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China and the UK Trade Barbs Over Hong Kong Democracy

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China Power

China and the UK Trade Barbs Over Hong Kong Democracy

As things stand now, the question is not “if” but “how much” Beijing will involve itself in the 2017 elections.

Universal suffrage in Hong Kong is a long sought after ideal with complex minutia and vested interests, but the message from China is clear: "If you're not Chinese, keep your mouth shut." Despite this warning, ire was recently raised by the British Foreign Office minister, Hugo Swire, who – in a South China Morning Post editorial – discussed the importance of universal suffrage to Hong Kong's future, raising key questions about the future of Hong Kong's electoral process.

Marking the International Day of Democracy, Swire’s politically lukewarm editorial said, "What democracy with universal suffrage in Hong Kong will look like is, of course, for the governments of Hong Kong and China–and the people of Hong Kong–to decide in line with the Basic Law." However, he added, "Britain stands ready to support in any way we can." This comment invited scorn from Beijing's puppet press and pro-Beijing Chief Executive Officer Leung Chun-Ying.

Rather than going after Swire, the state-run papers retorted with their own tactics – as they so often do – by turning Swire's editorial into an international incident. Hong Lei, spokesman of China's Foreign Ministry, said, "We urge the British side to immediately stop intervening in Hong Kong's internal affairs in any form." An editorial from the People’s Daily Online said, "The UK should conduct itself with dignity and prudence when making official comments on China's domestic affairs." The same editorial lapsed into historical finger pointing: "Considering the inequality and injustice during the UK's colonization in Hong Kong, the Empire should regret rather than take credit for Hong Kong's democracy."

In perhaps his best impression of a politburo member yet, Leung also condemned Swire's comments and even called him a "broken-headed cricket.” However, unlike the mainland, Hong Kong has a free and open press, so opinions vary there.

This is not the first time Beijing has gone after foreign proponents of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In August this year, the U.S. Consul General for Hong Kong and Macau, Clifford Hart, commented on hopes for universal suffrage. As such, the state-run Global Times said of Hart, "Hart…has no right to make frivolous remarks about such political issues as universal suffrage." The editorial went on to say, "China is an independent country, so Hart had better stop acting in vain."

In the end, whether or not foreign comments are welcome is not the issue. Rather, it is whether Beijing will ever allow someone from the pan-democracy camp to lead Hong Kong. Beijing has stated only those who "love China" will be able to be nominated for China's top spot. China can be called many things, but "pro-democracy" isn't one of them. In recent years China has been riding the line of "anti-democracy/pro-development" that has been espoused everywhere from Myanmar to Egypt. That doesn't bode well for the democrats in Hong Kong who claim to be facing Beijing's pro-business elites. The mainland has stated that they are working toward universal suffrage, but under what conditions?

The waters are about as murky as they're likely to get, with Beijing pushing its agenda and Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement turning heads. Hong Kong currently operates under the "one country, two systems" policy, which allows it to have a free press and manage its own internal affairs. Also, the region's chief executive is currently chosen by a committee of 1,200 people, but the common accusation is that only Beijing-friendly candidates are allowed to run. The Occupy Central movement aims to change this by encouraging a civil disobedience protest in favor of universal suffrage instead.

Beijing's current view is that candidates can only be elected by a "broadly representative nominating committee," which is what Zhang Xiaoming, the head of Beijing's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, called "the only option." Quoting Hong Kong's Basic Law to the nearest convenient letter, parties on the mainland are gearing up state propaganda in a bid to keep Hong Kong's elections sufficiently Chinese.

Nonetheless, Swire did his country no favors with his editorial, causing rhetoric to heat up in response to his controversial statements. Even Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing papers are weighing in; this week the Ta Kung Pao and Wen Wei Po papers coincidentally struck with allegations of British intelligence activities in the region. Wen Wei Po specifically claimed that MI6 agents had infiltrated Hong Kong's political parties, judiciary, and media.

Given that both of these news outlets lack a certain degree of credibility and are considered CCP mouthpieces, it's unlikely that Hong Kongers will be looking for James Bond under their bed anytime soon, but it's a clear sign that many believe China's Communist Party should take the lead on Hong Kong suffrage alone. However, since there hasn't been much movement in regards to universal suffrage in the last 16 years, many parties are justifiably skeptical as to whether or not Beijing will live up to its promise. As things stand now, the question is not "if" but "how much" Beijing will involve itself in 2017.