Disappointment, frustration and anger might be the best words to describe the popular mood in Hong Kong today. The annual New Year’s Day pro-democracy march has become part of the territory’s political calendar, as thousands of conscientious citizens took to the streets, opposing authoritarian governance and demanding Beijing allow them direct democracy.
Ever since the British hand-over of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China in July 1997, the territory has been ruled by corporate business elites whose concerns are identical to those of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. Since corporate greed has taken precedence over public interest, the post-colonial administration has always favored the top 1 percent at the expense of the majority of the population.
After so many years of economic dysfunction, Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) and his cronies have been indifferent toward popular grievances and incapable of handling any crisis.
Meanwhile, China’s central government is still struggling to come to grips with the root causes of massive occupations of several downtown districts during the “Umbrella movement” in late 2014. The state-controlled media only looked at the Umbrella protests through the lens of Cold War politics, condemning Hong Kongers for undermining China’s policy of “one country, two systems” and subverting the socialist state.
So far, the political message from Beijing has been an ambiguous one, indicating that the position of the CCP leadership is still shifting. Much can be done to strengthen the local pro-democracy struggle and reassure Beijing of Hong Kongers’ desire for peace and stability within the Chinese nation.
The Umbrella movement in late 2014 and this year’s New Year’s Day pro-democracy march were not simply calling for the end of Leung’s administration. These protests rejected the entire system of authoritarian governance that Beijing has put in place.
Most post-Umbrella movement activists understand that democracy is neither a matter of having more directly elected lawmakers in an unrepresentative government nor that of gambling Hong Kong’s political future. They see democracy as a means of empowering the public in the decisionmaking process.
What they want is full democratization of the executive and legislative branches of government. Any failure to equip Hong Kongers with the opportunity and resources to create a highly autonomous administration would only betray China’s “one country, two systems.”
As far as Beijing is concerned, Hong Kong still has minimal symbolic significance for Taiwan. Since Taiwanese are fiercely debating the nation’s rapprochement with China before the upcoming elections on Saturday next week, any crackdown on Hong Kong protesters that is reminiscent of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre would induce Taiwan to move toward independence.
However, there have been too many instances where reality falls short of the democratic ideals underpinning Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Beijing has not taken any initiative to democratize the territory. Since Hong Kongers cannot introduce democratic change from within, they remain deeply frustrated with their unrepresentative rulers and have decided to vote with their feet by attending pro-democracy rallies every New Year’s Day. This irreconcilable tension and conflict will continue to shape the territory’s political landscape and its troublesome relationship with China this year.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is a professor of history and codirector of the bachelors’ degree program in global Asia studies at Pace University in New York.
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