We finally have an Occupy movement everyone can get behind. In contrast to Occupy Wall Street and similarly named protests that sprang up across North America in 2011 promoting a mind-boggling array of often contradictory social, political and economic causes, Hong Kong’s current Occupy Central campaign wants just one thing: real democracy. Of course, the simplicity of the goal doesn’t mean it’s any closer to achieving it.
Since Hong Kong’s transfer from British colonial rule to Chinese control in 1997, the territory has been governed under a unique “One country, two systems” formula that permits residents a range of personal freedoms denied those on mainland China. As part of this deal, Hong Kongers were promised the future right to select their own leader, known as the chief executive. “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage . . . in accordance with democratic procedures,” reads the original Sino-British agreement. The current protest movement hinges on a difference of opinion over what this means.
In August, China declared that, in 2017, all eligible Hong Kong residents would, for the first time, be able to vote for their next chief executive. The catch: The ballot would consist of three pre-selected candidates chosen by a committee controlled by Beijing. Opening the position up to all comers, it said, would create a “chaotic society.”
Such an interpretation is at sharp odds with what most Hong Kong residents were expecting; they want to pick their next leader in the manner of other Western democracies with an open ballot. Following Beijing’s pronouncement, the Occupy Central movement grew quickly from its middle-aged academic origins to include volatile student and youth protesters, as well, greatly increasing the size and scope of the conflagration and shutting down large swaths of the city. This, in turn, provoked aggressive riot police action over the weekend and continued tension mid-week as the world waits to see how Chinese President Xi Jinping will react to Hong Kong’s political demands.
As current global crises go, the street protests in Hong Kong pale in comparison to Russia’s incursions into Ukraine, the Islamic State insurgency in Syria, and Iraq or Iran’s nuclear ambitions—all of which clearly threaten international stability and security, and have prompted deliberate military action and/or aggressive economic and political sanctions from Western nations. Reneging on a promise to its citizens, as Beijing is doing, is largely a domestic political matter. Yet the West still has a responsibility to promote and defend democratic ideals worldwide. As for China, its unprecedented rise as an economic superpower means it can no longer afford to isolate itself from world opinion.
In the past, Beijing’s instinct has been to attack public protests swiftly and harshly for fear that a successful outburst in one part of the country might encourage larger uprisings in other regions. However, a repeat of 1989’s bloody Tiananmen Square crackdown in Hong Kong today would not only destroy the city’s cosmopolitan reputation, but also do irreparable damage to its role as China’s main access point to the world of international finance. Many of the financial liberalizations necessary for China’s continued economic success have been tested first in Hong Kong.
Xi should keep in mind how often he presents Hong Kong as a proxy for the way China would deal with a future Taiwan reconciliation. Last week, just as the Occupy Central protests were beginning to unfold, Xi told a delegation from Taiwan that “peaceful reunification: one country, two systems” was his desired approach to the province that broke politically from the mainland in 1949. If this is the case, he needs to demonstrate that such a formula is flexible enough to satisfy citizens who have expectations of democracy that differ from his own.
It is also the case that transparency is always the best defence against corruption. Throughout his 18-month-old tenure as president, Xi has made an aggressive anti-corruption campaign his signature policy and the means for renewing the Communist party. A closed-door nomination system, as is proposed for Hong Kong, creates far more opportunities for political malfeasance and self-gain than one that’s fully open to the public.
Finally, Xi must be reminded that his government has recognized the legitimate complaints of Hong Kong residents before, and Chinese society has not descended into chaos. In 2003, for example, a proposed anti-subversion law that could have undermined many of the freedoms previously guaranteed to Hong Kong residents was scrapped after hundreds of thousands marched in a similar outburst of opposition.
With its unique political structure, robust economy and engaged citizenry, Hong Kong ought to be seen as modern China’s greatest success story. Xi must be careful not to turn it into a worst-case scenario.
Maclean’s is pleased to announce that Sarah Lazarovic has won an Online Journalism Award for her “live sketches” of Toronto Mayor Rob Ford’s speech to a Toronto business crowd. In a competition dominated by U.S. media, the Toronto artist and illustrator was recognized for her playful and innovative work. Lazarovic is also nominated for a Canadian Online Publishing Award, which will be handed out in November.