As the widespread struggle for democracy enters its sixth month in Hong Kong, China remains reluctant to acknowledge that the movement primarily concerns political representation, because this would reveal a total lack of public confidence in the “one country, two systems” model.
In responding to the crushing defeat of pro-Beijing candidates in last month’s district council elections, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) stayed indifferent to the popular will and showed no remorse for the police tactics of brutal oppression. The crux of the matter is one of legitimacy, accountability and transparency in constitutional governance.
Unfortunately, the hope of enforcing Hong Kong’s longstanding autonomy seems to be off the table, as Beijing is pursuing two parallel tactics, namely the policies of no negotiation and securitization by the local police. Insisting that Hong Kong should be absorbed into the political, ideological and socioeconomic framework of the “one country,” Beijing dismisses any call for democratization as a treasonous act of subverting Chinese sovereignty over the territory.
However, there is a growing feeling that Hong Kongers of all ages and stripes have re-examined their constitutional status within the Chinese state. Facing a chorus of internal criticism over the electoral defeat, numerous conservative politicians and business executives are calling for greater autonomy and concessions from Beijing.
Discussing autonomy, which was initially promised by Beijing before 1997, is much more convenient than talking about democratic governance. The agenda of enforcing autonomy focuses on implementation, and characterizes the demands for structural change as economic grievances.
Deliberately ignoring the fundamental question of how legitimate authority ought to be organized, this narrow agenda hinges on an assumption that if the chief executive were more competent and compassionate, and if police commanders behaved professionally and humanely toward civilians, the policy mistakes would be forgotten and public outrage against the government would disappear.
Undoubtedly, such an agenda no longer appeals to the majority of Hong Kongers, who have embraced democratization as a tool of proper governance and the decommissioning of the police as a way to rebuild society. Some younger voters even entertain the idea of political separation from China and seek international aid toward this end.
Despite Lam’s insistence that she will not negotiate directly with pro-democracy advocates over the substantive issue of democratic governance, her administration lies at the mercy of Beijing. Coming to grips with the electoral defeat, Beijing is finding ways to co-opt the newly elected district representatives into its local “united front” regime.
Hong Kong is obviously in the grip of intense anxiety and fear. Once perceived by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) as his crowning achievement, the top-down policy of integrating the territory into the single-party dictatorial system has destabilized Beijing’s extensive infrastructure of surveillance and control. Precisely because the legitimacy of the Lam regime is intrinsically bound to the performance of Xi in managing domestic and diplomatic crises, the future looks profoundly uncertain.
There is a vacuum of crisis management leadership in Hong Kong that has intensified the rise of new civic forces, which are ready to step in and restore public confidence. The months-long pro-democracy resistance rejects the limited legitimacy of the Lam regime in the eyes of Hong Kongers.
For years, a handful of armchair technocrats in Beijing have monopolized Hong Kong affairs, but they lack the linguistic skills to communicate with the predominantly Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers and show no sympathy toward their legitimate concerns.
The recent electoral victory in the territory has greatly empowered pro-democracy parties and civic groups to do whatever they see fit. Forming a de facto alliance could place them in a better position to negotiate a meaningful deal with Beijing, thereby facilitating a radical reorganization of the local governing power.
With the passing of the US’ Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act last month [which requires the US Department of State and other agencies to conduct an annual review to determine whether changes in Hong Kong’s political status justify changing trade ties with the territory] the Hong Kong question is no longer a local issue, but has become part of the potentially larger clash of civilizations between liberalism and authoritarianism, and between popular demand for openness and autocratic obsession with control.
In Taiwan’s presidential and general elections on Jan. 11, Taiwanese are taking seriously the persistent erosion of personal freedom in Hong Kong and the threat of Chinese interference into their own electoral politics.
Seen from this perspective, the political development in Hong Kong has significant global and regional implications, and the outcome of this mass struggle is bound to be at the heart of the debate about the territory’s future and China’s relationship with the world.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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