The UK government has been roundly criticised for failing to voice its support for an increasingly vocal coalition of pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong, as they demand universal suffrage in elections for the territory’s Chief Executive in 2017. Yet should the UK take heed of its critics?
Anson Chan, the former head of the territory’s civil service, recently lamented the UK’s silence during her recent visit to the UK: ‘The Hong Kong of today is an inconvenient truth that Britain would prefer to forget’.
Ms Chan has been joined in her reproach by Nick Clegg, who reportedly believes that his coalition partners in the Conservative party have become too deferential towards China, and are keeping silent over fears that criticism would endanger the growing UK-China trade relationship.
The Liberal Democrat leader has threatened that ‘the UK will mobilise the international community and pursue every legal and other avenue available’ if China reneges on its pledge for ‘one country, two systems’ – a formula that has allowed Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy under Chinese rule since the handover in 1997.
Mr Clegg is referring to promises made in the UK-China Joint Declaration that followed handover negotiations between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping. This document was subsequently codified in the 1990 Basic Law – Hong Kong’s ‘mini-constitution’.
The central point of dispute between Beijing and its opponents is whether Hong Kong’s new head of government should be elected by a committee or by popular vote. On this point, the 1990 Basic Law is relatively clear, stating in Article 45 that: ‘The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.’
Why, then, are the people of Hong Kong so enraged?
The obvious explanation lies in a White Paper issued by Beijing in June 2014, which castigated Hong Kong citizens for their ‘confused and lopsided’ understanding of the Basic Law.
As one Hong Kong legislator argued in a July 14 editorial, the document has fed fears felt by the people of Hong Kong that ‘Beijing will renege on its policy of giving Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy […] and has caused alarm, dismay and consternation.’
Yet it is still unclear whether Beijing has reneged on any of its pledges – at least as of yet.
In the FCO’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong released in July, the now former Foreign Secretary William Hague states that while ‘some observers’ voiced concerns over the White Paper, ‘I note that both the Central and People’s Government and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government have been explicit that the paper did not mark a change in policy.’
Why Beijing chose to release the White Paper last April is unclear, but it could be related to broader concern in Hong Kong over inteference by Beijing in the territory's public institutions. The past year has seen backsliding over media freedom, rocketing house prices driven by mainland speculators, and an influx of poorly behaved Chinese migrants.
Occupy Central, the largest group pushing for popular elections, has grown out of this discontent, and on 1 July, mobilised close to 300,000 for a pro-democracy march in Hong Kong. It is now threatening to paralyse the city’s financial district with a non-violent sit-in demonstration if elections by public nomination are not allowed by the end of this year – when the current Chief Executive is due to submit a final report to the National People’s Congress in Beijing on whether Hong Kong’s electoral system should be modified.
The timing of the White Paper’s release was unfortunate for Beijing, as it coincided with a referendum held by Occupy Central on how Hong Kong’s political future should be decided.
The vote, which took place during 20-29 June, offered only three choices – all of which advocated some form of public nomination.
Other independent political figures, such as Anson Chan, complained that Occupy Central excluded more candidates who favoured engagement rather than confrontation with Beijing. Many of these parties are exploring ways to work within the Basic Law to make the current election committee more accountable.
That Occupy Central’s referendum excluded a large cross-section of moderates but nevertheless attracted 800,000 votes suggests that the exercise was largely a protest vote against the White Paper.
In other words, Beijing has inadvertently polarised the debate on electoral reform and radicalised a portion of society that may have been otherwise amenable to dialogue.
Options for London
How the situation evolves from here will decide London’s position on the matter.
The election dispute does not need to be – as Beijing or Occupy Central would both have it – a ‘battle for Hong Kong’s soul’ – or even require rewriting the Basic Law.
Beijing could, for example, pledge to make the candidate nominating committee for the Chief Executive more representative of Hong Kong’s pluralist civil society, and restrict the number of party-selected members. This would substantially increase independent input into policymaking, and would be a step that both sides – depending on the details – could agree on.
If this is done effectively, then Hong Kong will have made progress. If Beijing pursues delaying tactics over reform, or refuses to make the election committee more accountable, there will be solid grounds for protest.
After all, as Mr Hague states in the six monthly report, ‘The important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and feel that they have a real stake in the outcome’.
Don’t be surprised if the UK gets involved if Hong Kong is deprived of this right.
Edward Schwarck is a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute
Research Fellow, Asia Studies