PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 March, 2014, 6:26pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 March, 2014, 1:53am

Authoritarian rule in Hong Kong is no far-fetched future

Michael Chugani says a political stalemate on democracy for 2017 may well put Hong Kong onthe road towards authoritarian rule


Michael Chugani is a Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London. Aside from being a South China Morning Post columnist he also hosts TVB’s Straight Talk show, a radio show and writes for two Chinese-language publications. He has published a number of books on politics which contain English and Chinese versions.

Hong Kong will become ungovernable if there is no deal on universal suffrage for 2017. That's not a crazy view but a fear many share after Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang Yok-sing first expressed it. What will happen if Hong Kong really becomes ungovernable? We can expect authoritarian rule.

Far-fetched nonsense? Actually, that's the bleak prediction of Basic Law Committee member Albert Chen Hung-yee, who told me in a television interview that authoritarian rule is a possible consequence. He didn't, of course, mean authoritarian rule North Korea-style, but a tightening of the freedoms we are now used to.

Chen's logic makes sense. By Hong Kong becoming ungovernable, he means the city falling into a state where it can no longer be governed as before. When that happens, those who govern will have to find other ways to do so and the most likely way is through a heavy hand. The directive will have to come from the central authorities.

In most cases, authoritarian rule breeds more civil unrest, which, in turn, breeds harsher authoritarian rule. Civic Party member Ronny Tong Ka-wah told me in another television interview that freedom-loving Hongkongers would not tolerate any form of authoritarian rule and would fight back. But he doesn't believe the central government would be foolish enough to resort to harsher rule if Hong Kong becomes ungovernable.

What are the chances we'll see the scary scenario of authoritarian rule coming to pass? I'm going to stick my neck out and say we should start worrying. The central government and the democracy camp are so dead set on their own conditions for universal suffrage that it's hard to imagine a compromise.

That makes Occupy Central a virtual certainty. Much as the organisers want it to be peaceful, that's almost impossible. When 10,000 people use civil disobedience to disrupt normality in the heart of a city's business district, it is stupid to think an intended peaceful protest will play out exactly according to script. Many fear that the radical wing of the democracy movement, which has elbowed its way into wielding greater influence within the camp, will act out of script.

Peaceful or not, the police will have no choice but to move in if the protest paralyses Central, using heavy-handed tactics to deal with any resistance. The images such a crackdown produces will not only shock Hongkongers but will be big international news. People Power legislator Albert Chan Wai-yip, known as a radical, told me in a radio interview that Occupy Central is the only way to make Beijing bow.

I think he's dead wrong. Beijing doesn't even bow to Japan or the US these days, let alone Hong Kong's democracy movement. Rather, it will stiffen Beijing's resolve. If there's no universal suffrage deal for 2017, we can kiss democracy goodbye for a long time. The next chief executive will be elected under the current undemocratic model. That will stoke civil unrest, making Hong Kong even more ungovernable than it is now. And when that happens, a way will have to be found to govern. Enter possible authoritarian rule.

Michael Chugani is a columnist and TV show host.


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