Hong Kong’s sociopolitical life is at its most agitated in more than two decades. On Aug. 31, Beijing’s de facto constitutional court, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, ruled on Hong Kong’s longstanding political desire to have universal suffrage. While purportedly granting voters the right to elect future chief executives, the decision denied them the right to participate in the nominating process and effectively guaranteed that Hong Kong’s top executive office is friendly to China.
In response to this fake universal suffrage, the city’s student unions are holding a weeklong class boycott, supported by many faculty members offering on-site civil rights lectures to student protesters. The year-old Occupy Central initiative led by pro-democracy activists is also readying an October protest to paralyze Hong Kong’s financial district. Many observers have argued that the main point of friction concerns the interpretation of China’s “one country, two systems” policy and the level of Hong Kong’s independence from China.
The real issue underlying today’s antagonism, however, as one of the central tenets of the student boycott states, is the struggle to decolonize Hong Kong and return political power to its people.
Political reform in Hong Kong has been prolonged because of two crucial factors: the city’s past as a British colony (with democracy not a part of that old order) and the newly regained imperial ambition of China, which, betraying its revolutionary past, refuses to see its people as citizens.
When the Sino-British Joint Declaration was negotiated in the early 1980s, Beijing depended mainly on Hong Kong’s small bands of left-wing anti-colonial activists for support. It was the beginning of China’s reform era, and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was still seriously contemplating its own reforms. The promise of a fully democratic, completely decolonized Hong Kong thus suited both the CCP and its longtime followers in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, to ease British and business fears of a Communist takeover, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed the “one country, two systems” policy, which would make the city a special administrative region, with its capitalist economic system intact. This policy and the goal of realizing universal suffrage in the territory were written into the Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law, paving the way for a peaceful handover in 1997.
From the start, Beijing took a pro-business approach. Initially in need of Hong Kong’s capital and market expertise for China’s own reform, the CCP has tweaked that policy over 30 years into a unique mix of mainland-centric political control and Hong Kong-style capitalism, which has increasingly put the city’s socioeconomic life at the mercy of Big Capital (while serving the financial interest of the mainland’s elite families).
The latest drama shows how Beijing works simultaneously to preserve the political status quo in Hong Kong and erase the decolonization issue from public view. On the one hand, it ramped up its political control of the city earlier this year, using vague excuses involving national security and the need to step in line with the central government. Then on the heels of the August ruling, which made Hong Kong’s election process even stricter, Beijing invited a delegation of Hong Kong’s top businessmen, led by the former tycoon-turned-chief-executive Dung Chee-hwa and including the billionaire Li Ka-shing, to meet with President Xi Jinping. The purpose of the meeting, according to the official news report, was to bolster business confidence after the court decision.
Crisis of legitimacy
The departure of the colonizer is supposed to represent the liberation of the colonized. This was not the case in Hong Kong. Britain’s departure may have redressed China’s national humiliation after the Opium Wars, but the process did not mobilize the masses at all. Politically, Beijing left Hong Kong’s people only one hope: the promise of universal suffrage. When and how it happens have since been the city’s most contentious questions. After years of delay, Beijing has announced a framework that virtually bars those not obedient enough to China from gaining candidacy for the chief executive office. The ballots voters receive will thus list only Beijing’s two or three favorite candidates. This is what Beijing is calling universal suffrage.
To say no to the latest proposal – as protesters have done – means that, contrary to what Beijing would prefer, the political reform process is not over just yet.
This proposal is possible mainly because of Hong Kong’s election process, which is largely modeled after its predecessor in the final years of colonial rule. A key feature is the functional constituency: Legislators and electors chosen from variously defined sectors — such as finance, real estate, tourism, catering and labor — are responsible for nominating the chief executive. Many of these electors are registered firms instead of citizens; they represent fewer than one-tenth of Hong Kong’s more than 3 million eligible voters. Despite popular demand to abolish the system and open all seats to general election, Beijing insists on this peculiar colonial legacy. The future of the political process is at stake right now, but it is often overlooked amid support for the popular and business-friendly “two systems” policy.
The ongoing legitimacy crisis can be seen clearly by comparing Hong Kong’s previous British governors and its chief executives so far. Large-scale strikes and riots against colonial power are intrinsic to Hong Kong’s history, but little of that popular discontent targeted individual governors. In contrast, since 1997, Beijing has handpicked a tycoon (Tung Chee-hwa, 1997–2005), a bureaucrat (Donald Tsang, 2005–12) and a party follower (C.Y. Leung, 2012–present), to fill the chief executive seat. That all three became the focus of mass protests while in office underscores the institutional chasm that exists — and, given Beijing’s most recent decision, will continue to exist — between those who rule in Hong Kong and those who are ruled.
People have compared Beijing’s August proposal to strictly controlled election practices on the mainland and, for that matter, in Iran. It would be easy to conclude that relatively, Beijing’s offer to Hong Kong is not so bad. But to do so would be to miss the point of Hong Kong’s postcolonial conditions and its people’s sense of identity. For instance, despite countless setbacks over the last six decades, the CCP enjoys a strong ruling legitimacy among most of the mainland population because it is an outgrowth of the state’s initial founding moment.
In contrast, after a peaceful handover, most of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents were left wondering what it meant to no longer be colonial subjects. And it is the idea of universal suffrage that has substantiated their identity as a postcolonial citizenry. Their sustained and enthusiastic democracy movement over the past 30 years comes out of this sensibility.
It is thus not surprising that Hong Kong’s people were among the most supportive outside the mainland of China’s 1989 pro-democracy movement. The crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square that June affected Hong Kong profoundly: In its wake, Hong Kong was a conduit for a surge of Chinese emigration to Western countries and the city has since held annual vigils honoring Tiananmen victims, drawing hundreds of thousands of people over the past 25 years.
Say no to Beijing
Procedurally, Beijing’s framework needs to be ratified by two-thirds of Hong Kong’s legislature. Enough pan-democratic legislators have expressed willingness to block the bill. But the legislature may not debate the bill until spring, and Beijing has shown that it is capable of dirty tricks of intimidation. These legislators need public support.
For Hong Kong’s people calling for democracy, Beijing’s latest ruling was a slap in the face, reminding them that Hong Kong was, is and will remain under an imperial power. To say no to the latest proposal means that, contrary to what Beijing would prefer, the political reform process is not over just yet. All concerned citizens who do not want to be subjects of a master sitting in Beijing should come out to show their support for the student protesters and pan-democratic legislators who are taking a stand.