Put Away the Umbrellas in Hong Kong Streets

Will the “pan-democrat” camp of Hong Kong (HK) settle for anything short of “democracy” and “political sovereignty” from mainland China? Can there be a fair compromise? What influence still remains of the slogan “one country, two systems,” in 2014?

These and other unsettling questions have been propagating within pan-democrat HK residents, setting fire to pro-democracy movements referred to as the “Umbrella Revolution,” organized by prominent activist groups like “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.” The Umbrella Revolution in HK started with its nonviolent civil disobedience demonstration against Chinese electoral interference in HK in 2002, and retained momentum to this day. In July 2014 demonstrators on the streets taking part in “Occupy Central” were able to convince 800,000 residents of HK to join an informal voting demonstration in efforts to publicly show their disapproval of the current non- democratic electoral system. Although their referendum was dismissed by Beijing as illegitimate and illegal, such movements were also seen as threatening and disrupting to the financial hub of HK, alarming big investors and the big four accounting firms.

Hong Kong was released from British colonial rule 17 years ago, and discontent has been boiling up among the HK residents ever since. They have been forced to waive their rights to fairly choose their own chief executives for the city, giving this power instead to the Politburo of the Communist Party of China. Many pro-democracy activists question the political significance of HK’s Basic Law which has served as the legitimate constitutional document for order in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) since it is supposed to guarantee “a high degree of autonomy,” “Hong Kong People administering Hong Kong,” and a “capitalist society.” Nonetheless, to this day, Beijing has completely denied the formation of a democratic electoral system in HK.

The release of the White Paper by Beijing in June 2014 symbolized a major turning point in the relationship between HK and the Chinese central government. This government proposal outlined several striking justifications for Beijing’s imposition on HK’s electoral and governmental affairs. Li Fei, the deputy secretary general of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, boldly stated that HK would become chaotic if HK were given the right to nominate 2 to 3 candidates for the Chief Executive (CE) position in 2017. Another justification from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress read that “One country, two systems”is a holistic concept. As a unitary state, China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdictionover HKSAR. The high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”

Unfortunately, in August this year HK lost its only chance at open nominations of CE candidates when The National People’s Congress Standing Committee in Beijing claimed authority over the case.This setback is inconsistent with the Sino-British Joint Declaration (1984), which clearly promised the citizens of Hong Kong a level of autonomy separate from mainland China as one of the conditions for China resuming the exercise of sovereignty in HK. The future of a fully democratic HK looks very bleak at this point.

Many pragmatic activists and businessmen have voiced their opinion that public demonstrations like “Occupy Central” do more harm than good. The city attracts many foreigners to do business; just last year, roughly 63 percent of all foreign direct investment that came into mainland China was through HK. The simple tax structure, liberal economic policies based on free trade, legal system that is geared toward supporting business owners, and reliable infrastructure make HK a very attractive place to invest in. However, keeping foreign investors and businesses in a country requires political stability and therule of law in the region, something that mainland Chinese and some Hong Kong residents believe is deteriorating.

Business leaders and investors alike know HK as one of Asia’s prime financial hubs of international business transactions. Due to rigorous economic competition around the world, as soon as word spread that HK was politically unstable, other major cities in the Asia-Pacific Region such as Tokyo tried to snatch up the opportunity to sell itself as a stable and free alternative place to do business. In addition, many investors see Singapore as a great alternative of HK. Political instability could have very real and devastating implications in HK, enough to demote it as one of Asia’s economic capitals and harm its international image.

Because of HK’s important role in the global economy, many key nations have taken action to condemn the way Beijing has been treating the peaceful protesters. Great Britain has held bilateral conversations with China to reach an agreement not to use force against protesters, to avoid stationing troops in the city, and to propose revisions to the Basic Law. The United States along with other Western allies have sent disapproving messages by refusing any military negotiations with China, although these Western countries are taking care to avoid economic sanctions. This shows that universal suffrage in HK is not only a domestic issue, but is a transnational issue that must be resolved. Many political scientists predict that political sovereignty in Taiwan will vanish next if China continues to fail to deliver its promises to the people of Hong Kong. China is most likely going to further tighten its grip on Tibet and Xinjiang to control its separatist movements as well.

Other wealthy democratic nations such as Japan and South Korea should mediate productive talks between Beijing and the pan-democrat camp in HK. The international community must address the growing fear in HK pro-democracy activists that they will never have “checks and balances” on the chief executive and the administration. Many left-wing groups in HK also fear that their right to freedom of speech and of association will be threatened, along with other crucial civil rights. The deterioration of the current flexible and independent judiciary system is a legitimate concern as well.

This year the symbol of this pro-democracy movement is an umbrella, which shields non-violent protestors from tear gas and pepper spray police crackdowns. Photography and videos of such violence in a supposedly peaceful protest in HK has been blowing up in the media, threatening the movement’s practicality and questioning the rationality behind it all. While democracy and autonomy in HK are solid reasons worth fighting for, it is difficult to ignore the negative effects of the protests on tourism, business, and everyday life.

It seems for now that the protestors on the streets should pause protesting on the streets and carefully map out their next big move. The people of HK must convince multilateral corporations and big foreign investors that HK’s political sovereignty is in their best interests to get their support. They must be bold enough to claim that an imposition by a country that supports state capitalism will eventually limit their horizons. They should take advantage of the 2017 Chief Executive Election as the next most politically significant event to get more citizens involved to effectively make a bold statement, that enough is enough.

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