Bright Lights, Big Problems: China's Hong Kong Dilemma

Hong Kong's democracy movements seem to be at odds with what Beijing has planned for the former British colony. Is a compromise possible?


HONG KONG—Central Hong Kong after dark offers a riot of neon. Multicolored, flashing lights race up and down its skyscrapers in a melange of patterns, while more stationary signs advertise global brands—Samsung, Sony and many others—as part of a nightly show that illuminates the harbor.

But a more ominous name recently joined the mix. Flashing white lights on one tall building now spell out in large characters, with no elaboration needed, the words “Chinese People’s Liberation Army”. It’s a blunt reminder of where ultimate power would lie if an escalating political showdown leads to protracted, perhaps violent, disputes between Hong Kong citizens and mainland Chinese authorities. At present, there’s no sign of a peaceful end to what Anson Chan, a former number-two government official and respected advocate of greater democracy, has forecasted as “a very long, hot summer.” A former Beijing official has even warned that Chinese troops might be summoned if an “Occupy Central” demonstration—the pro-democrats plan to temporarily close down the business district later this year, unless the political system is liberalized—gets out of control.

At issue is how far and how fast Hong Kong people can move toward having a fully democratic political system to manage their own affairs within a broader Chinese context. Beijing promised this when it regained sovereignty over the former British colony back in 1997—“Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” with “a high degree of autonomy” was the pledge—but it has alternately stalled and reneged ever since. The reasons aren’t stated clearly but probably reflect the Chinese Communist Party’s perennial suspicions, if not paranoia, about any political group outside its control, and are spurred by an intensified crackdown on all dissent inside China since Xi Jinping became president two years ago. According to a former U.S. consul general in Hong Kong, the ruling party worries that a successful campaign for greater autonomy could prove infectious and spread across the border.

Thus Li Yuanchao, China’s vice president, has called the Occupy Central movement an illegal campaign that could “delay universal suffrage and wreck the prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.” Like other Beijing leaders, he favors a vetting system that produces a ballot for the city’s highest office that lists only “patriotic” candidates who “conform to the standard of loving the country and loving Hong Kong”. In practice, that means barring anyone who doesn’t promise to faithfully follow the mainland’s party line.

The immediate dispute concerns drafting rules for electing a new chief executive (the senior government official) in 2017 by universal suffrage for the first time. While Beijing wants to block any candidate it doesn’t like, Hong Kong activists want to leave the ballot open for someone with a demonstrated degree of popular support, perhaps from their own ranks. The dispute also raises the more fundamental issue of how long Hong Kong’s 7 million people can retain the broader civic, political and legal rights that already give them freedoms unknown elsewhere in China—or whether Beijing is trying to take them away.

Hong Kong residents have just demonstrated forcefully that they want an honest choice, no matter what Beijing prefers. Last week (June 22-29), pro-democracy activists organized a referendum that asked everyone with a Hong Kong identity card to pick one of three ways of ensuring that the future method of choosing candidates would be an open one. They hoped 300,000 people would take the time to vote online (at or in person; in fact, 787,767 voted, despite hacking that sometimes shut down the website. Though the tally is mainly symbolic and has no official standing, the Hong Kong and Chinese governments will have difficulty ignoring the sentiment behind the huge turnout. In fact, Rao Geping, a Beijing academic who advises the central government on Hong Kong policy, has already said the two governments “have to take it seriously”.

A compromise is needed, but it won’t come easily. Beijing contends that all three choices in the unofficial poll violate specific terms of the Basic Law, the Chinese legislation that serves as Hong Kong’s de facto constitution. The city’s respected bar association, steeped in British common law, agrees, as do Ms. Chan and other pro-democracy advocates who have stayed apart from the Occupy Central movement, because they find its tactics too confrontational. But they contend the current system, which relies on a 1200-person nominating committee packed with pro-government worthies, can be amended to achieve the desired democratic result. The Basic Law says the committee should be “broadly representative”, which it is not; reformers would change the committee’s rules and membership so that a popular candidate lacking Beijing’s stamp of approval could be nominated along with establishment favorites, giving voters some clear choices. But any solution would have to overcome both differences between mainland officials and Hong Kong politicians, as well as divisions among the democrats themselves.