Posted:  Aug. 13, 2015


Throughout the long tedious arguments that continued for the past two years …   about universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive in 2017, for the Legislative Council in 2020, and the preliminaries in 2016  … no one wanted to talk about where it all might be headed in the long run.  For those of us onlookers trying to make sense of it, that lapse was the most frustrating aspect of the whole debate.

During all the hours of discussion and all the miles that were travelled between Hong Kong and Beijing and Hong Kong and Shenzhen, someone must have wanted to discuss with Beijing officials their ideas about the end game.  Yet Hong Kongers seemed content to keep asking for promises and Beijing was happy to give them.  But no one seemed inclined to demand or provide definitions as to just what was being promised.   If the long-term future was ever a subject for discussion, it almost never entered the debate.  And for sure, Beijing never said a word, for public consumption, to indicate where they thought the universal suffrage bandwagon was headed. 

Now, finally, some Hong Kongers are beginning to identify the problem …  explaining it in terms of the lessons learned from last year’s experience when demonstrators occupied city streets for 79 days.  They were protesting Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge local demands for anything other than the fixed formula Beijing had decreed for Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election in 2017.  Now they are contemplating the reasons for Beijing’s adamant refusal and concluding that Beijing has no intention of ever allowing Western-style elections to be introduced here.

For their part, Beijing and the Hong Kong government are now laying on more mainland-style plans.  These call for a post-2014, post-Occupy Hong Kong  youth policy:  economic benefits and patriotic inducements  …  more jobs, more cross-border opportunities, more chances for young people to identify with President Xi Jinping’s “China Dream” sequence.  And especially no more political reform debates. Beijing is hoping to solve this problem during the coming election cycle when pro-Beijing candidates are tasked with winning enough seats to overturn democrats’ June 18 veto of Beijing’s election plan.

But before wasting too much time on their so-called de-politicized youth outreach programs, Beijing and the Hong Kong government should consult Hong Kong’s younger generation pro-democracy activists because they have begun talking along different lines entirely.


In one way, the new outlook dovetails nicely with Beijing’s absolute refusal either to withdraw last year’s restrictive election design or allow modifications.  The new thinking is:  so be it.  Tedious tinkering with incremental electoral reform proposals … moderation and compromise … none of it will touch the far more basic long term issues that should concern everyone worried about Hong Kong’s political future.  And should have been of concern to everyone all along.

Beijing officials and local loyalists spent most of the past two years talking up Hong Kong’s Basic Law, promulgated by Beijing in 1990 to serve as Hong Kong’s constitution during its first 50 years after returning to Chinese rule (1997-2047).  “Study the Basic Law,” has been the constant refrain.  Master the Basic Law and all will become clear … like especially why Beijing insisted on its sovereign right to make the political reform decision regardless of Hong Kong’s demands.  

The younger generation has taken the injunction to heart and now sees where the crux of the problem lies:  in the Basic Law itself.  The new watchwords:  amend it! 

One of the first such presentations has recently come from none other than Hong Kong’s most politically precocious teenager, Joshua Wong Chi-fung 【黃之鋒】.   As a secondary school student in 2011-12, he initiated the successful campaign of resistance against a new compulsory patriotic political study curriculum for all Hong Kong students.  He then held his own among the older college student leaders of last year’s Umbrella/Occupy protest movement.  Now 18 and a college student himself, Wong has moved on to the larger cause of preparing Hong Kong for a future that the youngsters like to say belongs to them.

He spelled out some ideas in a recent Ming Pao Daily opinion piece, The Democracy Movement’s Next Phase” (Sunday, Aug. 2).  The ideas are those that could be seen emerging during the universal suffrage protest movement.  Campaigners were acting out the beliefs that had sustained the movement since its inception in the 1980s.  But the assumption then, in the 1980s, had been that when the Basic Law promised “eventual” universal suffrage, the promise would allow Western-style free-choice elections. 

Wong mentioned the letter that Chinese leader Zhao Ziyang 【趙紫陽】wrote to local students in May 1984.  It was in response to one the University of Hong Kong Students Union had sent to him, asking about the future of democratic elections here.  Premier Zhao had written back assuring them that democratic rule would be allowed in Hong Kong.*

That hope had sustained Hong Kong’s democracy movement for 30 years … even though the promise was pushed back by Beijing from one election cycle to the next, beginning in 1988 (and Zhao himself fell from power in 1989).   

A successor generation now inheriting the movement from its elders can see that it is leading nowhere.  The elders had assumed they were working to reunite with a democratizing China.  Now everyone can see  … most clearly from the recent political reform episode  … that cross-border pressures to integrate are growing but China itself shows no signs of democratizing or allowing democratic rule to take root in Hong Kong. 

Hence the new idea … springing from all those injunctions to study the Basic Law … is that its ambiguities should indeed be studied.  They should also be debated, clarified, and understood for the possibilities and pitfalls they contain.  The problematic points can be amended with the aim of permitting the kind of genuine autonomy that Hong Kong originally thought had been promised.  But time is passing and there is none to waste.  All of this should be done well in advance …   before Hong Kong’s 50-year Basic Law guarantee expires in 2047.

During the coming decade or so, suggested Wong, a common forward-looking program on the Basic Law’s basic points of contention should be drafted and the public must be drawn into the effort through a series of referendums and elections that can prepare the ground for amendments.  But however the effort unfolds, if Hong Kong  does not want to see its prized judicial independence and freedom of political expression written off as lost causes, then the democracy movement must not abandon the struggle for autonomy.

His argument adds perspective to the “local-ist” counter-current that has formed recently within Hong Kong’s democracy movement and has begun to take hold among the student generation as well.  This is the trend that evokes tense charges of “independence” from Beijing after every skirmish.  The trend has also led to some basic disagreements between younger and older democracy movement veterans over the symbols and ceremonies that commemorate the Hong Kong movement’s past struggles and present identity.  But the basic need to reaffirm the promise of autonomy has grown as the reality recedes.


That Beijing calls autonomy independence is, of course, just what Joshua Wong is referring to when he says a rectification of names is in order. If Beijing means one thing and Hong Kong another, the words need to be reconciled.  But for that to happen Hong Kong must demand definitions and Beijing must stop speaking in riddles created by its communist party rhetoric.

Which leads to the one major problem with Wong’s presentation.  He writes that Beijing has changed its meaning of “one-country, two-systems” and changed the meaning of autonomy underlying the two-systems promise.  

Far more likely, that Beijing has NOT changed.   Probably Hong Kong (and everyone else) simply misunderstood what Beijing meant and Beijing was happy to let the misunderstanding stand uncorrected because it was in everyone’s interest NOT to clarify.  Hong Kong’s smooth transition back to Chinese rule was at stake.  So was Britain’s honor.  And Beijing’s international reputation.  And Hong Kong’s peace of mind.

People have been arguing this issue back and forth for years, but it was revived last year when Beijing issued it’s “White Paper on the Practice of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region” (June 10, 2014). **   This document was part of the then intensifying effort to remind Hong Kongers that it was their duty to respect Beijing’s sovereignty and consequently its right to issue election reform decrees.  Many here said the White Paper changed the rules.  So does Joshua Wong. 

The argument has yet to be concluded one way or the other.  But in contemplating the question about Beijing’s original promises, people have often quoted then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s commentaries on the Basic Law while it was being drafted in the 1980s.  Especially, people like to recall Deng’s expansive promises about the 50-year promise for one-country-two-systems being extended for another 50 year stretch after 2047, and maybe even another 50 years after that.

Re-reading one of the main speeches …  Deng Xiaoping talking to members of the Basic Law Drafting Committee on April 16, 1987  …  it should have been a stretch even then to conclude that what he had in mind for Hong Kong was the same sort of idealized Western-style democracy that Hong Kong students thought Premier Zhao was promising in his friendly 1984 exchange with them.

Deng thought the committee was doing great work and later called the finished product  a  “creative masterpiece”  …  no doubt because it was just what he wanted.  In April 1987, he reminded drafters that Hong Kong’s post-1997 system of government should not be a Western copy.  It should not have the separation of three powers …  executive, legislative, and judicial.  Nor should it have a British or American parliamentary system with two-house representation.  But people should not call the results democratic or not depending on the presence or absence of those features.

China, by contrast, had “socialist democracy,” a unicameral legislature, the National People’s Congress, which best conforms to Chinese realities and avoids much wrangling.  

“Would it be good for Hong Kong to hold general elections?  I don’t think so,” he said.  Hong Kong affairs needed to be administered by Hong Kong people but it wouldn’t do for them to be elected by a general ballot because such people should be “patriotic” and patriotic candidates would not be the guaranteed winners of open free-style elections in Hong Kong.

He also said that the anchor for Hong Kong’s new two-systems arrangement was the mainland’s communist party-run system.   And that, he emphasized, would not … must not change.  He said Beijing would allow Hong Kongers to attack the Chinese Communist Party verbally.  But if they should try to convert words into action and try to turn Hong Kong into a base opposing the mainland system under the pretext of democratization … that would not be allowed.

So probably Beijing has not backtracked on its Hong Kong policy.  But the two-systems arrangement also allows enough leeway for Hong Kongers to push the boundaries and make of it what they can.  That should include demanding the definitions that will allow them to keep the system with all its rights and freedoms safe and separate post-2047.


Posted by Suzanne Pepper on August 13, 2015



Share This