On 31 August, when Beijing’s offer of universal suffrage to Hong Kong came with an extremely restrictive framework allowing for only two to three establishment candidates, it was just another sign of the Chinese government taking greater control over its special administrative region.
The move is part of a far narrower interpretation of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle first agreed upon in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. The agreement stipulated that Hong Kong should be able to continue its ‘capitalist’ economic and political systems following the handover in 1997 for at least 50 years. While China maintained a relatively low profile in the period immediately after the handover, this has changed over the years.
After a mass demonstration on 1 July 2003, the Chinese government failed in its push to implement national security legislation in Hong Kong — prompting Beijing to increase its influence inside the city. This has intensified in more recent years. Many voices favourable to the pan-democracy camp have been forced out of Hong Kong’s traditional media. Overall the media has become more pro-China in recent years, and prominent firms have refused to advertise in pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily. The newspaper’s owner, Jimmy Lai, also faced massive legal scrutiny after it was revealed that he had donated significant amounts of money to the democratic camp.
In June 2014, a Beijing white paper on Hong Kong’s status and political future reaffirmed China’s dominant role. The document seemed to undermine the principle of judicial independence when it described judges as administrators with an obligation to ‘love the country’, a slogan that is generally interpreted as synonymous with ‘loving the Communist Party’. The Chinese government has rejected this interpretation.
But the attempt to increase control has led to a backlash from many Hong Kongers. Not only were many lawyers outraged about the white paper but its timing played into the hands of democracy activists — activists who could mobilise an unexpectedly high number of people to participate in a referendum on which reform proposal the democratic camp should endorse. In the end, the Chinese government did not even consider the most conservative reform proposal and opted for a reform plan that would deny Hong Kongers any choice in the election for chief executive. It laid bare the unwillingness of the Chinese government to negotiate with anyone, not even moderates.
The Communist Party is worried that any form of popular mandate could make the chief executive in Hong Kong more powerful than the unelected leaders in China. Without any compromise from the Chinese side, the present reform proposal is likely to fail in the Legislative Council, where it needs the support of two-thirds of the legislators. This would mean securing some support from the pan-democracy camp now united in opposition to the proposal.
At the same time, democracy activists have called on their supporters to follow up on their promise to use disobedience and block the central district later this year. Whether or not this eventuates, it is unlikely to have any major effect on the Chinese government — an unfortunate reality that even most activists acknowledge. At this point, it is unclear what the Hong Kong government will do about the protests. Though a violent crackdown seems unlikely — if not impossible — activists are already preparing for that eventuality.
It is more than likely that Hong Kong will continue to be governed in its present form until at least 2047, when the ‘one-country, two-systems’ policy is set to end. But even then, without significant institutional reforms on the mainland, Hong Kong’s separate system holds more benefits for China than if it were to be fully integrated. As Foreign Policy recently reported, one Guangzhou-based research firm has argued that if the former British colony were to become just another mainland city, it would be reduced to second-tier status. This is because Hong Kong’s special status is a critical reason for its economic prosperity. The independent legal system and the free exchange of information provide the basis for both the financial system and the property market.
Most importantly, the aspects that make Hong Kong a developed economy also provide an important rationale for many companies aiming to locate their regional headquarters in Asia. If this advantage were to be lost, these companies would be likely to relocate to other places such as Singapore. In light of this, the Chinese government may want to maintain Hong Kong’s advantage.
Stephan Ortmann is a Visiting Assistant Professor at the Department of Asian and International Studies, City University of Hong Kong.
This article originally appeared on the East Asia Forum on 25 September 2014. Republished with permission.