What’s Wrong With Hong Kong?

Three reasons why China's laboratory for ideas now faces a murky future.

Anthony Kwan/Getty Images
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

"Do you think we’re going to end up like Tibet?" It was the spring of 2011, and the abrupt question from my Hong Kongese running coach, as we ascended a seemingly never-ending section of steps, almost had me tumble down in shock. We had never discussed politics, current affairs, or my profession as a human rights researcher. Mostly, our conversations had revolved around nutrition (my being a vegetarian clearly pains him), training discipline ("If there are no gyms around, you can use bricks"), and the fact that no current Hong Kong pop stars even remotely measure up to their peers from the 1980s (the decade he was born).

While the parallels with the situation in Tibet remain limited — notwithstanding the display of armored personnel carriers in the streets in recent weeks — the steady rise of disquiet among ordinary Hong Kongers about the poor performance of their local government and its successive chief executives has been the paramount factor leading to a recent clash with Beijing.

The trigger for the clash was somewhat technical: a decision by China’s legislature, announced in late August, spelling out the eligibility criteria for candidates aspiring to the chief executive position, the head of the Hong Kong government under the territory’s mini-constitution, called the Basic Law.

The problem Beijing was facing was straightforward: how to implement universal suffrage in the former British colony of Hong Kong, as the Basic Law required, while ensuring that only candidates to its liking could be elected. China had agreed to the universal-suffrage clause during handover negotiations with the U.K. in the 1980s as a way to show that it would indeed grant a "high degree of autonomy" to the territory, and to reassure the Hong Kong public that even after the 1997 transfer to Chinese sovereignty, "Hong Kong people would rule Hong Kong." Back then, Beijing firmly expected that by the time the first universal-suffrage election of the chief executive was to take place, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), Beijing’s political vehicle in Hong Kong, would have cemented an unassailable position within the electorate, therefore delivering an elected chief executive to the mainland’s liking.

Unfortunately for the rulers in Beijing, this did not happen, in part because the Hong Kong population was riled by the bloody suppression of the 1989 democracy movement in China, but mostly thanks to the deep unpopularity of the succession of handpicked chief executives since 1997, which has fueled support for the pro-democracy camp and contributed to the hardening of a distinct Hong Kong political identity, one out of step with the mainland system. Not ensured a win anymore in genuinely competitive elections, Beijing had no option but to prevent the candidates it did not like from running.

In that sense, the decision by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee announced on Aug. 31 — which institutes a drastic system to screen out candidates not approved by Beijing — was a foregone conclusion, notwithstanding the mobilization by Occupy Central, a protest movement led by a trio of Hong Kong intellectuals whose plan was to force Beijing’s hand with the threat of civil disobedience.   

It is a mistake, however, to argue that the clash was ineluctable and that Hong Kong’s fate was sealed back in 1984. In fact, the recent events, which included an unprecedented mobilization in favor of genuine universal suffrage and a (mostly counterproductive) all-out attack by Beijing and its forces in Hong Kong, were precipitated by the almost coincidental convergence of three distinct factors.

The first factor has been the growing anxiety about how long ordinary Hong Kongers would be able to maintain their livelihood and distinct identity. (Everyone in Hong Kong knows that ultimately, the game is up, but, as the truism goes, the certainty of death doesn’t prevent us from living.) The second factor has been the deep cultural and political divide between Hong Kong’s established pro-democracy establishment and its younger postcolonial digital natives, who tend to be more socially radical. The third factor has been the elite power play in Beijing as Chinese President and leader Xi Jinping is forcefully establishing his authority at the helm of the mainland’s ruling Communist Party.

Let’s look briefly at these three factors, as it is their very interplay, now that Beijing has put its foot down, that will shape what happens next:

1. A growing sense of alienation from government. Through a series of crises in recent years, Hong Kongers have come to realize that their government is largely inept when it comes to defending the interests of the average person: It is hopelessly subservient to property-development tycoons, and tone-deaf to citizens’ demands and criticisms.

From the destruction of the beloved Star Ferry pier to the massive reclamation of shrinking Victoria Harbour, from the granting of the would-be innovation center Cyberport’s building contract without a public tender to billionaire Li Ka-shing’s son to the empty promises of affordable housing in a highly unequal city, Hong Kongers have had a growing sense that the government is watching out for its members’ collective interests, not its people’s. Out of self-interest — and possibly out of a kind of colonial unease — the British colonial government was in fact far more attentive and responsive to the needs of the public.

But it’s the influx of mainland visitors that has broken the proverbial camel’s back. The average Hong Konger simply has been crowded out — from public transportation, from shopping malls (the territory’s biggest public spaces), from hospitals, from schools, and from the property market, long the best route for members of the salaried class to get ahead. Measures initially designed to reduce the influx of mainland buyers driving up property prices ultimately have played out against Hong Kong residents, raising the bar of entry too high for the average citizen while doing virtually nothing to prevent the influx of hot money from the mainland.

Two high-profile cases have solidified long-held suspicions of the erosion of the civil service’s reliability and impartiality. In one case, the former head of the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), Timothy Tong, was foundto have vastly exceeded the statutory limits set on the value of gifts and reception expenses, including during some of his no fewer than 19 trips to the mainland. (As undersecretary for security, Tong had been one of the active proponents back in 2003 of the drastic Article 23 anti-subversion law, which would have dealt a severe blow to the rule of law, and which was later abandoned after massive protests and a revolt among then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa’s political allies.) In another case, Rafael Hui, the former head of the civil service, was exposed as having colluded for years with one of the main property-development groups in the territory and now faces trial.

2. A generational clash. Among the casualties of the growing sense of political deadlock in the Hong Kong government have been the traditional, established, pro-democracy parties, such as the Democratic Party, which have been challenged by the rise of more radical, youth-driven parties such as People Power and the League of Social Democrats, and non-institutionalized protest movements such as Scholarism and Occupy Central.* While at first it seems counterintuitive that the established opposition would not benefit from the government’s growing unpopularity, one has to remember that the electoral system for the legislature (the "Legco") is irremediably rigged by the presence of so-called "professional constituencies" (representatives of various business sectors), and that as a result the opposition (the pan-democrats) can at best be a nuisance, but never a constructive force. Meanwhile, the way the chief executive has been chosen — by a small, handpicked committee stacked with Beijing loyalists — almost guaranteed that he would have no real support in the Legco, as the main pro-Beijing parties place a higher imperative on keeping their electorate happy than seeing the chief executive’s proposed legislation go through. This system makes the chief executive a lame duck from the get-go and this is what originally provided the incentive for Beijing to reform the electoral system and announce back in 2007 that it would make good on its promise regarding universal suffrage for the 2017 elections.

Even though generations of Hong Kongers have come together in the end and joined forces around Occupy Central, the cultural divide between older and younger Hong Kongers runs deep. In the eyes of veteran democrats, the city’s young radicals are politically naïve, ignore the fundamentals of building sustainable political movements, and delude themselves if they think Hong Kong can ignore the reality that it is now part of China. But generations of politically active Hong Kongers born after 1980 and 1990 have come to the conclusion that traditional political parties that play the proverbial game have been helpless in preventing the erosion of Hong Kong’s way of life. In the eyes of the new generation, many of whose members rub shoulders with mainland students attending Hong Kong universities in larger numbers than ever, veteran democrats have nothing to show for years of play-by-the-rules battles against the authorities and Beijing, and are themselves naïve if they think that they can find common ground with the Communist Party.

Hong Kong’s student activists, like those elsewhere around the world, have mobilized political energy through cyberactivism and attention-grabbing actions rather than through the slow buildup of political organizations. They are more radical than their elders, because they think traditional politics cannot achieve much, but also because they are less cognizant of the inner workings of the Communist Party. More assertive of their separate identity as Hong Kongers, they evince little patience for the ritual declaration of patriotism that their elders were always careful to make. In due time, this provided Beijing with a powerful opening to denounce the organizers of Occupy Central as the disloyal tools of unspecified "foreign forces," a charge organizers could not easily rebut.

The new generation has also embraced civil disobedience (as has the youth-led, anti-mainland Sunflower Movement in Taiwan). While this played well as a tactic to expose the mendacity of the political system, it constituted an unacceptable challenge to Beijing, was unlikely to gather large support in Hong Kong, and left the movement open to the attack that it was bent on breaking the law and disrupting business. This argument resonated with the business sector, multinational companies, and more than a few foreign diplomats. Scare tactics have done the rest.

3. A new emperor in Beijing. If there is one thing on which most observers agree, it is that Beijing’s own actions and vitriolic rhetoric did more to shore up support for Occupy Central than anything else. The June publication of a Beijing-authored white paper rubbing in the primacy of "one country" over "two systems," the evocation of a People’s Liberation Army intervention, and what appeared to be a coordinated, all-out assault by every single Beijing proxy in Hong Kong that culminated in a rent-a-crowd anti-Occupy Central demonstration on August 17 and the raid by the ICAC of the houses of the two most prominent pro-democracy figures — the Apple Daily media group owner Jimmy Lai and the trade unionist Lee Cheuk-yan — provided a general sense of repulsion that turned into sympathy for the movement and facilitated a rapprochement of all pro-democracy forces, irrespective of generation. On August 31, as tensions reached their climax, Beijing announced a radically uncompromising decision that effectively bars anyone not endorsed by Beijing to stand as candidate for the chief executive.

Yet, Beijing’s response, again, was not a given. The Communist Party generally reacts poorly to direct challenges, but the timing of this particular challenge was especially bad. Xi Jinping was in the middle of a take-no-prisoners drive to create his own faction at the expense of the two others occupying the terrain: the so-called "Shanghai gang" (former President Jiang Zemin and his protégés) and the "shopkeepers" (former President Hu Jintao and others whose power base was established in the Communist Youth League).

Having already had several conflicts with the conservative hardliners — over the ouster of powerful men like Bo Xilai and Zhou Yongkang, as well as the direction of economic reforms — Xi had no interest in picking new fights. If anything, in all areas where he has found it to be politically expedient, Xi has tried to out-hardline the hard-liners: notched-up ideological and media controls, suppression of online and actual dissent, attention to giving greater face to the PLA, and the embrace of a tougher tone in foreign policy. He also explicitly introduced tougher policies in Tibet and Xinjiang. He was clearly not going to brook challenges from Hong Kong.

So where does Hong Kong go now? Unless governance improves and Hong Kong’s people regain a modicum of confidence that the territory’s authorities are watching out for the people’s interests and resisting — rather than enabling — the erosion of the rule of law, tensions will only continue to increase, to the detriment of both Beijing and Hong Kong.

As longtime journalist David Schlesinger suggests in a recent piece in ChinaFile, protecting the integrity of the existing institutions that have guaranteed the rule of law and the prosperity of the territory are more important and reasonable goals than trying to force a one-party system to enable greater democratization. But this requires convincing Beijing that Hong Kong’s specificities ought to be preserved out of mainland interests, whether it is for its international reputation — Beijing has taken extreme care to fulfill treaty obligations to the letter for over three decades, enjoying the benefits of being a member in good standing in the global community — or because having Hong Kong as a laboratory of ideas and practices can help China surmount its challenges.

In the meantime, can Hong Kong’s local governance improve even if the next chief executive is not designated through true universal suffrage? In theory, yes. But in practice, each chief executive has been worse than the previous one. The prognosis is not good.

*Correction, Sept. 22, 2014: People Power is the correct name of one of Hong Kong’s new youth-driven parties . The article originally stated incorrectly that the name of this party was the New People’s Party. (Return to reading.)

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola