How will Beijing deal with an increasingly radical Hong Kong?

Surya Deva says a stubbornly hardline approach by Beijing may perpetuate the cycle of violent action and reaction in the city. It should consider devolving power

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 2:05pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 June, 2015, 2:05pm

Whatever the outcome of the vote on the government's political reform proposal for the chief executive election in 2017, this key "constitutional moment" will have implications beyond both 2017 and Hong Kong.

If we look at the bigger picture, it appears that the current political climate and governance stalemate are also providing fertile ground for germinating radical behaviour. In recent times, there have been attacks on journalists and newspapers. No one could forget the repeated clashes the "blue ribbons" had with democracy supporters during the "Umbrella Movement". Earlier this year, Hong Kong witnessed aggressive protests against mainland parallel traders. During the June 4 vigil, a few student leaders burned copies of the Basic Law. The latest in this long series is the alleged plot to detonate bombs to coincide with the Legislative Council debate on political reform.

But why are Hongkongers resorting to radical action? There are a number of reasons why some people turn radical. First, people may perceive that a certain "other" ideology is working to destroy whatever belongs to them - identity, culture, values and resources. Second, if formal institutions and channels of communication do not listen and respond "equally" to diverse views, some might feel alienated, leading them to explore extra-legal means of protest. Third, when certain people start finding that upward mobility ladders are out of reach, they start acting outside the contours of law, believing they have "nothing to lose".

All these reasons are unfortunately present in Hong Kong. Many democracy supporters believe the Communist Party is bent on stifling freedoms and democracy development in Hong Kong, while the leaders in Beijing regard pan-democrats as agents of anti-Chinese Western forces. Moreover, all government institutions in Hong Kong and Beijing offer little space for constructive engagement to resolve political disputes. Finally, given the control exerted by Beijing coteries and business tycoons over Hong Kong's politico-economic system, many Hongkongers - especially the young - feel cheated by the system.

The central authorities basically have three broad options to deal with Hong Kong's radicalisation. First, they could persist with the current hard approach and try to manage dissent. Second, rather than waiting for 2047, Beijing could convert Hong Kong into another Chinese city and rule it accordingly. Third, it could apply historical lessons learned elsewhere and adopt a power-sharing model rooted in a genuine devolution of power to local people in exchange for maintaining territorial integrity.

Adopting the last model would entail Beijing treating Hong Kong as a special administrative region at a horizontal (rather than vertical) level. A collaborative sharing of power is possible even within the principle of "democratic centralism" enshrined in China's constitution. Beijing would then continue to have powers in theory under the Basic Law, but, in practice, it would not exercise them, unless there was a real threat to national unity and integrity. Rather than itself becoming the gatekeeper, Beijing should bestow this controlling power to local people and institutions.

Which of these options would Beijing pursue? While the third option may be most sustainable in the long run, it is doubtful whether the current leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing has the acumen or courage to embrace this vision. Instead, they are likely to hold their ground and continue blaming pan-democrats and certain radical elements for the current situation. However, by doing so, the central authorities and the Hong Kong government will only strengthen a vicious cycle of radical action and reaction.

Time is running out for Beijing: before it is too late, it should come up with a viable plan to govern a part of its territory where a significant number of people neither trust it nor its views on governance. The choice is between the devolution of power, or accept instability in Hong Kong as a way of life.

Surya Deva is an associate professor at City University's School of Law who specialises in business and human rights, and comparative constitutional law