Mathews identifies 2003 protests against a proposed anti-subversion law as the epiphany in Hong Kong’s post-colonial life. Then, hundreds of thousands of residents took to the streets – successfully – to oppose a measure that threatened to undermine civil liberties; and the Chinese government, belatedly recognizing that the Hong Kong public had its own red lines, has subsequently been wary of attempting to roll back any of the rights enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the framework agreed by China and the U.K. at the time of the handover.
Politics are in some ways a tenuous foundation for Hong Kong’s modern identity, given that the territory has been prevented from fledging fully as a democracy in the way that Taiwan has done, for example. The beacon of democracy in southern China these days is arguably not Hong Kong at all, but rather Wukan, a village 100 miles down the coast in Guangdong whose people are busy electing new leaders after forcibly ejecting the corrupt officials who previously ran their affairs. The election of a new Hong Kong chief executive in March will look distinctly oligarchic by comparison. An electoral college of just 1,200 individuals will decide the appointment, and no one is under the illusion that the democratic inputs of ordinary Hong Kongers, such as regular opinion polls, matter as much as the upward- or downward-pointing thumbs of Communist Party grandees.
Yet Hong Kong’s democratic trajectory does at least appear more promising than the rest of China’s. Local elections are free and open, while the number of Legislative Council members who are directly elected is gradually rising, as the Basic Law requires. There’s also an understanding that Beijing will allow the chief executive to be universally elected in 2017, although the central government is still liable to determine who makes the shortlist.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But Hong Kongers wouldn’t necessarily be too uncomfortable with that arrangement, argues Ho Lok-sang, a professor at Lingnan University and an expert on Hong Kong politics and society. “[Voting for candidates vetted by Beijing] will not completely satisfy Hong Kong people – they’d like to see the whole process opened up,” he explains. “But they’re realistic enough to know that’s not going to happen. Hong Kong people prefer stability over everything else, and they don’t want a chief executive who won’t be trusted by Beijing. They think that stability and living well is more important than democracy: Hong Kong is very realistic in nature, there’s not that much ideology.”
The unplanned democracy experiment in Wukan, as well as China’s own upcoming leadership transition, may ultimately influence how much more democracy Beijing is willing to drip-feed Hong Kong over the coming decade than the current bout of name-calling between the city and the mainland. What Beijing’s new leaders ought to recognize, however, is that Hong Kongers care even more about the rights they already enjoy than about securing incremental political gains. “The main concern is the rule of law – that’s Hong Kong’s core value,” argues Ho. “People are concerned about corruption, about press freedoms, about the way police handle demonstrations. I have no doubt that Hong Kong people would prefer the rule of law to being richer, for example.”
Any sign of back-sliding on these cherished rights therefore badly shakes the city’s confidence. The heavy-handed policing of the 2011 visit of Chinese Vice Premier Li Keqiang, for example, was viewed as being profoundly un-Hong Kong. Similarly, the recent appointment of a mainlander as editor of the South China Morning Post, the city’s most iconic newspaper, though not necessarily a retrograde step, has raised fears about the erosion of the Hong Kong media’s independence. But the ultimate test, argues Ho, will be the continuing independence of the courts – which so far, in his assessment, has not been tampered with.
Right now, Hong Kong needs a few practical safeguards to protect its basic resources from demographic overload. Soon, it will also need some political safeguards to backstop its most prized freedoms. Hong Kong needs Beijing to show it cares. In return, Beijing will find a Hong Kong that is a lot less jumpy about being part of the China, and that no longer sees locusts on the horizon.