Originally published in the Yale-NUS International Relations and Political Association newsletter, Affairs.
When “Occupy Central” protestors first flooded the streets of Hong Kong, the world cheered them on through Twitter and Facebook. The flurry of SolidaritywithHongKong hash tags on social media drowned out alternative viewpoints that criticized the pro-democracy movement and often dismissed them as “anti-Hong Kong”. However, the imposition of this “pro-democracy” and “anti-Hong Kong” dichotomy results in the over-simplification of a complex situation. It is wrong to undermine the moral legitimacy of the protestors in their quest for democracy, but it is also unwarranted to attack the Chinese government for their perceived illiberalism.
To begin with, there is merit in the argument that the framing of the protests by international media contains an anti-China bias. China’s proposed political system, which mandates that the candidates running for the position of Hong Kong Chief Executive must be vetted by a potentially Beijing-loyalist committee, is often portrayed as a blatant denial of democracy. The irony that this proposal entails more democracy than Hong Kong has ever enjoyed under the British is lost in the bluster of Western indignation. Under British rule, the affairs of Hong Kong were decided by their colonial masters halfway around the world. China’s “one country two systems” concept, though imperfect, grants Hong Kong a more tangible semblance of democracy. A more balanced perspective suggests that China’s offer of democracy is not enough, rather than nonexistent, for a generation that grew up on the intellectual diet of Western liberal ideals.
Similarly, we must consciously maintain the middle ground when we approach the technicalities of Hong Kong’s Basic Law. While it is true that the Basic Law promises Hong Kong “universal suffrage” – which in layman terms is the right to vote – it gives no concrete details on how this should proceed. As reported in The Diplomat, Alan Hoo, an expert on Basic Law, pointed out that “universal suffrage, under the international covenant, means that there are express rights to elect or be elected. There is no express right to nominate.” China’s reforms (or as some would say, lack thereof), though falling short of an ideal democracy, remain in full accordance with the Basic Law.
Nevertheless, this should not be construed as a way to undermine the moral high ground that the protestors stand on. The fact that the people are less concerned by the lack of democracy under the British but incredibly apprehensive at the prospect of Chinese interference, reflects a deep-seated mistrust of the Chinese Communist Party. The onus is on China to prove its goodwill and win over Hong Kong. Unfortunately, the exploitation of loopholes in the Basic Law heightens the people’s threat perception of the Chinese government because it reaffirms the fear that the government lacks transparency and wishes to extend its control through insidious means.
Ultimately, the anger of the Hong Kong people can be attributed to this combination of mistrust and their own mismatched expectations. Although China shoulders part of the blame for inciting this anxiety over their political future, the protestors also need to temper their idealism with a dose of pragmatic realism. The asymmetric power dynamic that governs the Hong Kong – China relationship means that the latter is unlikely to acquiesce to Hong Kong’s demands, no matter how many vigils the protestors keep. There will come a point where pro-democracy activists must make a difficult choice – either to radicalize the movement further and risk the hostility of the central Chinese government or to humbly resign themselves to the status quo. Perhaps this is only cold comfort, but at least the Hong Kong people are guaranteed the right to vote, even as their Mainland counterparts are denied this.