Disquiet in Hong Kong
Dissent and Defiance Roil Hong Kong
Hong Kong, one of world’s busiest commercial places, has seen unprecedented and very disruptive street demonstrations for quite some days now. Spear-headed by students, the tone of the chants and slogans have varied from witty banter to vitriolic outbursts. For a territory under Chinese sovereignty, such venting of street anger is unusual. The city’s financial, administrative and shopping hubs, always a beehive of activity, have virtually ground to a halt.
Background…. On July 1, 1997, the transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China took place. This marked the formal end of British rule in the territory which had continued from 1841 to 1997 (excluding the brief spell of Japanese rule from 1941 to 1945). The diplomatic negotiations that preceded the transfer (known as the ‘hand-over’) were one of the longest, most tortuous and acrimonious in world diplomatic history. The capitalist Britain simply could not hand over the prosperous Hong Kong on a platter to Communist China. The city, a unique success story of the Capitalist system, would have crumbled under the weight of the oppressive Chinese system that, at that time, allowed no free enterprise and no individual initiative in commerce and industry.
Militarily, it was absurd to expect distant Britain to confront next-door China over Hong Kong. Seeing the writing on the wall, the British agreed to cede Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, but only after ensuring that the City’s unique free enterprise, and democratic structure were not destroyed by the new masters. The deft negotiations carried out by the last British Governor Mr. Chris Patten yielded the desired results. Hong Kong’s administrative and commercial infrastructure was not dented by the Chinese.
Hong Kong joined China under the ‘one nation—two systems’ policy. The Chinese more or less honoured the pledge they had made not to tweak Hong Kong’s legacy.
The present conflict … The on-going agitation has drawn the world’s attention to the above-mentioned “one country-two systems” policy. Hong Kong’s transition from an erstwhile British colony to a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took place under the bilateral treaty that enshrined an iron-clad guarantee about the democratic structure in the City.
The student-led protesters are pressing for grant of full western-style democracy. For the elections due in 2017, they want open nomination of candidates for the post of Chief Executive (CE) of the territory. Their protesters’ ire against the Chinese authorities in Beijing has an element of suspicion as its root. The students feel that China is falling short of its commitment to allow universal suffrage to all Hong Kong citizens, apart from non-interference in the choice of candidates for Hong Kong’s highest office. In many ways, the moral balance seems to tilt in favour of the agitating students.
Hong Kong, though tiny in size, enjoys an enviable position as the financial hub of the East. Rule of law and general political tranquility of the territory have added to its appeal for entrepreneurs and businessmen. The highly visible tumult in the streets unnerves anyone who has a direct or indirect link with Hong Kong. If the chaos is not brought to an end, the reputation of the city as an oasis for commerce will take a hit.
It has to be conceded that during the whole of 155 years of British rule, fostering of genuine democratic institutions in the territory was nothing very significant. After coming under Chinese sovereignty in 1977, the democratic reform process has proceeded, though haltingly.
The progress towards democratization has happened as per the Basic Law adopted by China in 1990. As per its terms, the Chief Executive (CE) would be elected by universal suffrage in 2017. But, there is a rider. A committee would also be formed that would vet the nominations. This is the crux of the problem. The students feel that the committee can effectively debar a popular candidate by disqualifying him. So, they allege, the CE’s election gets compromised.
The students are right in expressing their fear of the stifling powers of the Committee. However, accusing Beijing of going back on its promise to grant free elections in 2017 is not correct. The students are, perhaps, over reaching their claims.
It is highly unlikely that Beijing will budge and give in to the students’ demands despite the huge media build-up and round-the-clock coverage of the demonstrations.
To assuage the hurt feelings of the students, Beijing may address other grievances of the Hong Kong citizens. The entrepreneurs from mainland China have set up shops in Hong Kong, often to the detriment of the traditional local businesses. This has caused a lot of heart-burn among the local people. The resulting dislocation of identity can be regulated to a manageable level. Skyrocketing property prices, the undesirable consequence of wealthy property buyers from the main land, has pushed Hong Kong citizens to the brink. People now have to spend nearly 70 per cent of their incomes towards mortgage payments. Such out-go severely disrupts their living standards, and savings plans for the future. The younger folks dread such a scenario the most.
At the present juncture, the Chinese are watching eschewing the urge to take any coercive action against the protestors. Some among the students are showing little signs of restraint. A nasty show-down like that of the Tiananmen Square can be avoided by the Chinese if they promise to make the Committee more open to candidates with genuinely democratic credentials. The students must be taken into confidence through patient persuasion, not by wielding the stick.
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