Popular protests will keep recurring until Beijing meets the city’s long-suppressed aspirations for greater democracy.

By Antony Dapiran

Many assume that Beijing’s response to the latest round of protests in Hong Kong will be to clamp down on the city. This is a reasonable assumption. Missing from the discussion, though, is how it would benefit both Hong Kong and China if the country’s leaders opted for a more moderate course in dealing with the city’s pro-democracy forces. After all, it has done so before – and with some success.

Beijing has taken a hard-line approach to the city since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, constraining the freedoms that were promised under the “ One Country, Two Systems” formula that saw Hong Kong return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.  Hong Kong’s fraught model of what Hong Kong’s last British governor, Chris Patten, famously referred to as “liberty without democracy” was supposed to balance the competing desire of the Hong Kong people for rights and freedoms with that of Beijing for control, but it has only succeeded in making the territory effectively ungovernable.

With several hundred thousand people flooding the streets on successive Sundays this month, it’s time to acknowledge that the status quo is failing – at least if the objective of the Chinese authorities is to preserve the city in a form that remains attractive for international business and finance.

Lest anyone think that flexibility on the part of Beijing is a fantasy, be reminded that there is a precedent. In 2003, the Hong Kong government withdrew a national security bill backed by China after half a million people protested. Following that capitulation, China entered into the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement with Hong Kong, throwing a bag of economic goodies at the city in an attempt to spur growth and placate its disaffected population.

It should also be remembered that the 2014 protests grew out of a proposal on the part of Beijing to introduce a limited form of increased democracy. Opposition lawmakers denounced the plan to make Hong Kong’s leader directly elected by universal suffrage as “fake” democracy because it would have kept candidate selection in the hands of a committee controlled by pro-establishment interests. The proposal was dropped after they voted it down in the Legislative Council.

China refused to budge on its demand that the election should be restricted to two or three candidates, each of whom would need the support of more than 50 percent of the selection committee. That no doubt reflected concern that the central authorities could lose control of the city. They should have seen enough of Western electoral politics to know that even with an open process, it will still be Hong Kong’s moneyed classes (who mostly support Beijing) that probably end up calling the shots.

Hong Kong has a democracy deficit. Citizens can’t vote for the city’s leader and only half of the legislature is directly elected. At the same time, people enjoy all the rights and freedoms that are commonly granted to subjects of a developed liberal democracy, and which were guaranteed to them under the terms of the 1997 handover.

Even the limited democratic rights that Hong Kong people do enjoy have been further constrained over the past several years with the disqualification of duly elected lawmakers and political screening of election candidates for “illegal” policy platforms. Meanwhile, Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong, the Central Government Liaison Office, have become increasingly active in the territory’s affairs. The liaison office has directly contacted legislators to issue instructions; interfered in elections by throwing support behind “preferred candidates”; and regularly summoned Hong Kong representatives to the National People’s Congress and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference for meetings.

So, given this history, what should China do now? Well, it could begin by refraining from such interference. Consultations to reform the chief executive election process should also be resumed. The outcome of those reforms needs to offer a genuine opportunity for any Hong Konger to stand for that election – and, if they have sufficient support from the general populace, to win office. 

Ultimately, if Beijing continues to impose unpopular leaders and policies on Hong Kong, the pressure will keep building until it’s released in further popular protests. Much as it may be loath to do so, China  must give Hong Kong the wider avenues for democratic participation that its people crave. That’s the only way to preserve the city’s long-term stability and prosperity.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based lawyer and the author of “City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.” Antony Dapiran is also a member of the Progressive Lawyers Group and wrote this article in his personal capacity.

Article originally appeared in Bloomberg on 25 June 2019