Event ReportsPublished on Nov 08, 2014
The central administration in China is wary of a protracted confrontation about the public in Hong Kong, and considering the nature of the demand, a prolonged protest would certainly be an embarrassment to China in the global political arena, says a China expert.
Hong Kong protests put China in a quandary, says expert
"The recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have certainly put China in a quandary which consciously worked to ensure that the protests do not escalate into conflict zones," said D S Rajan, former Director at the Cabinet Secretariat of the Government of India.

Rajan was initiating a discussion on "Pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong" at the Chennai chapter of Observer Research Foundation on November 8, 2014.

Rajan noted that the central administration in China is wary of a protracted confrontation about the public in Hong Kong, and considering the nature of the demand, a prolonged protest would certainly be an embarrassment to China in the global political arena.

Hong Kong, which is an erstwhile British Colony, was returned to China in 1997 as an outcome of the negotiations and agreement in 1984. Hong Kong consequently became a 'Special Administrative Region' of China in 1997 and as per the agreement, the region is to be administered for the next 50 years under the "one country, two systems" principle.

Under this principle, China agreed to maintain political, legal and economic autonomy of Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Basic Law guarantees political autonomy, basic freedoms, and the right to vote. Rajan noted that although the agreement offers political autonomy, it does not inherit this power from the central government. The degree of autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong is subject to the polit bureau's oversight, said Rajan.

Attack on autonomy

Rajan said the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, also widely known as the 'Umbrella Revolution' and 'Occupy Central movement' is rooted in the 2003 pro-democracy movement. The motivation for the 2003 protest was the Anti-Sedition Bill or the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, which threatened to take away the freedom of speech and certain other basic freedoms guaranteed by the Basic Law.

This move by the central government was viewed as a direct attack on Hong Kong's autonomy and instigated the civil society to engage in mass protests. He further noted that the Occupy Central movement is a civil disobedience movement calling for capture and paralysis of the financial district of Hong Kong, thereby pressurizing the central government to implement its 2007 universal suffrage proposal.

The prevailing political system in Hong Kong is different from the mainland (China) polity. The leadership of Hong Kong is vested in the Chief Executive, who is elected by a 1200-member election committee, which also doubles as the nomination committee. This body nominates persons, two or three to the post of the Chief Executive, and subsequently elects one among them to the coveted position. However, the selection needs to be ratified by the Chinese political authority that also has a veto over the appointment, thereby questioning the democratic nature of the electoral process.

Bone of contention

Speaking on the impetus for the current pro-democracy protests, Rajan said that Article 45 of the Hong Kong Basic Law has been a bone of contention. Article 45 provides for the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nomination committee. This process of electing the Chief Executive via nomination has been opposed by the citizens of Hong Kong, who have also called for reforms in the electoral process.

The political establishment in China had acknowledged this concern, and in 2007 the mainland political authority agreed to the possibility of selecting the Chief Executive via universal adult suffrage in the 2017 elections. The central political leadership promised further reforms, which would allow for elections to the Hong Kong legislative assembly by the year 2020.

Recently, the central political authority backtracked on its 2007 commitments to Hong Kong. Beijing's liaison office in Hong Kong had recently issued a statement that there will be a new Chief Executive for Hong Kong in 2017, but he will not be elected directly. This recent reversal of promised reforms has severed to be a major cause for the pro-democracy protests.

Three-fold demands

Providing further insight into the current pro-democracy movement, Rajan noted that the demands were three-fold. Various protest groups have placed universal adult suffrage as their main demand. Inherent in this demand is the yearning for greater political autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong. Direct elections to the post of the Chief Executive by 2017 and elections to the legislative assembly by 2020 are the two key pleas underlying this demand.

Request to reinstate civil liberties that were curtailed by the central government in the period leading up to the protests is the second major demand. Thirdly, the protest groups want China to curtail its economic interference in Hong Kong.

Excessive administrative and economic intervention by the central government in Hong Kong has led to a slew of social issues which have started acquiring a political character, observed Rajan. These interventions have had a negative impact on the social welfare of Hong Kong citizens. Infusion of mainland Chinese citizens into Hong Kong has taken resources away from Hong Kong citizens and has sent the real estate prices soaring.

Speaking further on the protests, Rajan said that the pro-democracy movement consisted of several independent events staged by various revolutionary groups. The 'Occupy Central' movement headed by Benny Tai organised the civil disobedience movement in the financial district of Hong Kong. Benny Tai in his public discourse has putforth two suggestions for democratic reform, observed Rajan.

One was to hold a referendum on the elections to the post of the Chief Executive and two, to hold a referendum to decide on a new administrative body in Hong Kong after dissolving the existing legislative council. The Hong Kong Federation of students and Scholarism mobilised students and organized a class boycott. He further noted that the entire movement was completely indigenous and there was no external assistance or foreign interests involved.

Beijing's response

Commenting on Beijing's response to the pro-democracy protests, Rajan said that Beijing has registered its dissent in the white paper published by the central cabinet office, which has asserted the "one country, two systems" principle. The paper also indicated that wrong political viewpoints on democracy were being generated in Hong Kong.

It further alleged that the current pro-democracy movement is a type of "colour" revolution staged by western powers in Hong Kong. It went ahead to state that the internal turbulences in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong were funded by the organisation Federation for Development, which is financed by western powers with vested interests in destabilising China's internal polity.

The National Security Council of China has opined that allowing pro-democracy protests to fester in Hong Kong will have ramifications for the Chinese mainland polity. Rajan noted that the actions of the government and the Chinese press have been contrary to the sentiments espoused by the official whitepaper.

Cautious, non-violent response

He said that the Chinese government has approached the situation with caution and has called for non-violence to ensure that the protests do not escalate into a Tiananmen Square like situation. President Xi has also called for negotiations with the protestors. Rajan further noted that the Chinese liaison office in Hong Kong has started counter protests to weaken the pro-democracy movement.

In conclusion, Rajan said that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong would continue to simmer albeit in a weakened state. Beijing may not take any drastic steps to curb the movement, considering the international community is sympathetic to these protests. An iron-fisted approach to curb the protests may result in a major embarrassment to the Chinese political leadership, observed Rajan.

Speaking on the implication of the protests for India, Rajan opined that there should be no major impact on India. Indian firms have financial and commercial interests in Hong Kong; any instability in the region may not bode well for Indian firms, especially in access to credit markets. The business community in Hong Kong has not taken any official position on the protests, observed Rajan.

(This report is prepared by Deepak Vijayaraghavan, Chennai)

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