Lai See

How will Beijing contain city's demand for political reform?

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 12:28am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 12:28am

After years of being promised political change, it turns out that what Hong Kong is going to get is universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics. It bears little resemblance to what is considered universal suffrage elsewhere. That it wasn't going to happen has been well flagged and is no great surprise. So far business and financial markets have been relatively unmoved.

This is unlikely to remain the case. Beijing has not given an inch and as a result the enabling legislation for the 2017 Chief Executive's election is unlikely to be passed. We are clearly in for a period of political unrest. Hong Kong protesters are among the most peaceable in the world but it is not hard to imagine the presence of agent provocateurs to stir up trouble. Thugs have caused trouble at political meetings in the past. There is bound to be an economic effect, indeed a ratcheting up of political risk in Hong Kong. Investors may prefer to hold off on new investments until the dust on all this settles.

There is already a sense in some quarters that for the first time since the 1997 handover Hong Kong is feeling the cold draught of a new reality. In the years following the handover the mainland was relatively hands off and keen that "one country, two systems" should be seen to be working well. One of the reasons for this was that having got Hong Kong back into the fold, Taiwan was its next objective. Besides, Hong Kong people in those days supposedly weren't interested in politics, just in making money.

However, the events of 2003 and the departure of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa as a result of the massive display of popular discontent in the July 1 march that year changed Beijing's view of Hong Kong - and it has been much more hands on ever since. Over the past five years the quality of life for a lot of Hong Kong people has deteriorated while the gap between them and the rich has widened.

At the same time various scandals within the government have led to disenchantment with the governing elite, including the civil service who are perceived to be in cahoots with the tycoons and living high on the hog. Add to this irritation the increasing "mainlandisation" of the city, and the upshot has been an increasing sense among Hong Kong people that there is more chance for the maintenance of their values and development of their aspirations under representative government. One country, two systems is already fraught with contradictions and has created two classes of Chinese. Why accentuate the difference between them by allowing democratic elections in Hong Kong and stoking the deadly prospect, for Beijing, of Hong Kong being a catalyst for political change elsewhere in China.

There is also the problem of how a democratically elected Hong Kong leader would interact with Beijing. He would have a mandate and legitimacy and could justifiably claim to represent the people of Hong Kong. He would owe his job to the people of Hong Kong rather than Beijing. But the present rigged arrangements ensure that any "elected" leader remains politically weak. The mainland has always said that it is working towards democracy, but the country is such a vast system with a problematic history and such an unequal level of economic and social awareness and education, that the Chinese need better civic awareness and a better understanding of their patriotic duty before they can be entrusted with the vote.

Hong Kong's fault in the eyes of Beijing is that it doesn't have a high enough patriotic awareness and people don't "love" the motherland. Hong Kong, it believes, is under the influence of too many hostile foreign influences. Nevertheless, there is strong demand for political change in Hong Kong. How will China contain this demand?

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