Written by Joseph Cheng.

The decision taken by the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee at the end of August 2014 triggered the current protests in Hong Kong. The decision allows no room for a democratic electoral system. The pro-Beijing elites will capture a majority of seats in the Nomination Committee, and this absolute majority in turn will control the entire list of candidates in the 2017 Chief Executive election.

The pro-democracy movement has rejected participation in the second round of government consultation on political reform because there will be no meaningful discussion. It is obvious that Hong Kong people can have no real choices and there will be no genuine competition in the election. The government had not been fair in the first round of the consultation; it not only rejected the proposal from the pro-democracy camp, it also totally neglected the suggestions from moderate groups.

It is unlikely that the Chinese leadership will accept the two demands of the protesters, i.e., the resignation of the Chief Executive and the withdrawal of the decision of the NPC Standing Committee. Moreover, the C.Y. Leung administration has refused so far to apologize for the improper use of excessive violence in the police crackdown in the evening of October 28, 2014; and it has avoided saying that it is ready to respond to the voice of the people.

One cannot expect significant compromises in the negotiations, if any, between the C.Y. Leung administration and the pro-democracy movement at this stage. Moreover, the final decision has to be made in Beijing. Therefore, before any discussion about compromises, it is essential that the Chinese leadership understands the Hong Kong situation accurately.

In the first place, Hong Kong people fully respect China’s sovereignty over the territory. Further, they have no intention of challenging or confronting the central government. They also expect their Chief Executive to maintain a good relationship between the HKSAR government and the central government. Given the opportunity, they will elect a Chief Executive who enjoys the trust of Beijing and who can secure policies from the central government in support of Hong Kong’s development.

There is an important distinction between the election of the Chief Executive and those of Legislative Councillors. In terms of the latter, the electorate’s preferences are candidates critical of the HKSAR government so as to maintain effective checks and balances. In the former, its preference is an able and experienced administrator who is acceptable to Beijing. One should ask why voters would want to choose a candidate ready to confront the central government all the time. Such a Chief Executive cannot last very long.

Accusations of foreign interference in Hong Kong have often been made by the Chinese authorities and their supporters. So far there is no evidence supporting these accusations. When the pro-Beijing united front offers transport, lunches and payments for participants in its rallies, local media easily come up with detailed reports. Further, the Chinese authorities and the HKSAR government in recent years have not expelled any diplomatic and intelligence personnel from foreign countries for misbehaviour.

Between 1997 and 2008, Hong Kong people’s trust in the central government and their identification with the Chinese nation had strengthened. Since 2008, both trends have been reversed, and the decline has been sharp in the recent two years. Interference from Beijing based on distrust have generated local resentment, which attracts more interference. A vicious circle has thus been created.

Hong Kong has been a very free society. This freedom has been the foundation of the community’s creativity and thus the territory’s prosperity. Without this freedom, Hong Kong will lose its character and will be reduced to just another big city in Mainland China. This will be a sad loss for Hong Kong and China as well.

The tough position of the new Chinese leadership seems to inform Hong Kong people that they must realize that Beijing is in full control and they must not make trouble. In short, this is management of expectations; the local community has to understand the limits, i.e., no more Hong Kong exceptionalism.

In the past two decades or so, Hong Kong people have clearly indicated their demand for democracy through public opinion surveys. It is obvious, however, that not too many people are willing to make a sacrifice for the cause; after all, the status quo is acceptable and confrontation with Beijing is too daunting a challenge. The local economy is increasingly dependent on that of Mainland China.

Grievances, however, have been accumulating. A vast majority of people believe they have been suffering from a decline in living standards since 1997. They resent the widening gap between the rich and poor, and the poor performance of the three Chief Executives chosen by the Chinese leadership. They cannot accept that ordinary people have no say in the election of the Chief Executive.

People’s grievances have generated frequent protests, and the HKSAR government has been suffering a legitimacy deficit so much so that it has lost the political will to introduce serious policy reforms to tackle the basic livelihood issues ranging from housing to long-term finance for hospital services, an adequate pension system, etc.

Increasingly, people perceive business-government collusion as the principal cause for policies favouring major business groups at the expense of ordinary people. The previous administration neglected the issue of an adequate land supply, thus creating price hikes in the real estate sector beyond the affordability of even the young middle-class. Management fees of the Mandatory Provident Fund (pension scheme) were regarded unreasonably high, favouring the financial service sector. The supermarket business is a duopoly, and even Carrefour failed to enter the market.

Young people are especially frustrated as they have been suffering from a decline in upward social mobility opportunities, more limited career prospects, and severe difficulty acquiring their own accommodation which affects their marriage plans.

In sum, the demand for democracy has been strengthening as the status quo is less and less tolerable. People certainly understand that democracy is not a panacea, but they also realize that democracy is an indispensable element in the solution of the deep social and economic contradictions.

Beijing’s response to the community’s grievances, protests and demand for democracy has been more economic support measures within the Closer Economic Partnership Agreement framework and more interferences to drum up political support for the pro-Beijing united front. The former have failed because the economic benefits have not trickled down to the grassroots. The latter have been counter-productive as reflected by public opinion polls.

The pro-democracy movement and the student movement now plan for long-term peaceful, non-violent political struggle. It is not expected that they can secure significant concessions from the Chinese authorities in the short-term future but they believe that as long as they do not give up, they have not failed.

Hong Kong people understand that the challenge today is more than fighting for a democratic electoral system. They have to struggle hard to maintain their core values, their lifestyles and their individual dignity.

These struggles will expose the lack of legitimacy on the part of the HKSAR government which will find it difficult to govern effectively. Some people now plan to emigrate. The business community firmly toes the Beijing line. But through these struggles, most Hong Kong people, and especially the young, want to show that their free spirit survives.

Joseph Cheng is a Chair Professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. Image Credit: CC by Max Chu/Flickr.

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