Friday, September 5, 2014

Britain's capitulation over Hong Kong's elections

So the British government's Foreign Office has backed down on the row over Hong Kong's elections, saying that it welcomes "the confirmation that China's objective is for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive through universal suffrage." 

Calling the proposed system for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2017 "universal suffrage" is clearly stretching things. According to Beijing's plan, the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between two or three candidates (apparently too many candidates would confuse people. Weren't the Chinese meant to be good at maths?). These candidates will have to be pre-approved by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists, and they will have to be "patriotic". Everyone understand that for the CCP being patriotic means toeing the party line, and that anyone who is basically opposed to them and their goals won't have a chance in hell of being approved as a candidate.

The Foreign Office adds: "While we recognize that there is no perfect model, the important thing is that the people of Hong Kong have a genuine choice and a real stake in the outcome". The truth is that while the people of Hong Kong certainly have a stake in the outcome, it is perfectly clear that they will be offered no real choice whatsoever. 

The British government's new stance is clearly an attempt not to let the issue of democracy in Hong Kong hurt its relations with China. It also represents an abandonment of any serious attempt to exert a pressure on China to respect the terms of the Joint Declaration signed by Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher in 1984. According to Hong Kong's Basic Law, which was drawn up by the PRC's National People's Congress in 1990 in accordance with that declaration, Hong Kong's chief executive is supposed to be elected by universal suffrage, "in accordance with democratic procedures". It had already been agreed that this would be realized by 2017.

Many in Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp have of course criticized the British government for this capitulation. On the other hand, I cannot really see what else Britain should do. It clearly has no real power to influence China's decisions. What's more, any attempt by Britain or other foreign countries to affect what happens in Hong Kong will only make matters worse. 

China's government draws much of its remaining legitimacy from its supposed protection of the motherland from the evil "foreign powers" forever plotting to keep China down. Most of the Mainland population buys into this narrative to a great extent. If Britain is seen as strongly supporting Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, this will simply allow the Chinese government to tar them as the agents of a foreign power which plundered and divided China in the past. It will also be easy game for them to point out the hypocrisy of Britain acting this way, when Hong Kong never actually had elections under British rule.

Genuine representative democracy for Hong Kong is of course a worthy goal. There is really no reason why a city like Hong Kong shouldn't have free elections (of course Singapore, in many ways Hong Kong's twin city-state, seems to manage fine with its semi-authoritarian system). On the other hand, given how unpopular the CCP and the whole of the Mainland's social system are in Hong Kong, it is very likely that genuine elections would be won by candidates who oppose Beijing's policies. This is probably why Beijing will never willingly allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders. 

The CCP will continue to allow Hong Kong to maintain its extremely high degree of autonomy and freedom, as long as the Hong Kongers don't rock the boat. If not, they have already threatened to revoke the territory's autonomy if Hong Kong doesn't "respect" the Mainland's political system.

What it comes down to is that if Hong Kongers want democratic representation, they are going to have to fight for it themselves. On the other hand I doubt that most of the city's inhabitants will want to risk its prosperity and stability for the sake of a protracted fight with Beijing. Unfortunately it may well be that their goal will remain out of reach, until real change comes to the whole of China in one form or another.

Another lesson we can draw from all of this is that the CCP is never going to grant any form of democratic representation to China unless they are put under serious pressure by their own people to do so. If they cannot even bring themselves to allow Hong Kongers to choose their own leaders, after promising that this would happen by 2017, I don't believe that they will ever allow the Mainland Chinese to have a say in who governs them.

1 comment:

justrecently said...

Maybe Britons should be ashamed of their government and expect them to do better. But having said that, I think decent decisions - in whatever country or government - are rare, and opportunism is a norm.

And the British government did make an unusually wise and decent decision in the early 1990s - they made Chris Patten governor of Hong Kong. A well-connected politician with the backing of the prime minister.

Any other governor with the nerves to advocate democracy in HK would most probably have fallen victim to a Heseltine campaign. Heseltine was trade minister at the time, and keen on expanding biz opportunities with Beijing.