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The increasingly open challenge to Beijing's authority, under the cloak of the quest for democracy, has radically raised the stakes. Photo: AFP

Hong Kong protests are a direct challenge to Beijing's rule

Regina Ip says the Occupy protests and the interminable arguments over democracy in Hong Kong are a direct challenge to Beijing's rule. Will 'one country, two systems' hold?

Occupy Central, a civil disobedience movement organised to pressurise Beijing into allowing politicians from the pan-democratic camp to contest the chief executive election by universal suffrage in 2017, has become the biggest crisis facing the government since 1997.

Although long anticipated and decried by the government as an unlawful, destabilising challenge, it still took the administration by surprise by the large numbers mobilised, the way it rapidly spread to the busiest business districts, and the difficulty in brining it to a non-violent close.

Now into the 15th day, it has paralysed traffic in key areas of the city and angered the tens of thousands of people whose jobs and incomes are being affected. Yet protest leaders show no willingness to compromise.

Hong Kong saw much more violent, prolonged and unlawful protests during the 1967 riots, triggered by the Cultural Revolution. Yet, at that time, the government was not hamstrung from taking action because the community spoke with one voice in backing tough enforcement action.

This time, the government's hands are tied as young, idealistic students took the lead in defying the law and issuing unrealistic demands to the government, in the name of democracy and freedom. Tremendous political pressures were exerted on the police after tear gas was fired on September 28 to disperse the crowds.

Last Sunday, after Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying made two televised statements urging the crowds to disperse, the world was watching to see whether there would be a violent crackdown, and, even more importantly, whether Beijing would continue to stay on the sidelines.

Right from the start, the movement was steeped in the evocative rhetoric and imagery of June 4, 1989. Students were deployed as vanguards to lay siege to the government, chanting for dialogue with the leader - in this case, Leung - as students did at Tiananmen.

At one point, rumours were rife that "weapons of mass destruction" had been deployed and bullets fired. Young, tearful students were seen on TV appealing to onlookers to tell their mothers "what happened to them" in the event of a feared forcible clearance by the police, or, worse still, the People's Liberation Army's garrison in Hong Kong.

A picture of a PLA armoured vehicle driving through a tunnel went viral shortly after Occupy Central took off, and was soon deleted, after it was confirmed to be an old photo.

Although protesters massing at Queensway and close to the PLA barracks stopped short of provoking the garrison, it was as though pressure was building to test the patience of the garrison in an effort to trigger direct military intervention.

Beijing has thus far refrained from directly intervening. Yet, repeated tirades against the protests in the amply demonstrate Beijing's anger at the direct challenge to the Beijing-appointed administration in Hong Kong, and at the demands to reverse its recent decision on the city's chief executive election in 2017.

The challenge to the overall stability of the country is escalating. Ominous appeals by bloggers to "occupy Tiananmen" have recently emerged.

The increasingly open challenge to Beijing's authority, under the cloak of the quest for democracy in Hong Kong, has radically raised the stakes. The current protest is not just about Hong Kong's democracy, but also how Beijing runs Hong Kong in accordance with the powers which, in its view, it fully and rightly has under the Basic Law. Can "one country, two systems" hold under such tremendous pressures?

It is not as though Beijing is unaware of the rising tensions. In a 2012 article written by Zhang Xiaoming , now head of the central government's liaison office here, Beijing warned of the importance of properly managing "three sets of relationship" - in effect, the three inherent contradictions in implementing "one country, two systems".

In a white paper published in June, with its velvet gloves off, Beijing reminded Hong Kong that the city enjoys "a high level of autonomy", which is lower than complete autonomy, let alone self-rule or independence; and that Beijing has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong.

Some grass-roots citizens have commented that we may as well have "one country, one system". Life would be simpler and much easier for the authorities to bring back law and order and stability.

Though never openly floated, the temptation is certainly there to put an end to the current chaos and the interminable arguments about democratic development in Hong Kong by taking the simple way out.

Compounding this are students who don't seem to live in the real world - who don't seem to understand the need for compromise, or the tremendous amount of detailed and legislative work required to turn universal suffrage-based chief executive elections into a reality. All they have is passion, chasing over-simplified ideas and ideals which cannot be turned into reality in the Hong Kong context. As such, they are driving the government and Hong Kong into an impasse, which bodes ill for our future.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Defying Beijing, to what end?