As Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” continues, Martin Jacques and others commentators have tried to pin the underlying causes on purely – or primarily – economic factors. Although quality of life issues undeniably played a role in building up public discontent, the emerging narrative – which seeks to portray Hongkongers as ingrates resentful of Mainland China’s newfound economic success – is incomplete and misleading.
Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.” Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests.
This skewed institutional framework is a major contributor to a whole host of quality-of-life issues. For example, the dispute over the high-speed rail public works project in 2010 – railroaded through the legislature despite significant public opposition – is a vivid illustration of the consequences of a political system in which business interests can run roughshod over other considerations. Successive chief executives, too, have been able to ignore quality-of-life issues affecting the general public precisely because they are accountable only to their “constituents” and not the general electorate.
The Umbrella Revolution is the result of this. It is a warning of the comprehensive breakdown of confidence in Hong Kong’s governing institutions – it reflects growing public disillusion with the institutional means of making their voices heard. The momentum of the protests reflects that disenchantment. The key leaders are students, not pro-democracy legislators (or even Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the original proponents of mass civil disobedience).
The Umbrella Revolution also signals the failure of Beijing’s Hong Kong strategy. Following the historic protest march against proposed national security legislation in 2003, Beijing sought to pacify Hong Kong with economic incentives such as the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA), while slowly eroding fundamental institutions such as press freedoms. Although this succeeded in the short term, Beijing appears to have over-estimated the extent to which it can renege on its commitments – or the extent to which it can encroach on the values Hongkongers view as fundamental to their way of life. A recurring theme at the protests against “patriotic” national education in 2012 – which resulted in hunger strikes and a sit-in outside the Hong Kong Government headquarters at Tamar – was “don’t mess with my kids.” The legal profession, too, has been galvanized into action by the incursion into judicial independence posed by a recent State Council White Paper that referred to judges as “administrators.” CEPA, too, has not had the success that Beijing intended – not only because of increasing Chinese intervention in Hong Kong, but also because of the perception that economic integration has disproportionately favored vested interests – and that it will continue to do so without systemic change to Hong Kong’s political institutions.
The views expressed by Martin Jacques and others are symptomatic of Beijing’s growing frustration with its inability to “buy off” the Hong Kong public, even as it goes about undermining the “key policies” it pledged to uphold in the Joint Declaration of 1984.
This desire to ignore the structural causes of Hong Kong’s discontent in favor of a simplistic narrative about economic resentment may have dire consequences. Beijing might choose, in due course, to “double down” on its strategy of providing economic incentives, while intervening ever more directly in Hong Kong’s own affairs (as Jacques appears to advocate). That would amount to the abrogation of “One Country, Two Systems” – with disastrous consequences for Hong Kong, and for China.
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.”