“The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” warned the Global Times, the most aggressively nationalistic of China’s state-run newspapers. Clearly, some important people in the Communist regime are very unhappy about the “civil referendum” on democracy that has just ended in Hong Kong.
In Ukraine, a democratic revolution was followed by foreign annexation of part of the country (Crimea), a mini-civil war in the east, and the threat of a Russian invasion. In Thailand, the voters’ persistence in voting for the “wrong” party led to a military coup. It’s ridiculous to suggest that Hong Kong’s referendum might lead to anything like that, but they are very frightened of democracy in Beijing.
The referendum, which has no official standing, was organised by pro-democracy activists in response to a “white paper” published by the Chinese government in mid-June that made it clear there could be no full democracy in Hong Kong. News about the referendum was completely censored in China, but almost 800,000 people in Hong Kong voted in it. They all said “yes” to democracy.
The referendum was really a tactical move by Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp in a long-running tug-of-war with Beijing over how the “Special Administrative Region” should be governed. The voters were asked to choose between three different options for choosing Hong Kong’s Chief Executive—and all of those methods involved popular participation. That is to say, democracy.
That’s not how the Chief Executive is chosen now. He is “elected” by a 1,200-person “Election Committee”, most of whose members are directly or indirectly chosen by the Chinese Communist authorities in Beijing and their local representatives. That’s hardly democratic, but it is written into the “Basic Law” that was negotiated between London and Beijing before Britain handed the colony back in 1997.
The whole negotiation was a series of compromises between the British view that Hong Kong’s inhabitants should enjoy democratic rights, and the Chinese regime’s determination to have ultimate control of the city. One of those compromises was a promise that by 2017, 20 years after the hand-over, the Chief Executive would be chosen by direct elections.
So democracy was raising its ugly head again, and Beijing sought to head off the danger by publishing its recent white paper. There would indeed be direct elections in 2017, it said, but all the candidates would be selected by a “nominating committee” whose members would still be chosen, directly or indirectly, by Beijing—and all the candidates would have to be “patriotic”. In China, as in most dictatorships, “patriotic” means “loyal to the regime.”
The instant response in Hong Kong was the “civil referendum”, in which about 800,000 of Hong Kong’s 3.5 million registered voters have cast a vote in polling stations, online, or on a phone app.
Every one of those voters was voting for full democracy, since the referendum asked them to choose between three proposed methods for nominating candidates for Chief Executive, all of which involved direct public participation. And while 800,000 people is only a quarter of the adult population, it is almost half the number of people (1.8 million) who actually voted in the last elections for Hong Kong’s legislature.
The Global Times has denounced the referendum as an “illegal farce” and “a joke”. Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, has loyally echoed Beijing’s view that “Nobody should place Hong Kong people in confrontation with mainland Chinese citizens.” After all, “mainland Chinese citizens” have no democratic rights at all, and the Communist regime wants to keep it that way.
But it doesn’t have to be a confrontation. As part of the “one country, two systems” deal that was negotiated with Britain 20 years ago, Beijing has already accepted that Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for the next 50 years. That includes the rule of law and civil rights like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, free media and so on.
Mainland Chinese citizens do not have those rights, and the example of Hong Kong has not so far incited them to demand them. So why should a democratically elected Chief Executive in Hong Kong drive those 1.3 billion mainland Chinese citizens to demand democracy either?
Maybe the Chinese people will demand democracy eventually, but that is far likelier to come about as a result of a severe recession that destroys the Communist regime’s reputation for fostering high-speed economic growth, which is its sole remaining claim on their loyalty. It won’t come from some desire to emulate Hong Kong. So there is room for a deal between Beijing and Hong Kong that gives the latter more freedom, if everybody stays calm.
There are probably even people inside the Communist regime in Beijing who would welcome a demonstration in Hong Kong that a little more democracy for Chinese people does not necessarily lead to chaos, civil war and secession. (Which is, of course, what their hard-line rivals constantly predict would be the inevitable result of diluting the dictatorship.)
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles on world affairs are published in 45 countries.