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The fight for democracy and liberty in Hong Kong

Chinese pressure on the city's government is pushing the situation into dangerous territory.

Hong Kong's citizens remain determined to achieve democratic values for their city. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Stringer/Getty Images
Hong Kong's citizens remain determined to achieve democratic values for their city. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Stringer/Getty Images

Since the official handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong has been under Chinese influence once more. However, the “one country, two systems” mantra enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 dictates that the city’s capitalist system and way of life should remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

The city’s people are increasingly demanding democracy, but they aren’t getting it. Most want the city’s chief executive, a position currently held by Leung Chun-ying, to be elected by universal suffrage. Instead, moves are being made to ensure that occupiers of the post are endorsed by Beijing, a system which gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) significant control over the city.

Leung made a report to the CCP’s National People Congress on 15 July, stating that Hong Kong should enjoy universal suffrage, but should only choose between a range of candidates proposed by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing. This has been criticised by the currently flourishing pro-democracy movement as a pretence.

To further complicate the issue, on 19 July high-ranking CCP official Zhang Dejiang visited the city and expressed support for Leung’s proposals. His opinions suggested that “Beijing would not tighten its power over Hong Kong” but that full-blown “civic nomination... was illegal.” His CCP seniors have reacted negatively to his comments.

Finally, the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong is itself divided. A group called Occupy Central has proposed staging civil disobedience in the main financial hub of the city. This has been met with widespread criticism. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy condemns the proposal for fear of violence and damage to the economy, and claims to have collected well over 900,000 signatures against it. But the idea is by no means defeated. Student groups in particular have urged pro-democratic civil disobedience so that their opponents will “see how serious Hong Kong people are treating democracy”.

This unfolding drama has gone largely unnoticed by the Western media, with attention focused on the chaos in the Middle East and Ukraine. However, the threat to freedom and security evolving in Hong Kong should not be underestimated. The details of the proposals for universal suffrage may seem pedantic, but civil disobedience’s presence as a talking point indicates the potential for these tensions to escalate fast. For instance, it’s possible that the People’s Liberation Army could make its presence known in the city.

Michael DeGolyer, a leading pollster in Hong Kong, commented that “if [the pro-democracy groups] overplay their hand... the state comes down on them”. He drew pointed comparison to Tiananmen Square not long after the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The state-run Global Times ran an editorial claiming that “sharp political confrontation does nobody any good”.

Moreover, Beijing is undertaking a gradual suppression of the Hong Kong press, exerting pressure on pro-democratic outlets. The news site House News shut over the weekend, citing political pressure. One of the site’s founders said that “to act like a normal citizen, a normal media outlet... is not easy, it’s even terrifying”. The site had opposed plans in 2012 to introduce mandatory pro-China “patriotic lessons”, plans which were eventually shelved.

Mark Milke notes that the right to vote has by no means been a necessary condition for “peace and prosperity”, since Hong Kong has enjoyed both of those for many years without suffrage. But democracy matters to them for reasons beyond the instrumental. They feel that self-determination, at least in choosing the city’s government, is intrinsically important, important enough that many would risk violence and reactionary measures from Beijing itself. This risk should accord international attention, and Hong Kong could do with help from voices from elsewhere.

Moreover, all of this implicates Britain in an awkward clash with China. Britain has faced calls for it to express diplomatic concerns and vocally defend pro-democrats in Hong Kong. But disagreements with China aren’t high on the Foreign Office’s agenda. Britain’s allies, chiefly the United States, will also be keen to avoid any flashpoint scenarios. For now, unless the pro-democracy movement can quell its more violent urges, the situation will escalate and Beijing’s sinister moves against liberty in the city will continue.

Tags:China