Politics during the first six years after 1997, when Hong Kong became a Chinese special administrative region, was reassuringly dull and uneventful. Contrary to the many doomsters, the Chinese government barely interfered. In fact, it had no need to: Hong Kong's chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, had made it his personal mission to second-guess what Beijing might like and to satisfy such imagined wishes.
All this changed in 2003 when Tung tried to steamroller through a new law on state security. His high-handed approach provoked a
backlash. More than 500,000 people
marched in protest. The old desire for democratisation, which had been steadily building momentum in the last decade of British rule, returned. A new democracy movement was born.
Tung's incompetence meant that Beijing felt it had to take a hands-on approach. After more demonstrations, Hong Kong received friendly advice from China's leaders to focus on economics and avoid politics, and had not-so-gentle Chinese warnings against holding a referendum. Above all, the Chinese government took steps to ensure an interpretation of Hong Kong's basic law which makes it crystal clear that the chief executive could not be directly elected in 2007.
If Hong Kong could be left to its own devices, its people would choose democratisation. But Hong Kong is not master of its own house. China's policy is to allow Hong Kong maximum scope to manage its internal affairs within the rigid framework of upholding the supremacy of the Communist Party in all of China, including Hong Kong.
This is the meaning of what the Chinese describe as "a high degree of autonomy" under the policy of "one country, two systems". The implication is that Hong Kong can develop democracy so long as this poses, in the assessment of the Communist Party, no threat whatsoever to its supremacy. The less confident the Chinese government feels about Hong Kong, the more restrictive it is towards it.
A clear majority in Hong Kong supports the call for the early introduction of direct elections. But the people of Hong Kong are pragmatists, and understand the constraints. Although they are prepared to assert themselves and demonstrate for what they feel are reasonable demands, they do not want a direct confrontation with the Chinese leadership. And, so far, the democratic forces, led by Hong Kong's Democratic Party, have failed to convince the general public that their proposals to accelerate democratisation would not provoke a strong backlash from Beijing.
The only way that China's leaders would tolerate democratic development in Hong Kong is if they can be persuaded that this movement will not lead to similar demands in China proper. It means that Hong Kong's democratic advocates must find a way of insulating local politics from politics on the Chinese mainland. They have also to accept that it will be counter-productive to push for democratisation at a pace and in a form that get Beijing seriously worried.
Hong Kong's democratic parties have not yet acquired that capacity. The Democratic Party is in the process of finding a new leader, after it performed poorly in the legislative council elections last September. This allows for some hope. Unfortunately, none of the candidates seems to have the vision to produce the sort of blueprint for democratisation that would be tolerated by the Chinese government, and thus enjoy popular support locally.
The author is Louis Cha Fellow and university reader in politics at St Antony's College, Oxford. One of his recent books is A Modern History of Hong Kong (I B Tauris)