Democracy on Trial in Hong Kong: Expect Nothing From Beijing

Occupy Central hong kong
A woman has lunch while sitting on a highway, part of an area blocked off by protesters of the Occupy Central movement, in Hong Kong on October 7, 2014. Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Hong Kong is in the midst of its most challenging political crisis since the handover in 1997. While the initial focus was on the nature of the election for chief executive, it rapidly broadened. The nature of Hong Kong's governance has always been the most difficult and sensitive issue relating to the handover and thereafter.

In Focus

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There is no easy reconciliation of Beijing's view—that Hong Kong should have an executive-led government, ultimately under its control—and a more liberal interpretation of the Basic Law, giving Hong Kong a higher degree of autonomy. These differences were papered over with ambiguous compromises, and the unexpected intervention of the students and people of Hong Kong have now put them squarely on the table.

For the democrats, this appears to be a turning point. If they were to accept the restricted version of universal suffrage on offer, they would effectively concede the point that Beijing will dictate the future pace and form of constitutional change in Hong Kong. This would be unacceptable, even at the cost of stagnation and stalemate in the political system. The costs may be high.

There are other, perhaps even more substantive, challenges down the road. Election of the Legislative Council by universal suffrage is another potential game changer in Hong Kong. Such a process would be less open to manipulation than the election of the chief executive and could be even more far-reaching in its consequences. However, it will not even be discussed unless a settlement can be reached on the question of the chief executive.

There is a broader trend—namely, that Hong Kong's people have an increasingly low level of trust or confidence in their government. Hong Kong has always lacked an environment conducive to producing effective political and administrative leaders. Without exception, all chief executives since 1997 have failed to make real positive political impact, and have been seen as too accommodating to Beijing and unable to put Hong Kong's case effectively to the central authorities.

Hong Kong is moving toward a leadership crisis. On the other hand, the last thing Beijing wants is a successful and charismatic leader in Hong Kong strongly representing the latter's interests to the center.

Beijing is trying to avoid the appearance of direct intervention, while making clear both its intransigence and its disapproval of the demonstrations. It is no doubt putting considerable pressure on the Hong Kong government to promptly bring the situation under control. But the key concessions are not really in the Hong Kong administration's power, and it cannot promise anything of substance to the demonstrators that Beijing would subsequently disavow.

Even the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung would be more Beijing's decision than his own. However, Beijing cannot comfortably stand by and do nothing. The longer these demonstrations go on, the greater the reputational and financial risk to Hong Kong and Beijing, and the greater the danger of more direct confrontation and resulting uncertainty.

Western governments are watching the events with concern. They have been cautious in their reactions, at least initially voicing their support for the aspirations of the Hong Kong people while avoiding overt involvement. Diplomatic pressure of a sort is being applied to Beijing. This support may be encouraging and welcome to the demonstrators, but its influence is limited.

Whatever Beijing may appear to believe, this crisis is not one of foreign interference. It hinges on the internal dynamics of Hong Kong and its wider relationship with China under the system of "one country two systems." The government of Hong Kong has not satisfactorily addressed the issues that are contributing to the willingness of significant numbers of people, especially the young, to defy authority and take to the streets.

Meanwhile, the demonstrators are seeking to capitalize on the unexpected breadth of support they have received to put further pressure on the Hong Kong government, which suggests they might occupy government buildings and call for the resignation of Leung. It is difficult to see any willingness on Beijing's part to allow substantive concessions, and the new threats potentially pose a real challenge for the Hong Kong police to peacefully manage the demonstrations.

The chief executive's offer to talk with the demonstrators' representatives may open a way forward and away from direct physical confrontation. But it is an inchoate movement, and it is not clear who would be talking to whom and with what authority.

In the longer term, the deeper issues will remain, provided the central government refrains from physical intervention. Beijing is not going to accept any system in Hong Kong that does not give it ultimate control. Beijing does not trust either Hong Kong or the notion of democracy. It therefore insists on institutional safeguards to protect its position.

It is not prepared to risk Hong Kong developing politically in its own way, whatever the potential benefits for both Beijing and Hong Kong may be. By forcibly preventing such a process, Beijing is ultimately risking alienating substantial numbers of the people of Hong Kong and encouraging a sense of difference from the mainland.

For effective governance in Hong Kong, its chief executives require a greater mandate than simply being acceptable to Beijing.

Roderick Wye is associate fellow at the Asia Programme at Chatham House. This article first appeared on the Chatham House website.