On Monday, thousands of people in Hong Kong will gather for a protest march to mark the twenty-second anniversary of the city’s handover from Britain to China.
Protest, not celebration, is the annual ritual on handover day. Why? Because the democratic aspirations of Hong Kong’s people have never been fulfilled, and there is a widespread sense of disenfranchisement.
The handover agreement did not immediately grant the right to democratically elect the city’s leader (‘Chief Executive’), but the constitution states that this is the “ultimate aim”. The open question on 1 July 1997 was whether China would abide by their handover commitment. The last twenty-two years have suggested that many people were skeptical with good reason.
The status quo is unsustainable. More than one million people being drawn to the streets twice in a week in June, only to have many of their demands ignored, is a sign of a serious democratic deficit. If the government want to reunite society, now is the time for the transition to democracy.
Under President Xi Jinping, control has been the overriding priority for the central government. This has led to an erosion of political rights and freedoms that has seen democratically elected lawmakers barred from taking their seats, a political party banned for advocating Hong Kong independence, the Asia Editor of the Financial Times denied a work visa, and booksellers abducted.
The cumulative effect of these trends has been to unnerve businesses, casting doubt on Hong Kong’s future as an international financial hub.
But there need not be any conflict between control and prosperity. The best means of achieving control is to win back the hearts and minds of Hongkongers, not to continue to antagonize them.
That millions can repeatedly march and yet have their demands ignored will fuel grievances rather than bring control. The Hong Kong public’s response to police violence on June 12 shows that people are willing to put their bodies on the line for freedom. It is inevitable that clashes will continue if there is not reform, and it is unclear that even more radical repressive measures would quieten Hong Kong’s people into submission.
The easiest way of removing troublesome protestors from the streets will be to allow them to vote for their leader. A U.K. government minister recently noted that, as a result of the existing political system in Hong Kong “action on the streets has tended to be the only answer.” He continued to say that “there should and must be another way.” U.S. Senators McGovern and Rubio’s proposed new Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act also states that democratic reforms should be a United States government priority.
Western democracies never see protests of this scale. Why? People feel they have an outlet. Leaders as unpopular as Carrie Lam are voted out, and the leadership is accountable to the people rather than the 1,200 elites who currently make up the Chief Executive Election Committee.
The loser of this kind of democratic change is unlikely to be the Chinese government. The only group that would lose from reforms are the property tycoons and other elites who have benefited from an oligarchic system. Hong Kong is one of the most unequal societies in the developed world. The city’s housing crisis is largely a result of tycoons working with their political allies to artificially inflate housing prices. Without undercutting the power base of the tycoons, there is no way of resolving this problem. Chief Executives will continue to be hamstrung by it until they are accountable to the people.
Skeptics will highlight that China’s fear of an independently minded leader in Hong Kong has historically overridden these considerations. This fear, that Hong Kong might elect a leader antagonistic to the interests of Beijing, has stood in the way of the government offering anything other than piecemeal reforms in the past. Beijing seems to worry that Hong Kong’s public might elect a leader sympathetic to the idea that city should have the right to determine its own future, or even declare independence, after the handover period finishes in 2047.
Reticence on these grounds is misguided. The greatest driver of dissatisfaction in the last twenty years has been a sense of disenfranchisement. The greatest fuel for the opposition’s rhetoric has been the palpable failure of the current system, and the way it perpetuates inequality. The result has been that every leader’s term in office has ended in acrimony and crisis. This is not a sustainable, long-run solution: it is time to reopen the debate about democratic reform—whether such reforms end up being gradual or comprehensive.
With transitioning geopolitics, China cannot afford for Hong Kong to become a permanent flashpoint. It could be their gateway to the world for generations: democratic reforms are the best way to guarantee this.