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What Beijing Should Do About Hong Kong

by Elizabeth C. Economy
September 29, 2014

Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old who heads the group leading a pupils' protest, Scholarism, addresses a rally in Hong Kong September 26, 2014. Hundreds of children joined students demanding greater democracy for Hong Kong on Friday, capping a week-long campaign that has seen a large cut-out depicting the territory's leader as the devil paraded through the city and calls for him to resign. The Chinese characters on the background read "Fate". REUTERS/Bobby Yip (CHINA - Tags: POLITICS EDUCATION CIVIL UNREST) Joshua Wong, a seventeen-year-old who heads the group leading a pupils' protest, Scholarism, addresses a rally in Hong Kong on September 26, 2014. (Bobby Yip/Courtesy Reuters)


Hong Kong is not Beijing, 2014 is not 1989, and Civic Square is not Tiananmen Square. Still, the images of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese demonstrating in the streets for democratic reform cannot help but bring back memories of a quarter century ago. Like the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, those in Hong Kong are spearheaded by extraordinarily passionate, articulate, and inspiring young leaders. Both movements include Chinese people from all walks of life. And both movements, while at heart represent a call for fuller democracy and more direct political participation, also engage issues of economic well-being and inequities within the system. Of course they are linked in other ways as well: had the 1989 Tiananmen protests turned out differently, there likely would be no need for the 2014 student boycott of their classes and more broadly based Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong.

That the two sets of protests twenty-five years apart are not the same, of course, leaves open the hope that the demonstrations underway in Hong Kong will not result in the same violent suppression that befell those in Tiananmen. Hong Kong, unlike Beijing, has a strong recent history of large-scale peaceful demonstrations, and the protestors in Hong Kong include experienced politicians as well as passionate students and citizens. Students in Hong Kong have even received a degree of institutional support from at least one university, the University of Hong Kong, which stated in a letter that it “will be flexible and reasonable in understanding the actions of students and staff who wish to express their strongly held views.” Moreover, Hong Kong’s rule of law will likely afford greater protection to the demonstrators: in the midst of the protests, several student leaders were arrested and then released; in referring to one of them, a judge noted that seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong had already been held longer than was lawful and that there was insufficient cause to keep him further.

And yet the question remains: what are the next steps? While various groups within the larger protest movement in Hong Kong have slightly different lists of demands, the resignation of the unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the ability to vote for at least one candidate for chief executive not preselected by Beijing top most people’s lists. Given these reasonably straight-forward demands, Beijing has a number of options. It can: enforce a harsh crackdown in Hong Kong in the hopes that brutally suppressing the protestors will stave off further reform demonstrations; confine the protests to a small area of Hong Kong and hope that they run their course: eventually the students will return to school and the occupy central protestors will return to work; remove Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who has been a weak and unpopular leader from the outset as a stop-gap; or establish a committee including representatives of various Hong Kong political actors to consider the next stage of suffrage, post-2017. (It could also, of course, decide to grant the protestors their biggest demand—an open slate of candidates determined by universal suffrage for the 2017 election—but this seems well outside the realm of possibility.)

None of the options is likely very attractive to the Chinese leadership. All come with not insignificant political and economic costs. No doubt, the government wishes that the Hong Kong activists would simply concede, perhaps following the advice of Tsinghua University Professor Daniel Bell, who suggests that Hong Kong political activists are doing more harm than good. He notes, “The Hong Kong special administrative region is the most important experiment in political reform. But the system assumes that the central government has the ultimate power to determine what works and what doesn’t. If that power is threatened, the experiment may be put to an end. Hong Kong political activists who, willingly or not, harm the relation with Beijing also harm the chance for Hong Kong-style political reform in mainland China.” Of course, Dr. Bell may want to consider that Beijing has already had fifteen years to witness the success of the Hong Kong political experiment and has done nothing to emulate it on the mainland. It hardly seems reasonable to ask the Hong Kong people to keep their interests at bay in the hopes that mainland leaders might suddenly come to appreciate the value of universal suffrage.

There is no easy solution—the best outcome for now might be to test the waters by replacing C.Y. Leung not with a lackey of Beijing or a democracy activist but with a politician such as Anson Chan or Christine Loh, who have impeccable political credentials, as well as strong managerial experience. The next three years could then be a test case for what a more independent-minded Hong Kong leader might mean for the island’s relations with the mainland and provide guidance for further revisions to Beijing’s current limited conception of universal suffrage.

Hong Kong is not Beijing, and here is hoping that Beijing knows that too.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Bert Blyleven

    Based on Beijing’s recent belligerence on just about every issue I don’t think it is at all possible that Beijing will replace Leung with someone not firmly under Beijing’s control.

  • Posted by Steven

    Occupy Central is a very interesting situation just beginning to play out and in Beijing’s case a no-win situation. On one hand, Beijing can implement an overt style Tiananmen Square crackdown or infiltrate and disperse the movement internally. In both cases they’ll lose face to the watching world while the world’s hope for a more modern and humane China will be set back for more years to come. On the other hand, if Beijing succumbs to liberal Hong Kongers demands they’ll look weak and this response would cause divisions between moderates and hardliners of the Communist Party. A few factors to consider, 1. Today is the 65th birthday of the People’s Republic of China and Occupy Central’s deadline for reforms to be met and Hong Kong’s CEO to step down, 2. The implementation of the Shanghai-Hong Kong stock connect later this month (Occupy Central could shake this new joint market and in turn, the global economy), 3. Trouble in Hong Kong and further supression in the mainland may keep foreign investment from an already slowing economy 4. This might not be Tiananmen 2014, yet and even if it doesn’t become severe social unrest it already has reopend the wounds of 1989 and 5. The Chinese dream, “The Chinese dream, after all is the dream of the people…” – Xi Jinping, source: Xinhua English, there’s a lot of hope behind this dream and this dream could be crushed. Either way, we’re witnessing history in one of the world’s oldest and interesting civilizations. Occupy Central’s demands and Beijing’s response will have far reaching consequences, good and bad, for years to come. I wish Benny Tai and his followers the best of luck and commend them for standing up for their beliefs and hope Xi Jinping, the paramount leader, knows that its 2014 and the world is watching. Its your move Beijing.

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