a black eye for Hong Kong's chief executive at the time, Tung Chee-hwa.

However, there is room for maneuver in all this in future if China is clever about it. Although one should never have expected pro-China parties to contest the election, they could and should have done more than repackage the same electoral reform proposals via their local proxy -- which caused the pro-democracy legislators to resign in the first place.

There is more goodwill towards China than even the Communist Party may believe, but being so accustomed to absolute and centralized control, the idea of courting public opinion is somewhat alien to them.

When China admonishes the United States, it often publishes pieces in the state press urging them to drop their "Cold War" mentality. Ironically, this is the same prism China still views Hong Kong through -- regarding it as a colony or a base for subversives, when in fact it is currently under Chinese sovereignty, if not wholly under the political control of the Communist Party.

But if China shows the same nimbleness and flexibility it has shown with Taiwan over the past few years, it could benefit immensely. And if it is able to negotiate with Taiwan's Kuomintang, why can't it do the same thing with Hong Kong's democracy movement?

Unfortunately though, China is likely to respond to the pan-democratic challenge as a threat to its rule rather than an opportunity to increase its standing in Hong Kong and to the world at large.

Kevin McQueen is an Asia political scholar and writer.