The events in Hong Kong in the last two weeks or so have been surprising in at least two respects.
The first is the sight of tens of thousands of people, mostly youths, blocking traffic in the central business district of a city of 7.2 million people with full employment, healthy economic growth and good public services. The second is the absence of shooting or vandalism, and the very small number of injuries and arrests, after more than two weeks of street protests — albeit with some pushing and scuffling, and even the use of pepper spray and tear gas at the worst point. Though the number of demonstrators has diminished, the protests have brought a standoff, with calls for dialogue from both sides. The endgame is anybody’s guess.
What caused this confrontation is not what some people think: a fight against the denial of universal suffrage, the principle of one person, one vote. In fact, the irony is that the protests directly followed the acceptance by the highest legislative body in China, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, of the formal request of the Hong Kong government to allow for universal suffrage in the next election for the city’s chief executive, scheduled for 2017.
Previously, the chief executive was elected by a broadly representative Election Committee in accordance with the Basic Law, the constitutional document that was adopted in 1990 and took effect upon the resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong by China in 1997. The Basic Law set forth a “principle of gradual and orderly progress” with the “ultimate aim” of “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” In contrast, the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 — which set out the basic policies of the People’s Republic of China toward Hong Kong, and ensured the protection of Hong Kong’s capitalist system and way of life until 2047 — did not mention universal suffrage at all.
The real issue is about the nomination process. The Pan Democrats, the opposition in Hong Kong politics, want nomination by citizens or by political parties, which is in violation of the Basic Law, which states that nomination of candidates for chief executive rests with a nominating committee.
On Aug. 31, the Standing Committee in Beijing decided that the nominating committee would be formed in accordance with the Election Committee, which is broadly representative of Hong Kong’s society. The Pan Democrats claim that this nominating committee will nominate only pro-Beijing candidates. Be that as it may, the crux is whether a candidate who is not acceptable to Beijing should be allowed to take over the leadership of Hong Kong. The answer is quite clear: According to the Basic Law, whatever the method of election, Beijing holds the power to appoint, or not appoint, the elected candidate.
There is a good reason for Beijing to reserve this power of appointment. The chief executive has distinctive powers — for example, to appoint and remove officials and judges and to issue pardons — that make Hong Kong highly autonomous compared with most other cities in the world. In addition, there is the question of national security.
From the very beginning, Beijing has highlighted the need for national security so as to maintain a favorable environment for China’s national development. Beijing wants to have full confidence in the chief executive, no matter who he or she is. A completely open nomination process provides no guarantee. Thus the Basic Law stipulates a nomination process through a committee of elected members from different sectors of the community. The Pan Democrats took that as a political screening process and would have none of it. Thus the conflict.
Beijing will not stand down, and has already said so. The vice president of China, Li Yuanchao, stated clearly, when meeting a delegation from Hong Kong on Sept. 28, that the Standing Committee would not change its decision under any circumstance. The demonstrators on the streets of Hong Kong, who have no official leader or representatives, would not take no for an answer, either.
No matter what the end result is, one thing can be sure: No one from either side wishes for violence. That would only escalate the confrontation. The Hong Kong police are highly professional and are among the best in crowd control in the world. The protesters also know well that any violent action, no matter how noble or justified, would not be accepted by the Hong Kong public.
This conflict stems from the unwillingness on the part of the Pan Democrats to accept the constitutional powers of the People’s Republic of China, which are enshrined in the Basic Law. Most of the people of Hong Kong, including those demonstrating in the streets at this moment, accept Chinese sovereignty, but not enough have read the Basic Law.
Shiu Sin-por is head of the Central Policy Unit of the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.