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

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.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.