It is not wholly accurate to say that the eyes of the entire world are on Hong Kong. They would be, of course, if people in mainland China were allowed to know what is happening in their country’s most successful city. But China’s government has tried to block news about the Hong Kong democracy demonstrations from reaching the rest of the country — not exactly a sign of confidence on the part of China’s rulers in their system of authoritarian government.
Before suggesting a way forward for Hong Kong’s ham-fisted authorities, I would like to clarify three points. First, it is a slur on the integrity and principles of Hong Kong’s citizens to assert, as the Chinese government’s propaganda machine does, that they are being manipulated by outside forces. What motivates Hong Kong’s tens of thousands of demonstrators is a passionate belief that they should be able to run their affairs as they were promised, by choosing those who govern them in free and fair elections.
Second, others outside Hong Kong have a legitimate interest in what happens in the city. Hong Kong is a great international center, whose freedoms and autonomy were guaranteed in a treaty registered at the United Nations. In particular, Britain, the other party to this Sino-British Joint Declaration, sought and received guarantees that Hong Kong’s autonomy and liberties would be protected for 50 years.
So it is ridiculous to suggest that British ministers and parliamentarians should keep their noses out of Hong Kong’s affairs. In fact, they have a right and a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain — as, to be fair, it has mostly done so far.
But, third, the biggest problems have arisen because of a dispute about where Hong Kong’s promised path to democracy should take it, and when. No one told the people of Hong Kong when they were assured of universal suffrage that it would not mean being able to choose for whom they could vote. No one said Iran was the democratic model that China’s Communist bureaucracy had in mind, with the Chinese government authorized to exercise an effective veto over candidates.
In fact, that is not what China had in mind. As early as 1993, China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, told the newspaper People’s Daily: “The [method of universal suffrage] should be reported to [China’s Parliament] for the record, whereas the central government’s agreement is not necessary. How Hong Kong develops its democracy is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.” The following year, China’s foreign ministry confirmed this.
The British Parliament summarized what had been said and promised in a report on Hong Kong in 2000: “The Chinese government has therefore formally accepted that it is for the Hong Kong government to determine the extent and nature of democracy in Hong Kong.”
So, what next?
The peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong, with their umbrellas and trash bags, will not be swept off the streets like garbage or bullied into submission by tear gas and pepper spray. Any attempt to do so would present a terrible and damaging picture of Hong Kong and China to the world and would be an affront to all that China should aspire to be.
The Hong Kong authorities have gravely miscalculated the views of their citizens. Like the bad courtiers against whom Confucius warned, they went to Beijing and told the emperor what they thought he wanted to hear, not what the situation really was in the city. They must think again.
Under the existing plans, a second phase of consultations on democratic development is supposed to follow what turned out to be a counterfeit start to the process. Hong Kong’s government should now offer its people a proper second round, one that is open and honest. Dialogue is the only sensible way forward. Hong Kong’s citizens are not irresponsible or unreasonable. A decent compromise that allows for elections that people can recognize as fair, not fixed, is surely available.
The demonstrators in Hong Kong, young and old, represent the city’s future. Their hopes are for a peaceful and prosperous life in which they can enjoy the freedoms and rule of law that they were promised. That is not only in the interest of their city; it is in China’s interest, too. Hong Kong’s future is the main issue. But so, too, are China’s honor and standing in the world.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, is chancellor of the University of Oxford.