Since Hong Kong was handed over by the British to China in 1997, the territory’s seven million residents have been free to govern themselves with relatively little interference from Beijing. That freedom is now under threat, frustration with Beijing is mounting, and the possibility of violence is growing.
Although Beijing’s hand can be felt in many areas, its increasing meddling in local politics is most troubling. The central government had promised Hong Kongers they could directly elect their leader in 2017, but it has yet to approve a process for nominating candidates. Beijing appears to want candidates screened by a Beijing-friendly nomination committee, thus dashing hopes for real electoral choice.
As a result, Hong Kongers are protesting against the central government with more frequency, segments of the pro-democracy camp are becoming more radicalized, and Beijing’s patience is wearing thin. In this atmosphere, physical confrontations between Hong Kongers and the police are more likely.
Should violence break out, China would have an excuse to crack down in Hong Kong, which would be a huge setback for Hong Kongers and the territory’s thriving economy — as well as an ominous sign of how China intends to use its influence around the world as it continues its economic surge.
Beijing and its local allies must give Hong Kongers more avenues for political participation — or the tension will keep rising. Just as important, the increasing numbers of Hong Kongers who seem intent on confronting Beijing, even if it means resorting to physical clashes with the local police, should re-channel their energies into peaceful protest.
A group of activists is planning for later this year what promises to be a large-scale demonstration for genuine universal suffrage. Known as “Occupy Central,” the protest will aim to bring the city’s financial center to a standstill through a nonviolent sit-in. According to the research by the Hong Kong Transition Project, two out of five Hong Kongers, despite fears of violence and economic damage, say they will support Occupy Central. Most of these people are under age 30.
But with increasing numbers of Hong Kongers, especially the young, unwilling to compromise on the question of how to nominate candidates for the 2017 election — Beijing wants to approve candidates, the democrats want the public to nominate candidates — the demonstration may very well turn violent.
The roots of frustration in Hong Kong go deeper than the conflict with Beijing over universal suffrage. Economic factors and strains put on Hong Kong’s resources by mainland Chinese have fueled discontent in the territory for years. Beijing doesn’t have to do much to make this already stressed situation explosive.
The gap between the haves and have-nots has widened over the past 20 years, led by the skyrocketing cost of housing. Mainland Chinese people and their money have pushed up prices in Hong Kong; at the same time, for locals wages have remained relatively low and opportunities scarce. Meanwhile, millions of mainland tourists come to Hong Kong to shop, overwhelming the infrastructure and crowding the streets. Aside from purchasing luxury items and books banned on the mainland, they clear the shelves of foodstuffs that they can be assured are genuine and safe.
Baby milk powder, for example, is in such high demand by mainlanders that the Hong Kong government restricted sales to make sure Hong Kong babies had enough to eat. Milk powder is no longer available on open store shelves; one has to purchase it from a locked case.
The current chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, has made attempts to address some of the economic issues that are fueling the radicalization. He needs to accelerate those programs and take action on the points of conflict with mainlanders.
Mr. Leung tried to tamp down the conflict over the lack of affordable housing by setting aside homes for Hong Kongers only and increasing the taxes on home purchases. Prices have dropped slightly, but the government could also sell some public housing at giveaway prices to lower discontent.
Mr. Leung also needs to address the number of mainland tourists entering Hong Kong. The sheer press of bodies back and forth across the land borders is a stampede waiting to happen. Mainland officials, concerned over congestion and growing conflict with tourists in Hong Kong, appear to be stepping in to control the volumes even if Mr. Leung will not.
Mr. Leung should announce that he will not seek a second term in 2017. That would show that he is acting in good faith to work out a fair system for the election without bias toward his own future.
These actions could ease some of the tensions. But ultimately, Beijing needs to resolve Hong Kong’s desire for universal suffrage.
Beijing would do well to continue talking about compromising on the question of how to nominate candidates. If the central government can set a moderate tone over the procedures for 2017, like the local government has been trying to do (“Let’s Talk and Achieve Universal Suffrage” is the title of the public consultation paper), it will do better in the battle for public opinion. The Hong Kong radicals could then be ostracized by the moderate local democrats.
How Beijing handles Hong Kong’s simmering frustrations will be a test of China’s intentions and attitudes toward a freer way of life. If China’s leaders kill political reform in Hong Kong, they are unlikely to start it on the mainland anytime soon. Nor are they likely to promote or protect such values as they move to replace the United States as the dominant power in Asia.
Michael DeGolyer is director of the Hong Kong Transition Project and professor of government and international studies at Hong Kong Baptist University.