The Asia-Pacific Subcommittee discussion squarely identified the root of the political standoff in Hong Kong: the fundamental breakdown of the “one country, two systems” framework. This principle was formulated by China’s most pivotal post-Mao leader Deng Xiaoping as a way for special regions such as Hong Kong and Taiwan to reunite with the mainland while maintaining their political, judicial, and economic systems. Hong Kong’s unique history since its founding under the British Empire through an unequal treaty in the twilight years of the Qing Dynasty necessitated a deft solution to achieve reunification. While democracy was not the idea (nor did the British practice it as the colonial power), economic freedoms played a particular role in developing Hong Kong’s reputation as the financial powerhouse of Asia. The ability of Hong Kong to serve as a model and base to raise capital for Chinese enterprises resulted in a polity unlike the rest of China.
Hong Kong already has many attributes of a liberal or constitutional democracy. The mini-constitution known as the Basic Law guarantees civil liberties including freedom of speech, assembly, press, and religion that are protected by an independent judiciary. In fact, Joshua Wong, one of the current protest leaders, was released from police detention after only two days by the order of a judge. It is this reliable and predictable enforcement of the law that made Hong Kong an attractive place to do business. The liberal orientation of Hong Kong should be contrasted with the mainland. While the protests were happening, a meeting of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party reasserted party supremacy over the rule of law. Nevertheless, what Hong Kong cannot do is elect its Chief Executive in a free and fair election.
The Basic Law promises in Article 45 that the Chief Executive will eventually be chosen by, “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” The Chief Executive is currently picked by a 1,200-member Election Committee that is disproportionately weighted to give Hong Kong’s financial elite the most influence. Consequently, the mainland government is able to engineer the results through tycoons that need to stay allied with Beijing to keep control of Hong Kong’s economy. In August 2014, the Chinese government decided to implement universal suffrage for the 2017 Chief Executive election by giving Hong Kong a direct vote after two or three candidates are nominated by more than fifty percent of the Election Committee. To say the least, the protesters do not consider the Election Committee to be “broadly representative” or “in accordance with democratic procedures.” This disagreement was the catalyst for the ongoing protests, but it is also driven by fears that Beijing wants Hong Kong to be politically similar to the rest of China.
Beijing’s election plan was an effort to continue the status quo while emphasizing that “one country” is the most important part of Deng’s dictum. In eyes of the Chinese Communist Party, China has been responsive to the demands of Hong Kongers on several occasions, and therefore does not see the need to compromise further. Firstly, China removed the Chief Executive from office in 2003 when his proposed anti-subversion law provoked large demonstrations. Secondly, China dropped its support for their preferred candidate for Chief Executive in March 2012 after recognizing he was unpopular with the Hong Kong public. Then in September 2012, the patriotic education curriculum for Hong Kong schools was made optional instead of mandatory after facing significant opposition. It is unlikely Beijing did not notice that many of the current protesters were involved in the anti-patriotic education demonstrations. What is different today compared to past disquiet is the protesters have succeeded in connecting a local disagreement over autonomy in Hong Kong to a larger debate concerning the overall political direction of China.
Activists in Taiwan and Hong Kong have supported and learned from each other while Chinese President Xi Jinping has called on Taiwan to accept “one country, two systems” to resolve the status of the island. Even the usually China-friendly president of Taiwan, Ma Ying Jeou, has voiced his support for the pro-democracy movement. Stricter internet censorship clearly demonstrates that the Chinese government is worried about a contagion effect if it does not control the narrative its citizens consume. Along with rising levels of protests on the mainland in recent times, President Xi may have all the reasons he needs to show that Hong Kong cannot be an example for any part of China.