A favorite question during the July 1, 2017 holiday celebrations here last month was whether people were optimistic or pessimistic about Hong Kong’s future. It was also a favorite question 20 years ago, ahead of Hong Kong’s July 1, 1997 return to Chinese rule.

If memory serves correctly, the mood then was a mix of hope and fear that combined into something like guarded optimism. For now that optimism has largely dissipated. But the future is still an open question. It can go either way, depending on what direction the key players choose to take.


No one had any illusions in 1997 about the nature of China’s communist party or the government it led. But there were “intervening variables.” The Soviet Union had disintegrated a few years before and with it went all of the East European satellite countries. In the great competition between East and West, communism as the revolutionary alternative that would save humanity had collapsed along with its claim to historical inevitability.

But even if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) didn’t go the way of all the others, it had embarked on its own path of economic and social reform after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. The successors of his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997 not long before Hong Kong’s July First return, vowed that all the reforms would continue. So would the promises made to Hong Kong about being able to keep all the rights and freedoms it had enjoyed as a colony under British rule … and more.

Beijing had promised Hong Kong what the British had never allowed: the right to elect its own government. The promise was written down in black and white, in Articles 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s new Basic Law. These were constitutional guarantees that Hong Kong had also never enjoyed before. The new arrangement was even given a catchy logo. Beijing dubbed it “one-country, two-systems.”

So who could say that China’s post-Mao economic and social reforms would not evolve to include political reform as well?  There were many such confident predictions in those early post-Soviet days. People took to speculating about how China would more likely be joining Hong Kong rather than the other way around.

Reforms would continue to move from south to north … as they had in the 1980s when Beijing began learning from the capitalist West and Hong Kong became one of many conduits for the capital and expertise that launched China’s new era. Hong Kong with its own autonomous system could become the bridge between democracy and dictatorship … one country, two systems … across the 1997 divide.

Virtually no one was pessimistic enough to predict that Beijing would be able to use the new wealth and power its communist government was harnessing from economic reform, to reaffirm and strengthen the cause of political dictatorship.

Ideas about Western-style political reform, comparable to those that had transformed economic life, were considered for a time in the 1980s, but then abandoned. China’s own fitful 1980s democracy movement culminated in the occupation of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and then came to a violent end on June Fourth at the hands of the People’s Liberation Army. That time of idealistic challenge, and official reaction, came to be symbolized by the fate of Tiananmen-era dissident Liu Xiaobo.


 Which brings us up to date. Today, the political and economic imperatives are all moving in the opposite direction … not from south to north but the other way around. Again, the dynamic was fittingly symbolized by Liu Xiaobo who was released from prison on medical parole but not until it was too late to save his life. His move from prison to hospital was announced just days before Hong Kong celebrated its 20th anniversary under Chinese rule. Liu died on July 13.

Hong Kong’s democracy movement has continued to commemorate the spirit of 1989 each year since (June 8, 2017 post).  But the mood of pessimism has grown with each passing year and the failure of the movement’s main goals.

Beijing’s one-party dictatorship, far from evolving into some democratic alternative, is as strong as it has ever been.   The promises about elected government in Hong Kong have also not materialized. Nor is there any longer much hope they ever will be.

People are slowly discovering that they lack the means to defend themselves against Beijing’s persistent intrusions into the space that everyone had assumed would demarcate the autonomous boundaries of the Hong Kong “system.”

Another reminder of that eroding autonomy came the day after Liu’s death. On July 14, the imperatives of Beijing’s communist party dictatorship … registered in a simple interpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law Article 104 on oath-taking; and the determination of a hardline Chief Executive to enforce not just the spirit but the letter of Beijing’s will as well; plus Hong Kong judges who decided they dare not dissent … all combined to disqualify four more legislative councilors on political grounds. They were judged to have disrespected their oaths-of-office by using them to vent their frustrations over Beijing’s ongoing intrusions at the expense of Hong Kong’s autonomy.

A total of six legislators elected last fall have now been retroactively disqualified on the basis of Beijing’s interpretation that negated their improvised oaths after the fact of their having taken them. Legal proceedings are underway to disqualify several more on the same grounds.  In this way, the results of the September 4, 2016 Legislative Council election are being incrementally overturned by decree from Beijing (July 20, 2017 post).

REDEFINING OPTIMISM: The Dynamics of Dissent

 All things considered, only Hong Kong’s dyed-in-the-wool pro-Beijing loyalist minority has grounds for optimism. They represented something under 40% of the vote in last September’s election. The figure refers to a mix of loyalists and old-fashioned pro-establishment conservatives. Pro-democracy candidates of all dimensions polled 59+% of the vote.

For Hong Kongers at that democratic end of the political spectrum, the prospects seem bleak, as dark as the mood created by the futuristic film Ten Years when it was released to much acclaim in late 2015. It projected current fears into the future, to a time just 10 years distant, when Hong Kong’s communist party branch had finally emerged from its underground hiding place to govern openly. By then Hong Kong would have become in all respects “just another mainland city,” as the current saying goes.

Not necessarily. There is another way of projecting the current climate into something with a brighter future. The intervening variable could be the dynamics of dissent. That dynamic contains two contingencies … two possible outcomes, one following from the other, that might produce a solution to Hong Kong’s current political dilemma.

The two contingencies require a certain degree of imagination and forward thinking. But both seem plausible.

The first necessary condition is the continued viability of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. That would mean a coherent set of ideas and demands and activist leadership intent on articulating them. It would also mean a large number of receptive listeners among the general public … especially those interested enough to keep coming out on Election Days.

For this scenario to work, however, the ideas and demands should not include independence or advocate resort to violence as a means of achieving anything. It should be assumed that Beijing would rather destroy Hong Kong than allow either of those two ideas to take root here. They are the no-go zones beyond which there would be no turning back.

Not to be similarly avoided, however, is the concept of self-determination. Beijing’s polemics are currently lumping all advocates of independence and self-determination together into a common category and vilifying them all as “separatists.” Separatism is a serious political security crime in mainland eyes and merits severe retribution.

“Self-determination”  is nevertheless an infinitely flexible term … much like “autonomy,” which Beijing has learned to adapt in many creative ways. Ideas about self-determination should be similarly open to exploration and creative adaptation.

Also to be avoided, however, are the siren songs of compromise. These songs are being sung by many, on both the conservative and democrat ends of the political spectrum. Two such groups … Path of Democracy and Third Side … are breakaways from the Civic Party and Democratic Party, respectively,

The idea of moderation they champion does not anticipate the evolutionary imperative toward one-country, one-system integration that Beijing built into the Basic Law. That document was written under Beijing’s direction and should be read as a formula for achieving, by evolution, what the CCP achieved by other, revolutionary, means for the rest of China, minus Taiwan, in 1949.

Such premature compromises can nevertheless be avoided if the general public is sufficiently aware and engaged. The general public represents a crucial component in any forward-looking pro-democracy scenario. The danger is that energies tend to fragment and dissipate when the public loses interest, or becomes distracted by extraneous issues, or is worn down by repeated failures. In other words, when too many allow themselves to disappear and drop off the political radar screen.

This reasoning is based on the overall experience of Hong Kong’s democracy movement since 1997. During the past 20 years, the public has rallied to push back against three major Beijing-directed initiatives.   These were designed to achieve important evolutionary changes in the Hong Kong public’s political thinking and behavior.

The three measures were all shelved in the face of public resistance, but remain pending. They are: Article 23 national political security legislation, shelved in 2003; a compulsory national political education curriculum for all students, shelved in 2012; and the August 31, 2014 decision that sought to substitute a mainland-style officially-vetted precedent for Hong Kong’s long-sought goal of Western-style universal suffrage elections (March 31, 2016 post).

Additionally, ongoing public protest over every conceivable issue has managed to discredit and delegitimize all three of Hong Kong’s post-1997 Beijing-selected Chief Executives … without the formality of an elected government. The public has found other ways of making its influence felt. Hong Kong’s newly installed fourth Chief Executive is essentially on notice, while the public waits to see how Beijing directs her to proceed and how she chooses to respond.

Which points to the second major contingency: Beijing. What are the incentives that could induce Beijing officials and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing loyalist minority to lighten up on their daily drumbeat of demands for patriotic political conformity?

The one thing Beijing wants and needs most from Hong Kong is to be able to continue telling the world, as it did last month, that Beijing’s take-over here via the “one-country, two-systems” formula is a great success. Beijing does not want to have to admit to failure with all the world watching.

But the ongoing upsurges of protest are making Hong Kong increasingly dysfunctional and the claim of success has become increasingly difficult to make. Already some important qualifications have had to be added.

One just-disqualified legislator summed up the problem for Beijing saying it “cannot rule Hong Kong by decree alone.” That was how Beijing handled the oath-taking saga … with a sledgehammer when Hong Kong’s own local courts would have served just as well.

Answers to the question about Hong Kong’s future are thus neither optimistic nor pessimistic. It can go either way … depending on the dynamics of dissent and whether the two basic conditions about Hong Kong’s democracy movement and Beijing’s response can be met, or whether they cannot.

The answer trends toward optimistic if Hong Kong’s democracy movement can maintain its momentum and keep on doing what it has succeeded in doing so far. But optimism is only warranted if Hong Kongers also succeed in convincing Beijing officials that their rigid attempts to impose the standards of national patriotic political thought and behavior are both unnecessary and counterproductive.

This is not beyond the realm of possibility. In fact, it could be easily accomplished given the many moderate proposals that have been suggested along the way. Accommodation and national political security are not mutually exclusive.

Alternatively, the answer trends toward pessimistic if Hong Kong’s democracy movement loses its momentum and accepts Beijing’s demands Or if Beijing simply refuses to modify them, carries on ruling by decree, and thereby acknowledges that Deng Xiaoping’s successors have failed to realize the potential of his one-country, two-systems experiment.


Posted by Suzanne Pepper on August 1, 2017



Share This