The Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong and the unofficial 10-day online “referendum” on “true universal suffrage” that it initiated were well supported by the territory’s public, but China was not best pleased, to say the least.
Speaking to the Hong Kong media, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) said that whether the promises Beijing made to Hong Kong regarding the “one country, two systems” model have been fulfilled has nothing to do with Taiwan’s situation.
Yet is it true that Hong Kong’s fate and the way the situation is evolving there are completely unrelated to Taiwan?
In the first two days of the online poll, more than 600,000 people voted, far exceeding expectations and inspiring Hong Kongers who want real universal suffrage and support the Occupy Central movement, while causing alarm bells to ring in Beijing.
On the first day of the referendum, the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office disowned the ballot in no uncertain terms, saying that it was organized and written by opposition forces in Hong Kong. It called the initiative a political farce and “an outright challenge to the Basic Law” — Hong Kong’s mini-constitution — unequivocally rejecting the legality and legitimacy of the voting undertaking by hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers.
There have been many political protest movements in Hong Kong in the 17 years since it was handed back to China by the UK, including the 2003 movement to protest the anti-subversion Article 23 of the Basic Law and the 2012 protests against Beijing’s attempts to introduce a new “national education” curriculum in local schools.
However, the Chinese government has never before sought to stamp out a protest movement so quickly as it has with this one. In other words, the urgency and immediacy with which the authorities in China have sought to kill this initiative suggest that Beijing is viewing what is happening in Hong Kong with a sense of crisis that is quite unprecedented.
This urgency derives from how intent mainstream Hong Kong society is on gaining true universal suffrage, challenging the central tenet of the powers-that-be in Beijing that nothing is more important than the consolidation of the power of the Chinese Communist Party.
Because of this doctrine, Beijing refuses to countenance the possibility of a candidate being elected as Hong Kong chief executive who will dare say no to the Chinese Communist Party. It has taken steps to make sure that this does not happen, including by writing clauses into the Basic Law stating that no matter how the chief executive is elected, they must be appointed by the central government and nominated by the territory’s Electoral Affairs Commission.
On top of this, Beijing is very concerned about how, on the thorny issue of universal suffrage in Hong Kong, it is to control the commission and the territory’s whole electoral mechanism to block pro-democracy forces from fielding a candidate for the post of chief executive.
These attempts to exert more pressure over the “one country, two systems” model have further galvanized Hong Kong’s pro-democracy factions and their supporters, who were fighting for democracy even before the 1997 handover.
Both the ongoing Occupy Central movement and the online referendum are examples of Hong Kongers trying to consolidate support for universal suffrage that will give them more bargaining power over the government of Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying (梁振英) and Beijing regarding universal suffrage.
This is despite the results of Legislative Council of Hong Kong elections for the past two decades showing that pan pro-democracy forces have consistently garnered between 55 and 60 percent of the vote, indicating that they are in tune with mainstream public opinion in Hong Kong.
It is precisely because of this that Beijing views these factions and their supporters, who are willing to challenge its authority, as anti-China forces that will stir up trouble. It is only natural, then, that Beijing sees them as a valid target.
Having said that, the “one country, two systems” model has, for the past 17 years, essentially safeguarded Hong Kongers’ freedom of information and allowed them to keep their own political, legal, monetary and education systems, separate from China’s.
This policy has also given them room to fight for democracy and to hold events such as commemorations of the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre of June 4, 1989. However, in those 17 years, the Chinese government has failed to win the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong public, who steadfastly refuse to “do as they are told.”
That view is given more credence through the increasingly inventive ways in which Hong Kongers are standing up to Beijing — Occupy Central being a case in point — and their methods are increasingly pushing the boundaries, going above and beyond what Beijing is prepared to tolerate.
The release of a State Council “white paper” on “one country, two systems” by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office was intended to stop this trend.
The main feature of that report was its emphasis on “one country” and toning down of the “two systems” part of the policy. Evidently, Beijing has already started to lose patience with Hong Kongers who are “not doing as they are told.”
Previously, there were constraints on what China could do in Hong Kong, primarily because of three key reasons:
First, in the early stages of China’s reform drive, Hong Kong was seen as the goose that lays golden eggs. Second, the “one country, two systems” policy was a promise China had made to the international community, and third, Beijing wanted to hold Hong Kong up as an example for Taiwan.
However, since the beginning of China’s rise these three points are becoming less persuasive, including the need to show Taiwan a positive example.
Everyone knows that the “one country, two systems” framework was devised by the Chinese Communist Party with Taiwan in mind. Even though democratic Taiwan does not see this framework as an enticing prospect, Beijing screwing up with Hong Kong would make it even less appealing.
When Ma said that “Hong Kong’s situation is completely different to [Taiwan’s], so the situation there cannot be used to make suppositions about Taiwan’s future,” he is not wrong, but still, one cannot say that the way things pan out in the former British colony has absolutely nothing to do with Taiwan’s situation.
Almost every progressive measure taken to expand cross-strait exchanges over the past few years, from easing restrictions on Chinese tourists, to relaxing regulations on Chinese students studying in Taiwan, were tried out between Hong Kong and China first. Only after being tested in these ways were such measures implemented between Beijing and Taipei.
Hong Kong was also the original template China used to test how to use its economic clout to impose itself on the territory’s politics and it is now applying a similar method to Taiwan. This is one of the main reasons for the emergence of the Sunflower movement against the government’s handling of the cross-strait service trade agreement.
It is undoubtedly true that Taiwan and Hong Kong are different, but the latter represents a kind of security screen for the former and if it falters, the pressure on the nation will be ratcheted up considerably.
This is why the Ma administration should take more of an interest in how things develop in Hong Kong and become more engaged with issues concerning its democratization, including the push for universal suffrage.
John Lim is an associate research fellow in the Institute of Modern History at Academia Sinica.
Translated by Paul Cooper
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