December 11 saw a major, planned operation by the Hong Kong police to clear the remaining Occupy protestors from sites and roads near the government office complex, some 75 days after the student protests began.
But the political challenges facing Hong Kong have grown since September, and the compromises needed to move forward with constitutional reform look more difficult to achieve.
It has been a tense and difficult period. We have witnessed the vibrancy of Hong Kong society, the extent of freedoms of speech and assembly that people enjoy, and the desire for democracy.
But the events of the last few months have also polarized opinion in Hong Kong across the population, including within families and among colleagues. Some voiced strong support for the student-led occupation of key parts of the city, hoping that pressure would lead Beijing to revisit its late August framework for amending the way the chief executive will be elected in 2017, while others concluded that the movement would achieve nothing and preferred to accept the framework on offer as a pragmatic and significant step towards a more democratic politics in Hong Kong.
There has been little meeting of hearts or minds, and the more moderate voices have mostly been quiet. The stage has been left to the students and their fellow protestors, while the wait-and-see strategy adopted by the government led to accusations of a lack of leadership.
The clearing of the protest sites now offers an opportunity for all sides to engage in a political process. The Hong Kong government will likely soon launch another public consultation on the details of electoral reform for 2017. This will be based on the legal framework set out by Beijing at the end of August, as the Hong Kong authorities – and the central government in Beijing – have repeatedly made clear. The key questions for further discussion are how exactly the nominating committee mandated in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution will be formed, how it can be made more representative, and how it will nominate the 2-3 candidates who will be put to a territory-wide popular vote.
Progress requires support from two thirds of the legislature, politically very challenging in the current polarized environment. Pan-democrat legislators – a number of whom were arrested in the police operation on December 11 – continue to oppose the framework itself, and their views appear to have hardened as a result of the “occupy” protests. The immediate prospects of a breakthrough look bleak, and we may see people take to the streets again in the coming months.
Further, the last few months have revealed disagreement over bigger issues of Hong Kong’s status and identity, and diverging understandings of the “one country two systems” formula under which Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 but maintained its own system.
At the extremes, some have come close to calling for Beijing to have no say in the running of Hong Kong, or misleadingly claimed that Hong Kong people were promised they could be “masters of their own house.” But the deal for Hong Kong was a “high degree of autonomy” – not full autonomy – and this was always understood to include giving Beijing a say in the selection of the chief executive. Unpick this, and the delicate balance that is “one country two systems” will be difficult to maintain.
Beijing is highly unlikely to respond to the occupy movement by looking for ways to enhance Hong Kong’s autonomy – that would be difficult to do anyway, as there is not much which falls outside this autonomy at the moment. The more likely response is to look for ways to tighten control, though this too will be difficult given past push back from Hong Kong people on issues such as national security legislation and national education.
The pragmatic approach is to move forward with electoral reform – including for the legislature in 2020 – within the current constitutional framework. This requires sensitive and intelligent handling from the central and Hong Kong governments, but also compromise from those in the opposition camp.
This should be the message delivered by the international community, not premature accusations that the Sino-British Joint Declaration has been breached or that we have seen the demise of the “one country two systems” framework. Awkward though it may feel in terms of domestic politics, this means acknowledging that Beijing does have a legitimate role in Hong Kong’s constitutional development, and that the August framework offers progress in line with previous commitments.
Thirty years ago, the United Kingdom and China agreed on the post-1997 “one country two systems” settlement for Hong Kong, supported by partners such as the United States. The responsibility today is to encourage pragmatic progress while respecting the legal and constitutional constraints, in the longer-term interests of Hong Kong and its people.
Dr. Tim Summers is Senior Consulting Fellow at the Asia Programme, Chatham House. He is based in Hong Kong.