Universal suffrage in Hong Kong

A blow for Hong Kong, a lost opportunity for China's democratic progress

Stephen Young says Beijing's refusal to countenance a move towards meaningful democracy for Hong Kong will set back national progress

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 September, 2014, 11:17am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 September, 2014, 9:55am

Beijing's decision to limit candidates for the chief executive election to those clearly acceptable to the Communist Party is disappointing, but not surprising. China is simply not willing to send a signal, even to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, that popular sovereignty has any role in its area of control. This decision is shortsighted in a number of aspects.

First, it runs contrary to the clear aspirations of the people of Hong Kong, judging by the recent broad participation in a local poll on the subject, as well as the strong turnout in pro-democracy marches and rallies. Second, it sends a disturbing signal to the people of Taiwan that Beijing remains hostile to any form of real democratic processes. This will only ensure continuing strong popular opposition there to closer substantive ties with the mainland, particularly in the political sphere. Finally, it sends a disappointing - though not really unexpected - signal to nascent democratic advocates in China proper that their own aspirations have no place in President Xi Jinping's game plan as long as he is in power.

The National People's Congress Standing Committee decision will no doubt further deepen the divide between popular political forces in Hong Kong and the government there, which is already beleaguered over officials' unwillingness to take on Beijing in defence of the SAR's autonomy. It will lead to reinvigorated protests and make some sort of public showdown between the Occupy Central movement and the Hong Kong authorities almost inevitable. Should this trigger PLA intervention in Hong Kong, things could get ugly in a hurry.

Seventeen years after Hong Kong returned to the mainland, in a carefully negotiated international agreement between China and Britain, the entire premise of Hong Kong's special status is being placed under a cloud. Beijing and London formally lodged their 1984 Joint Declaration in the United Nations, precisely because Deng Xiaoping wanted the international community's approbation. This was meant to be a clear signal that post-Mao China was returning to the international community, and that sceptics of Deng's intentions towards Hong Kong had nothing to fear.

The bottom line is that Xi and his team are sufficiently frightened by the spectre of pro-democratic sentiments in China proper that they cannot countenance movement in that direction, even under Hong Kong's supposedly special conditions. Xi seems to believe China can avoid the transition to more popular democratic mores that have accompanied similar economic success in most of its Asian neighbours.

His decision to thwart the aspirations of Hong Kong's people is only likely to make that territory more difficult to govern, further heighten suspicions in Taiwan that Beijing cannot be trusted and signal to citizens of the People's Republic that their aspirations toward a real voice in governance will continue to be ignored.

It would be much more sensible if China embraced the progressive examples of ethnically, linguistically and culturally Chinese Hong Kong and Taiwan as places to be studied by people on the mainland, as they confront the question of their own future political development there. Alas, that is not the way the Politburo is interpreting things.

Ambassador Stephen M. Young (retired), served as US consul general to Hong Kong from 2010-13, and director of the American Institute in Taiwan from 2006-09. These views do not reflect those of the US government