Hong Kong's poisoned political stalemate

China's proposed electoral reforms for Hong Kong are stoking tensions between Beijing and pro-democracy supporters, but neither side will benefit from adopting a hardline stance.

Pro-democracy activists have promised to unleash waves of civil disobedience in Hong Kong after Beijing laid down strict limits in its proposed electoral reforms. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress made it clear that it would remain the ultimate gatekeeper to the 2017 universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive.

A Beijing-controlled nominating committee will vet all candidates to ensure that they are ‘patriotic’ enough to stand. Candidates then need to get at least 50 per cent support from the 1,200 nominating committee that suppose to be broadly representative. In the end, Hong Kong voters get to choose from two to three candidates cleared by Beijing.

Li Fei, a deputy secretary general of the standing committee of NPC, also chose to deliver a stern warning to pro-democracy legislators and activists and said if the Hong Kong legislature were to vote down the electoral reform, it would not get another chance.

“If someone says if we don’t get universal suffrage in 2017, we can try it again in 2022. But I want to say that if Hong Kong misses out on this historical opportunity, it will not get another chance,” he said in response to a question from a Chinese journalist.

Beijing’s uncompromising message has sparked immediate condemnation from pan-democracy legislators and activists. Twenty-seven pan-democracy legislators promised to vote down the promised electoral reform at a press conference after Beijing released its blueprint.

“After having lied to Hong Kong people for so many years, it finally revealed itself today,” said Alan Leong, a pro-democracy law-maker. “Hong Kong people are right to feel betrayed. It’s certain now that the central government will be effectively appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive.”

Benny Tai, a co-founder of the Occupy Central movement, not only denounced Beijing’s move but also said the city had entered “a new era, an era of civil disobedience, and an era of resistance.” Students are also planning to boycott classes in an act of defiance.

Beijing has been hardening its stance over Hong Kong as pro-democracy groups take on an increasingly confrontational approach. The Communist Party is particularly annoyed by some prominent activists, such as Martin Lee and Anson Chan, who have been calling for the US and Britain to intervene on Hong Kong’s behalf.

A former senior Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs warned in an interview that the Occupy Central movement could end in bloodshed if it decided to go ahead, regardless of Beijing’s warnings.

Chen Zuoer, a former deputy director of Hong Kong and Macau affairs, said in a radio interview that the movement was being “manipulated by Western countries to overthrow a regime”. He labelled the movement as “colour revolution” that swept across Eastern Europe and the Middle East and resulted in many regime changes.

It seems that Hong Kong is poised to become a political battleground between Beijing and pan-democracy supporters. But there will be no winners in a political showdown.

Beijing has lost an opportunity to introduce political reform in China’s most prosperous and freest city. Many people in Hong Kong feel that they have been betrayed by Beijing’s promise of allowing them to elect a Hong Kong chief executive through universal suffrage. Despite its projected confidence, China is clearly nervous about opening up a Pandora’s box of political liberalisation.

It is likely that Beijing-endorsed candidates will struggle to get a popular mandate to govern an increasingly agitated population. Young Hong Kongers are less optimistic about their future than their parents and grandparents, and there is a widening gulf between the haves and have-nots. Beijing’s preference to retain a British-style colonial government may not be suited to a changed Hong Kong.

On the other hand, the pro-democracy supporters’ uncompromising tactics and language is not helping their cause. By throwing down gauntlets at Beijing, they are essentially making the Chinese government harden its stance over the city.

Calling for the US and Britain to support the democratic movement is a tactical error, which not only arouses Beijing’s suspicion of foreign interference, but also offers the Communist Party ammunition to label democracy activists as “foreign agents”.  

How to handle Hong Kong’s increasingly poisoned political stalemate will be a test for both sides. Its future as an international financial centre and a vibrant cosmopolitan city is at stake.  

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