Breaking promises to Hong Kong could backfire on Beijing

By undermining Hong Kong's autonomy, Beijing not only threatens the country's only global financial centre, but it also damages one of its most cherished goals: reunification with Taiwan.

When Britain and China signed the joint declaration regarding the future of Hong Kong, which was supposed to guarantee the city’s autonomy and rule of law, there was a lot of uneasiness about Beijing’s ability to keep its promises.

The Executive Council, the colonial governor’s close circle of advisers, fretted there was no real guarantee that Beijing would keep its words. Some argued for a form of binding arbitration by some international jury when disputes arise from the joint declaration. The British Cabinet reviewed the proposal and thought it would be next to impossible to get Beijing to sign on to it.

The last governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, also remained sceptical. He recounted his doubts in his memoirs, East and West.

“There was one unfortunate side effect of this failure to build arbitration into the joint declaration (to be closely followed, it should be added, by the slipping and slithering away from the promises on democracy). The extent to which people could really depend on the implementation of the joint declaration by China became a matter for prayer and aspiration,” he wrote more than a decade ago.

Hong Kong citizens’ worst fear and Chris Patten’s concerns have been vindicated in recent days as Beijing seeks to break its promises, issuing a strongly worded white paper that makes it clear that Hong Kong’s present autonomy is a gift from the central government and not a result of a painstakingly negotiated international treaty (Beijing reminds Hong Kong who’s boss, June 12).  

It seems the promise of an election is not really about the introduction of democracy. All future candidates must be vetted by a carefully chosen nomination committee of 1200 and remain ‘patriotic’, which could only mean pro-Beijing in the current context.

The promised election will take on decidedly ‘Chinese characteristics’ that would make Chinese rather than Hong Kong people feel comfortable. It would be the sort of election that produced the members of China’s National People’s Congress, its rubber stamp parliament.

Hong Kong’s citizens have vented their anger and disappointment at this apparent betrayal of promises and staged a large-scale unofficial referendum on the city’s democratic future. 780,000 people voted, using a phone app, a website and polling booths to voice their demand for a freer arrangement to choose their future chief executives.

One in five registered voters in Hong Kong took part in the exercise, according to organisers of the unofficial polling. “Think we’re seeing some signs that the Chinese government understands that the civil referendum, even though unofficial, is an expression if public opinion that needs to be considered seriously,” said Benny Tai, an activist who started the referendum in an interview with The New York Times.    

Hong Kong citizens are facing an uphill battle for their democratic future. Their opponents include not only the Communist government in Beijing, but also local collaborators including pro-Beijing business tycoons and multinationals like big four auditors Ernst & Young, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte.

The big four accounting firms actually placed advertisements in three local Chinese language newspapers, discouraging local protestors from occupying the central business district as tensions escalate between Beijing and its subjects in Hong Kong. Foreign banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered also pulled their ads from the Apple Daily, a popular local paper that is critical of Beijing. 

A showdown looms in the city, which is China’s only free city. As Chris Patten put it eloquently back in 1998, Hong Kong had a competent government, pursuing market economics under the rule of law. It was a government that fully met the Confucian goal: “making the local people happy and attracting migrants from afar.” 

But this is now under threat. Despite China’s remarkable progress in economic reform, it still relies on Hong Kong as a window to the world. It is the reason why most of China’s largest state-owned enterprises are listed there. Hong Kong’s rule of law and press freedom are the foundation of the city’s prosperity.   

Making the city more ‘Chinese’ and less Hong Kong undermines the country’s only global financial centre and gives people more reasons to worry about the country’s commitment to a more law-based economy.

Last but not at least, Beijing’s ingenious experiment of ‘one country and two systems’ is supposed to be a showcase to 23 million reluctant Taiwanese voters who have been living under a democracy for the last two decades. By undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy, Beijing is damaging one of its own most cherished national goals: the reunification with Taiwan.