On 1 July 2012 and the fifteenth anniversary of the British handover, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest the swearing in of Leung Chun-yin: a man widely seen to be allied with Beijing. Are the pro-democracy protests a threat to the one-party rule on the mainland? How have the issues behind citizen anger changed?
A Rocky Relationship: Economic Pro versus Political Con
Relations between Hong Kong and China have never been smooth. In 1982, when the somewhat unwieldy vision of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ was proposed by Deng Xiaoping, the promise of limited autonomy was made with the caveat that Hong Kong would be governed by an equally limited Constitution known as the Basic Law for the first 50 years after the transition. The result of this promise was a wave of emigration from Hong Kong. Sweeping political reforms proposed by the British five years before the handover were rejected by China. Since then, every chief executive of power has been handpicked (albeit behind the scenes) by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
However, economically speaking, there is no doubt that Hong Kong has benefited immensely from ties with China. Its growth as an important global hub of finance was accelerated by its position in Western eyes as a gateway into China. Yet, despite surges in the GDP in the years immediately following the Chinese takeover, Hong Kong’s economy began to lag and unemployment shot up to nearly 8 per cent. Ties between the island and the mainland were injected with a brief surge of adrenaline with the introduction of a mini free trade agreement called the “Closer Economic Partnership Agreement” in 2003.
Diverging Political Visions
Fears that Hong Kong’s autonomy would be undermined sooner or later remained, as was proved by a Congressional analysis undertaken in 2003. These fears were confirmed when, in 2004, Chinese leaders announced that they would not permit popular elections for the next chief executive for the island in 2007. Further, it was announced that the general public would not be allowed to select more than half of the available seats in the Legislative Council in the elections slated for 2008. Beijing’s decision appeared to directly contradict Basic Law, which allowed for a wide base of enfranchisement. It was only natural that protests followed on the island.
For a time, it appeared that Hong Kong residents had won, when it was confirmed by the then Chief Executive that according to Basic Law, universal suffrage was indeed a long-term goal. However, this appeared to be a sop to the clamouring for democracy. The Green Paper on political reform, issued in 2007, left many pro-democracy advocates disappointed despite its promises of universal suffrage in 2012. To make matters worse, CCP officials lost no time in reminding voters that no matter what their decision; the final say would rest with Beijing.
It came as no surprise then, when protesters took to the streets on 1 July this year. Not only is Leung a known ally of Beijing, but his campaign is backed solely by most of the city’s wealthy tycoons. The arrival of Hu Jintao to anoint the newly elected chief executive only made matters worse, despite the raft of economic goodies that were promised to Hong Kong upon his arrival.
Currently, nearly 20 per cent of the city’s population lives in poverty. Wealthy mainlanders have pumped billions into local real estate, making for a potential real estate crisis and denying locals the ability to buy or rent in their own neighbourhoods. Other issues stoking citizen anger are based on social problems such as shrinkage in fundamental rights such as freedom of speech, construction scandals, one of which has dented Leung’s popularity, a yawning wealth gap, corruption and rising levels of pollution. But there is more anger at China’s handling of the situation, accelerated by the deep cleavages in political vision. Leung’s speech – given in Mandarin, instead of the local Cantonese – has made many uneasy, especially since it came from a man who denies any ties to the mainland.
What Lies Ahead?
Beijing has insisted that Hong Kong will be able to elect its own leader in 2017 and its legislators by 2020, but there clearly has not been any serious movement towards this goal. The status quo remains intact and is likely to remain intact for a long time. It is in China’s best interests to keep it this way. What is worrying for the Chinese Communist Party, however, is the presence of many mainlanders in the protests – agitating for their own issues in the one place in China where it is legally allowed.
For many citizens of Hong Kong, on the other hand, it is no longer clear what is meant by “guaranteed freedom” in a place where they cannot vote for their own leaders. Nor are they sure what “political and economic autonomy” is supposed to mean given that every chief executive sworn in, has distinct ties with Beijing. What emerges from this is that while the political visions of these two entities are on a collision course, the result of what that collision would produce is not entirely clear at the moment.