Can Beijing let Hong Kong be Hong Kong and allow the city the room it needs to breathe?
The extradition controversy is a symptom of a deeper problem: the chief executive is seen as Beijing-friendly and Hong Kong’s political system, too business-friendly. To ensure stability, our core values, separate system and way of life must be respected
When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, it was promised that the new “one country, two systems” arrangements would bring continued stability and prosperity to the city. Hong Kong would flourish as an orderly, efficient, pragmatic and vibrant financial centre, governed by the rule of law.
The scenes we have witnessed in recent weeks are far removed from that ideal. Hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against a controversial extradition law which would have allowed people in Hong Kong to be sent for trial in mainland China. There were violent clashes between protesters and police on June 12. Police headquarters has been under siege twice in a week. Police stood by while the building was pelted with eggs and daubed with graffiti.
In response, the government belatedly did a U-turn, suspending the extradition bill indefinitely. It is unlikely to return any time soon. But the protesters are demanding a permanent withdrawal of the law and an investigation into police conduct during the clashes.
Desperate to calm these troubled waters, the government has gone into hiding. It is in a state of near paralysis. This week’s cabinet meeting was cancelled, key policy initiatives have been postponed and legislative business disrupted. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has disappeared from public view. The city is supposed to have “executive-led” government. But the executive is no longer leading.
The crisis was sparked by the government’s gross mismanagement of the extradition bill. It was in too much of a rush, failed to consult properly and brushed aside widespread concerns.
But the extradition controversy is a symptom of a deeper problem. It is not the first time Hong Kong has been beset by mass protests and a crisis of governance. Looking back on the past 22 years, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the “one country, two systems” concept is not working. Something has to change.
One fundamental problem is Hong Kong’s leader has no mandate from the people. The chief executive is elected by a committee of 1,200 people who are guaranteed to pick Beijing’s preferred candidate. The leader is therefore seen by Hongkongers as Beijing’s representative in the city, rather than the city’s representative in China. This has led to a lack of trust, especially concerning policy issues with a mainland dimension.
This means Hong Kong has to be governed with great sensitivity. There is a need for consultation and building of consensus. It is difficult to proceed with controversial issues. Attempts to push through unpopular policies ultimately lead to protests. This is the only option open to Hongkongers. They do not have the power to vote their government out of office. All they can do is take to the streets.
The problem is compounded by the composition of the Legislative Council. Almost half of the seats are small, trade- and profession-based functional constituencies which mostly return lawmakers sympathetic to the government. The system is meant to protect the business sector, seen as key to Hong Kong’s financial success. But what it does is allow vested interests too much influence over government policy.
The system was supposed to change with time. The city’s de facto constitution, the Basic Law, provides for gradual and orderly democratic reforms with the ultimate aim being universal suffrage for the elections of the chief executive and all lawmakers. Under the law, the introduction of universal suffrage has been possible since 2007. But it has not been introduced.
An earlier crisis provided evidence of the need for these electoral reforms. A bid by the government to push through unpopular national security laws in 2003 prompted a protest by 500,000 people. The legislation was shelved. In the wake of that protest, it seemed everyone – including members of the pro-establishment camp – had become a democrat. Then chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was expected to announce a proposal for electoral reforms the following year.
But Beijing stepped in to take control of the process and blocked universal suffrage, with an interpretation of the Basic Law in 2004. Three years later, it recognised that change was necessary to improve the city’s governance. The central government opened the door to universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017.
But the tight restrictions it then imposed on the nominating process for candidates sparked the Occupy protests, which saw thousands camping on streets for 79 days in 2014. The election proposal was voted down by democrat lawmakers the following year.
Since then, there has been a crackdown on dissent in Hong Kong amid Beijing’s concerns about a nascent independence movement in the city. Democrat lawmakers have been disqualified, candidates for election rejected by officials, activists and student leaders prosecuted, and a political party banned. Officials spoke of the need to comply with Beijing’s “red lines”. The protest movement appeared deflated and disheartened. Some believed Hongkongers were resigned to their fate.
But throughout all of this, frustrations were growing. The extradition bill, which had the potential to affect anyone, caused them to erupt. It was a step too far.
When the dust finally settles, the Hong Kong and Beijing governments must find a new way forward. If the crackdown of recent years was intended to make Hongkongers more submissive and deter protests, it has backfired.
In the short term, the government needs to build bridges and win back trust. That will not be easy. For the future, the idea of democratic reforms must be put back on the agenda. The city needs to find a better way of resolving differences in society and pushing ahead with policies needed to address the many pressing problems Hong Kong faces.
Of the many placards seen at recent protests, one stood out. It said: “Let Hong Kong be Hong Kong.” This goes to the heart of the matter. The city’s core values, separate system and way of life must be respected. It needs to be given room to breathe and the ability to fully exercise its high degree of autonomy.
This is the best way to get Hong Kong back on track and ensure the city’s future stability and prosperity.
Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor of special projects