Hong Kong is now facing a series of governance crises: a stagnant economy, an incompetent government void of any legitimacy, its marginalization by the fast-growing cities of Shenzhen, Shanghai and Beijing, and persistent tensions with China over universal suffrage in elections for the territory’s chief executive and legislators.
China introduced highly restrictive conditions on the nomination of candidates for the first direct election of the territory’s chief executive in 2017. Pledging allegiance to the Chinese Communist Party is to be taken as a precondition for becoming a chief executive, legislator or judge.
Hong Kongers have supported the Occupy Central with Love and Peace campaign. China has publicly condemned the pro-democracy activists as terrorists and traitors. It has deployed extreme nationalistic rhetoric and party-controlled propaganda in a smear campaign to justify the use of violence against the protesters.
Revealing the remnants of authoritarian thinking and China’s obsession with total control, this scare tactic is not what Hong Kong needs. It will polarize the division between pro-democracy and pro-Beijing supporters, undermine the fragile governing institutions and strengthen China’s conservative hardliners, seeking to maintain the “status quo” and put a brake on the territory’s democratization.
Beijing’s handpicked Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying (梁振英) has done nothing to mediate tensions between China and the territory. His tenure has been marked by public outrages, rampant corruption and failure to fulfill campaign promises to promote social and economic equality. He has promoted cronies to senior posts in his Cabinet and undermined the freedom of press. In a rally on July 1, demonstrators called for his resignation.
Despite the odds, all is not lost for Hong Kong. The latest US pivot to Asia presents the territory an opportunity to position itself as a laboratory of democratic activism on Chinese soil and gives its civil society much international attention to pursue its own agenda.
To resolve conflicts and regain confidence, a smarter approach for China is to put in place universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive and legislators. This will require direct and equal negotiation between Hong Kongers and the Chinese leadership.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history and co-director of Global Asia studies program at Pace University in New York.