In Beijing, this June 4 seemed the same as any other day. Citizens strolled through Tiananmen Square feigning ignorance to, forgetting about or perhaps being entirely unaware of the massacre that their government had committed against its citizens on that day and in that place 25 years earlier.
This June 4 in Hong Kong, as many as 180,000 Hong Kong citizens gathered for a candlelight vigil to mourn the victims of Tiananmen and protest the Chinese Communist Party, something that mainland citizens haven’t dared to do in mass since the massacre.
China legally owns Hong Kong, but in spite of China’s efforts, Hong Kong is very much independent of China culturally, ideologically and politically. Beijing has taken increasingly drastic actions to maintain its grip on Hong Kong and prevent Hong Kong’s full democratization, provoking huge protests.
Relations between the island metropolis and its colossal neighbor have reached a tipping point.
As a self-governing entity with a highly unregulated market and a perfect location for trade, Hong Kong has taken advantage of its unique position to play financial intermediary between China and the western world, becoming one of world’s largest financial centers in the process.
Hong Kong has long been regarded as the most free business environment in the world.
England’s claim to colonization of Hong Kong expired in 1997, at which time Hong Kong was returned to China. It spent the prior 150 years as a British then Japanese then once again British colony. Hong Kong’s long period of colonization gave Hong Kong citizens a taste for western political values, and the Hong Kong population was concerned to re-enter Chinese rule, fearing that their free society would be trampled by Chinese authoritarianism.
Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese chairman whose economic reforms opened the Chinese market and started China down its extremely rapid path of modernization, understood that China had no easy way to force Hong Kong into submissiveness, and furthermore, that a self-governed Hong Kong could be very valuable to China as a bridge to the west.
In 1984, Deng Xiaoping introduced the “One Country, Two Systems” constitutional principle, which was to apply to Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, and any other future territories that China was to find difficulties ruling over directly. Upon Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, Hong Kong was promised “a great deal of autonomy for at least 50 years” along with universal suffrage.
Despite their promises, the Chinese Communist Party has done everything in its ability to seize political influence in Hong Kong.
Since 1997, Beijing has delayed democratization efforts and attempted to maintain a pseudo-democratic election system where only “population representatives” (societal elites) selected by the government are allowed to vote.
There are two main political parties in Hong Kong, Pan-Democrat and Pro-Beijing. In the five elections since 1997, voting representatives have elected a strongly Pro-Beijing Legislative Council. The council then elects a “non-partisan” chief executive, who five times out of five has been the candidate suggested by Beijing.
Popular support for full democratization has been very high since 1997, and in 2004, minority party Pan-Democrats in the Legislative Council, with the support of Pro-Beijing council members who voted against their party, were able to pass a referendum to put full democratization to a popular vote. The referendum passed, kicking off a 12-year election reform process with full democratization by 2016.
Current Communist Party Chairman Xi Jinping has made progress combatting government corruption and environmental pollution in China, but he has run the country with increased authoritarianism while also making aggressive attempts to assert power in Hong Kong and Taiwan.
In one of many recent conflicts in Hong Kong, Xi Jinping declared China’s “moral education” classes mandatory in Hong Kong schools, provoking large protests and teacher strikes.
In February, journalists held a rally to protest against increasing coercion they felt coming from Beijing inhibiting freedom of the press. A few days later, a well-known news editor who was at the forefront of the protest was murdered, and the case has gone unsolved.
This year, Hong Kong has dropped from 18th to 61st in the world rankings related to freedom of the press. Due to Hong Kong’s shift toward democracy and increasing public outrage toward Beijing, 2016 is the first election where the Pro-Beijing Camp does not have an undoubtable lock on the election.
Rather than accepting potential loss of political control in Hong Kong, the Communist Party published the White Paper on June 10, interpreting the rights granted by “One Country, Two Systems” to mean that Hong Kong has the right to self-governance with the added caveat that Hong Kong’s elected government must support the Communist Party, because “the one country is the fountain from which the two systems flow.”
Chief Executive Leung Chunying, has agreed with the White Paper, stating that the election reform proposal he intends to send to Beijing this Fall will allow Beijing to refuse to appoint any elected Hong Kong official, arguing that this reform is justified under Basic Law, the Hong Kong constitution.
The interpretation offered by the White Paper directly contradicts “One Country, Two Systems”, because it effectively bans Pan-Democrat candidates from holding office and silences Communist Party opposition, forfeiting “One Country, Two System’s” promise of universal suffrage.
This paper has further outraged Hong Kong citizens, provoking the largest protests Hong Kong has seen in at least 11 years. Protestors filled several square miles of city streets on July 1, an annual day of protest in Hong Kong. Police reported 100,000 protesters, but this number is likely an intentional and severe under-estimation. Some state that there were over 500,000 protestors, which would make this year’s protest five to 10 times larger than most years.
A large movement named Occupy Central, which makes reference to Occupy Wall Street, has promised to occupy Hong Kong’s financial district indefinitely if the election reforms do not allow the entire Hong Kong population to directly elect the Chief Executive. Over 800,000 citizens, about 11 percent of Hong Kong’s population, voted in an Occupy Central unofficial online referendum, with 87.8 percent of respondents agreeing that the Legislative Council should not pass any election reform that does not fully meet global standards for democracy.
Hong Kong citizens are not willing to wait any longer for democratization, China is unwilling to budge on this issue, and there doesn’t seem to be any clean resolution to this conflict.
Hong Kong’s democracy debate: Act Now
Bailey, an alumna of Brigham Young University, is from Dallas, Texas. She is also a director of Progress Through Business, an international non-profit organization.