Sixteen years after Hong Kong’s return to China, the territory is mired in political gridlock, anti-Beijing sentiment has seeped into everyday life, and prospects for promised democracy are facing a rocky road.
Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese rule in 1997 was heralded as one of several acts that would end China’s “century of humiliation.” The final act, peaceful reunification with Taiwan, remains a Chinese dream.
Ironically, late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (鄧小平) devised the 50-year “one country, two systems” formula now governing Hong Kong as a model for Taiwan, anticipating its eventual reversion to Chinese sovereignty.
However, with China’s clumsy efforts to win the hearts and minds of Hong Kong’s people littered with embarrassments, neither Taiwan nor Hong Kong has been impressed.
Beijing and Hong Kong are now on a collision course over Hong Kong’s future.
Pro-democracy groups and ordinary citizens have been preparing for “Occupy Central,” a large-scale civil disobedience sit-in scheduled for later this year in Hong Kong’s financial district, unless there is an acceptable plan for a one-man, one-vote system for the election of Hong Kong’s next chief executive in 2017.
A recent poll showed that 62 percent of Hong Kong’s people want part of that plan to include the right to nominate candidates, rather than delegating that role to a small, unrepresentative nominating committee that could screen out “unpatriotic” candidates.
Absent an acceptable roadmap within the next six to eight months, Hong Kong faces the prospect of civil disorder, mass arrests, and the international business community’s loss of confidence.
There has even been mention in the local press of deploying the People’s Liberation Army to put down protests, with Beijing’s local propaganda chief recently reminding the city that the central government had the power to impose a “state of emergency” if the Hong Kong government lost control.
As Hong Kong now settles in for a five-month period of consultations aimed at reforming its nomination and election system, it may be a good time for Beijing to think about hitting the reset button. That would mean a new soft power strategy and a fresh team to oversee Hong Kong’s affairs. It would also require that China reorient its “one country, two systems” framework back toward a greater accommodation of Hong Kong’s long-held and growing aspirations for a more democratic and representative governing system.
For the past 16 years, Beijing’s secretive Central Government Liaison Office in Hong Kong has been monitoring the Hong Kong government’s implementation of “one country, two systems” and has increasingly shown a willingness to intervene in purely local affairs that are under the jurisdiction of the Hong Kong government.
Problem is, it has little expertise in foreign affairs or in dealing with foreign societies. And Hong Kong is still “foreign,” despite its overwhelmingly Han Chinese population. As a result, Beijing’s shadow government in the city regularly misreads what drives Hong Kong’s 7 million residents, most of whom cherish freedom, rule of law, and an independent judiciary.
So how did Hong Kong-mainland relations descend to one of their lowest depths since the handover?
Observers point to several misjudgments by the Chinese leadership, but trace the roots of tensions to a pivotal event in 2003, when 500,000 Hong Kong residents took to the streets in protest against Article 23, a now infamous internal security law that Beijing expects Hong Kong to implement in order to fulfill requirements of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution.