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Now you see it, now you don’t

In search of democracy, Hong Kong sets off on a perilous winding road to nowhere as lines harden, students attempt to 'Occupy Central', and business tycoons dig in for the ‘old way’.

By STEPHEN VINES
Hong Kong, August 2014

Hong Kong protestors brave the rains in a sea of umbrellas as they march for democracy, July 2014

July rain failed to dampen the resolve of Hong Kong protestors who trudged in a sea of umbrellas for the cause of democracy.. - Photo: Simon Tam, Getty Images

THE truth about China’s revolutionary concept of one country, two systems as a guiding principle for running both Hong Kong and Macau is becoming more and evident and, at least in Hong Kong, is likely to provoke an unprecedented backlash with hard to predict consequences.

Matters have come to head over plans for transforming the election of the Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (as the head of government is described) from one involving a small, largely hand picked Election Committee to a system that will allow the participation of the entire electorate.

We will return to the details of this debate shortly but to understand what is happening today requires going back to how China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping developed the one country, two systems concept that is supposed to give Hong Kong considerable autonomy.

It is largely forgotten that this idea had its genesis in plans for the reunification of Taiwan with the Chinese mainland. Deng was well aware that Taiwan enjoyed a level of prosperity and liberty that its citizens were loath to relinquish in the event of reunification. Thus he sought to provide reassurance in the form of a pledge that their way of life and form of government would be maintained even if they joined a unified China.

Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines


[Occupy Central's] leaders believe that a determined minority, intent on self-sacrifice can achieve more than the mobilisation of far bigger protests. The movement’s strategy is vague and subject to constant pressure for increased activism by its core membership

Deng’s offer to the people of Taiwan was greeted with widespread indifference. However the one country, two systems concept was tentatively revived in 1979 when Deng held a landmark meeting in Beijing with the then Governor of Hong Kong Murray MacLehose. This was the first time that the future of the British colony was seriously discussed with a senior British official. Most of the meeting’s contents were kept under wraps at the time but the British drew comfort from the concept and the Chinese increasingly started mentioning it during as the 1982-1984 negotiations for Hong Kong’s handover.

In October 1984 Deng told a Hong Kong and Macau delegation visiting Beijing that they should not be afraid of changes following the resumption of Chinese sovereignty, ‘ if there are any, they will only be changes for the better, for the general benefit of the prosperity and development of Hong Kong, not changes detrimental to the interests of the people there.’

Around this time there were many pledges from Beijing using words like ‘introducing democracy’ and ‘universal suffrage’, not forgetting ‘Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong’. This is precisely what the nervous people of the colony wanted to hear. The British, preparing to relinquish their sovereignty, were also busy salving their conscience about walking away from Hong Kong by talking up China’s pledges of a brighter future accompanied by democratic reform.

Yet it would not have required much effort to pay closer attention, especially to what Deng was saying to domestic audiences when he turned to Hong Kong matters. For example, in 1987 Deng told members of the committee drafting Hong Kong’s new mini-constitution, ‘don’t ever think that everything would be all right if Hong Kong’s affairs were administered solely by Hong Kong people, while the Central Government had nothing to do with the matter… it’s not a realistic idea’.

At the same meeting he ruled out the idea of Hong Kong people electing its government by means of a ‘general ballot’. Sentiments like this were repeatedly aired and demonstrated that China would only tolerate a limited degree of democracy in Hong Kong. Yet people wanted to believe that it would be otherwise.

It may be argued that China’s worst fears about granting real autonomy to Hong Kong were crystallized in the aftermath of the June 1989 massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing. Hong Kong people, even leftists who had been stalwart supporters of the Communist Party, joined massive protests, sent donations across the border and helped dissidents escape. The authorities in Beijing carefully noted these developments and hardened their resolve to keep Hong Kong under control.

By the time of the actual handover in 1997, almost a decade after the massacre, much of the fury surrounding 1989 had dissolved and Hong Kong’s new rulers were keen to show their more liberal face. However the new mini-constitution for what was to be known as the Special Administrative Region, laid down a programme for democratic reform. All that remained was for this programme to be re-interpreted in such a way as to ensure that terms such as ‘universal suffrage’ had little meaning because China had no intention of allowing its opponents to exercise the smallest sniff of authority on a piece of sovereign Chinese territory.

This is where we are today as consultations are underway for devising a new method for the election of the Chief Executive while previously promised reform of the legislature has been pushed back indefinitely.

In the years that followed 1989 the democratic camp grew considerably but as it grew it also fractured. Today it is more fractured than ever and although it commands majority support in opinion polls, it is bedevilled by splits and a leadership remarkably lacking in political nous.

Meanwhile China has worked ceaselessly behind the scenes to fortify its already substantial United Front band of supporters, drawing in everyone from tycoons to poor fishermen, getting organisations from business chambers to arts centres to adhere to the party line. At the apex of the United Front stands the Democratic Alliance for Betterment of Hong Kong, which is now Hong Kong’s biggest and best funded political party. Most of its leading figures are members of the still clandestine local Communist Party but its tentacles spread far beyond.

The democrats have inferior organisational skills but have largely been saved by the incredibly shambolic administration of the new regime’s leaders. Their incompetence has not only fuelled the democracy movement but has also given it two triumphs when it managed to thwart oppressive national security legislation and blocked a proposed plan for ‘patriotic education’ in schools.

Things started badly when Beijing installed Tung Chee-hwa as Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive; he was a prominent businessman whose family business was indirectly bailed out by Beijing. Tung was so out of his depth that he could not even finish his term of office. Beijing then turned to Donald Tsang, a former high ranking colonial official who had rapidly switched allegiance to the incoming masters but remained unable to do much as he was so fearful of annoying the new bosses. On top of this he is believed to have engaged in corrupt practices and remains under investigation.

Beijing’s next bright idea was to go back to the business community for a new leader but this time they alighted upon someone with a bit of government experience and a more friendly countenance. Unfortunately, for them that person turned out to be the hapless Henry Tang, who has never been accused of possessing a razor sharp brain and stumbled into a fatal scandal before even assuming office.

That left the job to go to Leung Chun-ying, a hardline Communist Party supporter since his student days, who had also enjoyed a successful business career. Leung has few friends and runs the government with an iron fist and little tolerance of debate. He rarely ventures out to meet the public, fearing, probably correctly, that he will encounter a hostile reception.

In the past there was far more willingness to go through the motions with the democrats. Now officials from Beijing are rarely willing to meet them. Leung’s officials still hold a few meetings with the opposition but participants say they amount to little more than a statement of positions with no attempt at real dialogue

Now Leung is in charge of the next stage of Hong Kong’s political development and, unlike his predecessors, seems to relish the thought of fighting and ultimately crushing the democrats.

While they have been coming forward with blueprints for constitutional change, he has been busy planning bigger prisons to hold protestors and has been politicising the police force and administrative machinery by urging them to sign petitions opposed to the proposed Occupy Central movement.

Occupy Central is a non-violent civil disobedience movement that threatens to paralyze the heart of the central business district if genuine universal suffrage is not introduced. The radicalisation of students and other parts of the community has given it an impressive following but it remains a distinct minority among members of the democratic camp.

Its leaders believe that a determined minority, intent on self-sacrifice can achieve more than the mobilisation of far bigger protests. The Occupy movement’s strategy is vague and subject to constant pressure for increased activism by its core membership.

Meanwhile elements of China’s United Front have hardly been idle and have mobilised their forces with demonstrations, petitions and a flurry of expensive declarations inserted as newspaper advertisements.

In the background has been the steady rise of intimidation against government opponents ranging from bodily attacks on journalists to pressure on publications that do not toe the government line and using stolen data to try and blacken the names of leading democrats.

Their response has been furious but largely ineffective because the democratic camp is top heavy with idealistic people and severely lacking in seasoned political operators who know how to transform bad publicity and organise their forces in a coherent manner.

Across the border on the Chinese mainland President Xi Jinping, has been showing his determination to eliminate those inside and outside the Communist Party who might provide a challenge to his increasingly centralised leadership. This hardline and ruthless approach is being carefully followed in Hong Kong where the Communist Party’s supporters and opponents seem to draw similar conclusions as to how it may affect the debate over democratic reform.

The bottom line is that although there has been one sham consultation exercise, and another is planned, there is little doubt that all the crucial decisions will be taken in Beijing and then delivered by the local leadership, who will claim authorship for the plans.

In the past there was far more willingness to at least go through the motions of negotiation and limited compromise with the democrats. Now officials from Beijing are rarely willing to meet them. Leung’s officials still hold a few meetings with the opposition but participants say they amount to little more than a statement of positions with no attempt at real dialogue. In addition Hong Kong lacks people who could acts as middlemen for negotiation.

Leung’s natural inclination towards a full fledged confrontation with the democrats seems to be fed and encouraged by his masters in Beijing. Moderate voices in the government and among its supporters have been confined to the extreme periphery.

This process is mirrored in the democratic camp where so called moderates, even those as prominent as the government’s former number two officer holder, Anson Chan, are being pushed to one side as the radicals are cheered on.

There is now little doubt that there will be some kind of confrontation and that compromise is off the agenda. It is even possible that minimal reforms to the election system will be stalled.

So what happens next? Predictions are unreliable in the uncharted waters that have started to flow through Hong Kong. It is however possible to predict that the coming months will be politically ‘hot’ and that in an atmosphere of bitter confrontation scope exists for dire consequences. This may sound far too bleak but it is hard to find persuasive contrary information indicating that things will go the other way.

Many Hong Kong people believe that their mini-constitution offers the promise of democracy and a guarantee that civil liberties will be maintained. Now they have come to realise that none of this will happen without a fight.

Meanwhile Beijing’s supporters want nothing more than the old colonial system with Chinese characteristics. The powerful business community is convinced that anything else threatens its interests and the myriad of placeholders and office seekers are fully aware that they will not flourish in a democratic system. They too are prepared for a fight.

The history of struggles for self-rule and democracy is littered with bloodshed and destruction. It had been hoped that Hong Kong could avoid this but the omens are not good. The only certainty is that the place once described as the Pearl of the Orient is not going to have democracy handed to it on a plate. However achieving democracy is a process not a single event.


Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong based journalist, writer and businessman. He is the presenter of a weekly current affairs television programme – The Pulse – broadcast in HK and is a commentator with newspapers and a number of international radio and TV stations. Vines was the Deputy Business Editor of The Observer and has worked for the The Guardian, The Independent, The Daily Telegraph and the New York-based Daily Deal. He is the author of a number of books including Hong Kong: China’s New Colony and a study of the Asian financial crisis called The Years of Living Dangerously. His latest book, Market Panic was republished in 2008. Stephen Vines was the founding Chief Editor of Eastern Express, a mould-breaking daily newspaper published in Hong Kong. He was also a founder and publisher of the satirical Spike magazine.

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Bowen C. Chow (25 August, 2014) – Hong Kong
Steve has missed the most important ingredient of HK's current struggle for democracy: the transformation of the HK people. They have been transformed in the last 25 years by first, the repressive tendency of the authorities in China, which by itself is sufficient spur to them to fight for democracy; second, the great Diaspora of Hongkongers resulting in huge numbers of them having lived in western countries, and the nature of the human mind being such that it cannot be closed again once it has been opened; and third, the present younger generation having been a great deal better educated than their parents. HK has a better chance to avoid the bloodshed (not pain) in the past as most of the blood that need be shed for democracy has already been shed and the CCP is not incapable of change.

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