The Showdown in Hong Kong: No Winners, Only Losers

"There are no signs of compromise from either side and chances of a violent conclusion remain all too possible." 

The Chinese government and ruling Communist Party may not be managing its political problems with Hong Kong in the worst possible way—but they have come close. As a result, one of the world’s leading financial centers has its central business district overrun with angry protesters whose demonstration will almost certainly come to an unhappy end, perhaps a violent one.

And it was all avoidable.

However, preventing a sad outcome and continuing discontent would require China’s state and party leaders to display a degree of tolerance, flexibility and common sense that, for the time being at least, seems clearly beyond their capabilities. Instead, these leaders, who equate compromise with weakness, are determined to gain total victory over all who object to their policies or might pose an even remote threat to their one-party rule. The supine Hong Kong government, rather than act as a useful intermediary between demands of local people and desires of the central regime, has simply gone along with whatever Beijing wishes—an attitude that feeds popular resentment and makes peaceful resolution increasingly difficult.

The immediate issues fueling the protests concern how the Hong Kong people will choose their leaders and be governed in the years just ahead. Underlying that, however, is a rising discontent—especially among educated youth—about career prospects and economic fairness in the city where they live. Many believe (and statistics confirm) that the gap between rich and poor has become one of the world’s most extreme. They sense that social mobility has decreased sharply, with the best opportunities reserved for friends and families of the already affluent—plus a layer of talented mainlanders imported by companies who hope this will bring profitable connections to influential decision makers. Hong Kong residents also complain that the forty-one million (yearly) mainland visitors drive up overall housing prices by buying costly real estate, mob shopping malls and generally make life for ordinary people more expensive and less comfortable. This fosters a sense of common grievance about their fellow Chinese from across the border, perhaps more emotional than rational.

In particular, these resentments have driven many university students—the backbone of this week’s demonstrations—to favor political activism not usually seen in Hong Kong.

The declared cause of the protests is a recent Beijing decision to let the next Chief Executive (head of the Hong Kong government) be chosen by universal suffrage in the next election; this was promised decades ago as an “eventual” goal when terms of the 1997 handover of sovereignty from Great Britain to China were negotiated, though Beijing has stalled ever since. If adopted for the scheduled 2017 ballot, it would mark the first time Hong Kong voters could choose any senior government official (though half of the seventy-person legislature is now elected by popular vote); British colonialists did little to advance democratic politics during their 150-year tenure.

But Beijing added provisos that have riled pro-democrats in Hong Kong. It said only “two or three” candidates could be on the ballot and, more crucially, all must be approved in advance by a 1200-member Election Committee dominated by local worthies who reliably vote the Communist Party line. These restrictions on commonly accepted democratic procedures, in the context of growing unhappiness about both mainland influence and local conditions, have brought tens of thousands of protesters into the streets—causing many bank branches, businesses and schools to close their doors as university students boycott classes.

Yet the demonstrations have no overall leadership and so far have few uniformly accepted or at least achievable objectives. One student federation has listed four goals, including the resignation of current and extremely unpopular Chief Executive CY Leung and certain other officials, plus a Beijing retraction of its decision about the 2017 election so non-vetted candidates also could run. But no coordinating committee exists to formally adopt any list and just where the protests go from here remains uncertain, though the demand that Leung must go is gaining traction. The street action so far has been mostly peaceful—occasionally festive—with police now showing restraint after one long night of using pepper spray and tear gas against demonstrators armed only with colorful umbrellas and goggles to ward off their effects.

It all began last week when several hundred agitated students gathered near the government’s new headquarters to demand a more democratic voting system. Some heavy-handed police tactics brought out other citizens in sympathy, eventually forcing the main pro-democratic protest organization—called Occupy Central with Love and Peace—to move up its own schedule and join the fray. This gives the whole affair an ad hoc quality; the police have retreated and shed their riot gear, while most demonstrators have ignored official appeals that they disperse.