Beijing's Power Play
“Democracy!” the students cry, all they want is democracy. The noblest of overtures, revolutions, and rebellions have turned the world over in pursuit of democracy. But can Hong Kong -- a single city in the most economically and politically powerful communist country in the world -- successfully break free of Beijing’s influence?
Hong Kong is not just another city in China. Since the British handed control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city has operated on a completely different wavelength from the rest of the country; and perhaps its clearest delineation is its “one country, two systems” government that grants the city a legal and financial system that is separate from the rest of China. Citizens enjoy civil liberties such as an independent judiciary, freedom of the press, and the right to protest, luxuries mainlanders cannot claim for their own. In addition, Hongkongers also enjoy a free market economy, in which their low taxation, nearly entirely free port trade, and established financial market make it one of the world’s leading financial centers.
But despite Hong Kong’s seemingly independent system, Hong Kong still must abide by a number of Chinese laws. Hong Kong’s Basic Law (which acts as the city’s constitution) outlines Beijing’s exact authority over Hong Kong, but in practice, Beijing controls Hong Kong through the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s city council), which votes for their Chief Executive and is replete with Beijing loyalists. The treaty that China signed with the United Kingdom to acquire Hong Kong in 1984 stated that by the year 2017, the city would have free and fair elections.
Therein lies the key issue in this year’s student protests. In September, Beijing announced electoral reforms in which the Chief Executive would no longer be elected in the fully democratic manner promised in the treaty with the UK -- instead, the reforms would give Beijing the power to choose which candidates could run for Chief Executive have to be approved by pro-China nominating committee. Students and protesters quickly responded to the announcement by peacefully sitting-in in Hong Kong’s financial district, called Central, in a movement that has become known as Occupy Central.
Initially, the demonstrations remained nonviolent, however, escalating violence between the police and protesters eventually drew more people into the streets, exacerbating the conflict and resulting in a tense, public standoff between the two sides. Despite repeated talks with senior Hong Kong government officials, the impasse has remained unbroken, and Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s second highest ranking government official, recently stated that talks would not continue.
Perhaps we should note that the contention in Hong Kong belongs to the lack of compromise between the pro-democracy and pro-Beijing factions. To those not only protesting Beijing’s actions but aiming to create a full-fledged democracy in Hong Kong -- democracies do not spring up and succeed with a push of a button. The world’s greatest proponent of democracy, the United States, fought a costly war and lost many lives before the fledgling country could even call itself a democracy -- and even then, it only became a democracy for wealthy, white male landowners. That is not to say conflict is the answer, but rather, persistence, and determination.
To the pro-Beijing supporters, Hong Kong is not truly part of China anymore. Beijing’s overreach of power is conspicuous, and the world knows to look past the excuses that Beijing has laid forth to explain their actions, and instead see China’s power play. Hong Kong no longer plays a pivotal part in China's economic development, and especially over the last 20 years, the importance of this port city has dwindled. China's only motivation in its attempt to control Hong Kong is purely political, or arguably even imperial.
China's blatant power grab fools nobody. The political encroachment into Hong Kong is an attempt to seize power by reneging on promises made to the people of Hong Kong in order to quell any spread of democracy in China. But Beijing has made one miscalculation: the people are angry. And as centuries of revolutionary history suggests, angry people usually get their way.
- Kathy Dimaya