It’s enough to make you think you can’t trust a repressive authoritarian regime to honor its word. For years, the Chinese government had assured the people of Hong Kong that by 2017 they would be allowed to elect the city’s leader. On Sunday, though, it might as well have said, "It depends on the meaning of the word ‘elect.’"
Instead of holding a truly free election, Beijing said it will permit just two or three candidates — and only those approved by a panel that undoubtedly will be controlled by the Communist Party. The government stipulated that anyone allowed to compete must "love the country and love Hong Kong."
The effect, and obvious intent, of these rules is to block any pro-democracy contender from entering the race. One critic said it amounts to letting citizens choose any one of the Three Stooges.
"Hong Kong people are right to feel betrayed," said pro-democracy lawmaker Alan Leong, The New York Times reported. "It’s certain now that the central government will be effectively appointing Hong Kong’s chief executive." No sense in letting the true desires of Hong Kong residents get in the way of Beijing’s plans.
The city, long a British colony, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997, with the central government proclaiming a benevolent, largely hands-off policy of "one country, two systems." Hong Kong still enjoys considerable governing autonomy, a judiciary and bureaucracy inherited from Britain, and wide-open political debate. Every Jan. 1, thousands march to demand more democracy — the sort of protest that ordinarily would not be tolerated in the rest of China.
But residents don’t necessarily compare their situation to that of other mainlanders. They also notice how democratic Taiwan (which is independent in all but name) has become in recent years — not to mention the gains made in the rest of the world. Many chafe at the limits imposed on them.
Protests erupted as soon as the new electoral plan was unveiled, and activists disrupted a speech by a central government official. The president of the student union at the Chinese University of Hong Kong called for a student strike. The chief opposition group, Occupy Central, threatens to bring a sit-in to the city’s financial district and block major roadways.
But Beijing faces a bigger problem than protests and disruption. Its plan has to be approved by the city’s legislative council, where pro-democracy members have enough votes to veto it.
That decision would have the paradoxical result of leaving in place the status quo — which assigns the choice of chief executive to a 1,200-member committee that is known for its deference to Beijing. But democracy advocates think it would be folly to quietly settle for something less than the "universal suffrage" Hong Kong was promised.
The central government obviously fears that genuine democracy in one place could generate demands for it in the rest of the country. But reneging on promises of self-government has its risks as well. Most people in Hong Kong have little use for Occupy Central and have accepted rule by Beijing with little complaint. If the Chinese government stands by its decision to deny voters the opportunity to choose their own leader — or uses harsh tactics against protesters — public sentiment could turn.
Over 17 years, Beijing has managed to walk a tightrope between respecting Hong Kong’s unique freedom and maintaining its control. Right now, the high wire looks pretty slippery.