Chinese Protests 
Bridging Irreconcilable Differences

Jennifer Chan evaluates the possibility of Hong Kong’s democratisation in light of the city’s ideological differences with a hawk-eyed Beijing

Protesters in Hong Kong take to the streets. Photo by LingHK via flickr.

Protesters in Hong Kong take to the streets. Photo by LingHK via flickr.

According to Samuel Huntington in his book The Third Wave, political negotiations will succeed only when “guarantees that neither side will lose everything become the basis of agreement”. For Hong Kong, it is precisely this prospect of “losing everything” that has been the cause of much public worry recently. That both sides have long been at loggerheads underscores the cul-de-sac quality of what is fundamentally an ideological clash: Whereas Hong Kongers’ anti-establishment views is tolerated by a feeble government, any such attempt by their Mainland counterparts would more often than not entail prosecution by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), justified under the brand of “subversion of state power”.

In the Hong Kong of 2013, cries for the materialisation of a democratic agenda remain as vocal as ever, with the July 1 Protest proving a prime.  Notwithstanding the arrival of typhoon Rumbia, 450,000 people braved the inclement weather to march in protest of a variety of dissatisfactions, such as exorbitant property prices jacked up in part by mainlander home buyers, the indefinite responses to calls for universal suffrage, the implementation of propagandistic education packaged under the ironic misnomer ‘Liberal Studies’, and the Chief Executive’s alleged right-leaning credentials.

As the city metamorphosed into a hub of discontent, anti-Beijing groups raised a long-standing question: will the capital ever accommodate the city’s democratic demands within its dictatorial framework? This question unearths a case of irreconcilable differences wherein divorce cannot be a way out, given the geographical circumstance and historical lineage binding the two sides, thus leaving compromise as the only solution. In the words of Bao-hui Zhang, a professor from LingnanUniversity, “negotiated democratisation is the only viable strategy for Hong Kong’s political breakthrough.”

Beijing: Contradictory Signals

Ironically, Beijing has itself to blame for sowing the seeds of Hong Kong’s oppositional currents. Prior to the Handover, the CPC pacified Hong Kongers’ ‘transitional anxiety’ by making liberal promises to reassure locals that their freedoms would remain unchanged under 50 years of autonomous rule. Most controversial is Article 45 of the Basic Law, which stipulates that “the ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage…[through] a gradual and orderly progress”. Rife with definitional ambiguity, this clause has proven a key source of tension between the Central Government Law Committee and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces. Upon the appointment of Qiao Xiao-yang as the Committee Chairman, the National People’s Congress’ initial guarantee of a ‘popularly elected’ Chief Executive suddenly came with strings attached, expressed as highly implicative preconditions positing  that whoever is elected must “love the country” and not “confront the Central Government”. These are indeed ominous words from the viewpoint of Hong Kongers, and their proliferation in recent CCP announcements makes this an ever greater cause for concern.

A close examination, however, reveals that the CCP has in fact always been adamant on maintaining an authoritarian mode of governance, bar none – not even for a ‘special administrative region’. In 1996, Beijing supplanted the democratically elected, incumbent Legislative Council with a provisional dummy, wherein members were ‘elected’ by an electoral college formed entirely by the CCP. Such an act, despite all the mollycoddling rhetoric, speaks volumes about Beijing’s bottom line when it comes to dealing with Hong Kong. Interestingly, this fact is often absent in local media discourse. This example of tacit censorship bodes ill for Hong Kong’s press freedoms, as the vested business interests of media moguls inevitably tip them towards adopting a pro-establishment stance so as to tap the vast financial opportunities in the Mainland, resulting in a growing infiltration of CCP-tinted viewpoints into local media content and a decrease in press transparency.

Hong Kong: Constrained but not Chained  

In order to turn the tables in its favour, the city must come to terms with the structural problems inherent in its politics. According to Joseph Cheng, a professor of politics at the City University in Hong Kong, the post-1997 electoral systems have been “designed to ensure pro-government forces a Legislative Council majority”, obviously attested to by the example of the finance industry gaining “one bank one vote” as opposed to “one member one vote” in functional constituency elections. Yet the pan-democracy camp must also be held to account for their incompetence. One example is the Democratic Party, whose lack of political guile and constructive stratagem has resulted in it going from the party with the largest Legislative Council majority in 2000 to that with the smallest in 2012.

This unfolding of events has led more disillusioned citizens to take to the streets themselves as a last resort. Nevertheless, public pressure as collective resistance is likely to yield minimal tangible returns, at most functioning as an impetus for the government to launch negotiations with Beijing. What will make or break the success of these negotiations, is the leverage that Hong Kong has in this political ‘transaction’.

This implies treating the idea ‘negotiated democratisation’ not as compromise, but as a business venture. The question to ask is not when Beijing will consent to grant Hong Kong what it wants, but what the Chinese government will stand to gain as a result of Hong Kong becoming more democratic. Given Beijing’s top priority of balancing rising economic prowess with national stability, the local government should highlight how allowing greater political transparency in Hong Kong will both boost foreign investor confidence and help China gain ‘image capital’ – a win-win situation that plays directly into Beijing’s concerns. Protests alone are no longer good enough.

It seems the pan-democratic subjects are starting to grasp the imperative of compromise, as both the Democratic and Civic Party have jettisoned the hard-line disposition that previously characterised their stance. Instead, they have opted for a moderate way of communication, softening insistence on rigid conditions regarding a precise timetable, all the while holding fast to the principle that the attainment of universal suffrage must nevertheless remain the city’s ultimate goal. Hong Kongers can only hope that such moderation efforts will bring about some concrete breakthrough in the future.