China Power

The Battle for the Soul of Hong Kong

Beijing’s hardline stance has set the stage for a dramatic showdown with Hong Kong’s democrats.

The Battle for the Soul of Hong Kong
Credit: Flickr/ pasuay @ incendo

After months of mobilization and counter-mobilization by democrats and anti-democrats, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) has finally spoken on Hong Kong’s chief executive electoral arrangements for 2017. On Sunday, days after PLA armored personnel carriers rolled through the populous Jordan district in Hong Kong, the NPCSC issued its Decision (“the Decision”), purporting to “build social consensus in Hong Kong” by laying down rules on “certain core questions.”

The Decision decreed that Chief Executive candidates would be nominated by a 1,200 strong Nominating Committee, with the same structure as the existing Election Committee (i.e. dominated by pro-Beijing people). Candidates – of which there would be no more than two or three – would have to receive support from at least half of the nominators. Ominously, the draft Decision said that ignorance of the “one country, two systems” doctrine and challenges to China’s governing authority had created the “necessity” to rule on these “core questions.”

The Decision is Beijing’s latest escalation in a years-long (if not decades-long) war over the extent and pace of democratization of the former British colony. Although skirmishes of varying degree took place before China’s resumption of sovereignty in 1997, the conflict intensified markedly following the 2003 protests against China’s proposed national security legislation. Beijing has repeatedly pushed back the deadline for democratic elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive and legislature, first from 2007/2008 to 2012, and then to 2017. It has also engaged in a divide-and-conquer strategy to split the city’s pro-democracy camp, particularly during the 2009-2010 disputes over legislative electoral reforms for 2012.

Unlike in previous bouts, however, the patience of Hong Kong’s “moderate” democrats has worn thin this time. One of the key players in the current debate is Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), a civil disobedience campaign led by a constitutional law professor, a sociology professor, and a pastor; all three had previously been considered moderates. OCLP’s activities – including a series of Deliberation Days and a referendum co-organized with the Hong Kong University Public Opinion Program – have been met with official condemnation, hacking attacks, and anti-OCLP groups and protests. There have even been widespread allegations that the anti-OCLP groups and protests have included paid participants, especially non-Hongkongers. Little surprise then that veteran commentators have compared tensions in the city to those during the Communist riots of 1967.

The Hong Kong Government has done little to mediate the current dispute. When Li Fei, chairman of the National People’s Congress Basic Law Committee, issued a statement in November 2013 about the need to vet chief executive candidates, his comments cast a cloud over Beijing’s then-imminent consultation with the Hong Kong government. These low expectations were borne out when the final report alleged, without adequate evidence, that “mainstream” opinion opposed direct nominations of chief executive candidates. Far from pushing back against these pressures, current Chief Executive C.Y. Leung took the unusual step of signing an anti-OCLP petition in his “personal capacity.”

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Beijing itself has made no real effort to moderate its rhetoric. NPCSC Chairman Zhang Dejiang declared – in a sentiment echoed in the Decision – that “national security” had to be taken into account in democratizing Hong Kong. Similarly, Chen Zuoer, the former deputy director of the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, compared democratic candidates to terrorists and threatened to use the People’s Liberation Army to disperse protesters if they carried through on their threat to blockade Hong Kong’s financial district.

Beijing’s hardline stance – and the Hong Kong government’s acquiescence to it – has set  the stage for a bruising showdown between Hong Kong’s democrats and the mainland government, in which few stand to gain. Moderate democrats, still smarting from allegations of having “sold out” the pro-democracy camp in 2010, are in no position to negotiate. The Hong Kong government’s conduct – and the tone of the Decision, which places the “responsibility” for defining the parameters of electoral reform squarely with the NPCSC – suggests it is increasingly irrelevant. Hong Kong’s legislators, too, have been sidelined; Beijing held merely cursory consultations last month, at which only three democracy advocates were permitted to speak.  Beijing’s persistent refusal to negotiate has alienated all of its potential negotiating partners in Hong Kong. The only factions set to benefit – in the short term, if at all – are “radical” democrats and their opponents.

The Decision also lays bare the fundamental tension in the role of the chief executive. One of the points emphasized in the Decision was that the chief executive was answerable to both the Special Administrative Region and the mainland government. the Decision added that the requirement of “loving the country and loving Hong Kong” – the former a euphemism for loyalty to the Communist Party – was a corollary of that dual role.

One of the questions fundamental to the success or failure of “one country, two systems” is how conflicts between the interests of the Hong Kong public and the interests of Beijing ought to be resolved. The Decision spells out – more explicitly than any previous document – that any such conflicts must be resolved in Beijing’s favor.

If OCLP protests do indeed occur, Beijing’s reactions – which are difficult to predict during the best of times – will play the pivotal role. Some in Beijing may appreciate how much China has to lose by not taking a measured response to events in Hong Kong. However, if Beijing uses armed force to respond to OCLP, it would herald the end of Deng Xiaoping’s bold experiment in “one country, two systems” – and China’s public commitments in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Alvin Y. H. Cheung is a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University and a non-practicing member of the Hong Kong Bar. He is also the author of the forthcoming article, “Road to Nowhere: Hong Kong’s Democratization and China’s Obligations Under Public International Law.”