Hong Kong referendum: A showdown with China

As Hong Kong votes in an unofficial referendum on democratic reform, fissures between China and Hong Kong are widening.

Many Hong Kong youth want China to hold true to its promise of 'one country, two systems' pledge [AFP]

A “public referendum” for more democracy in Hong Kong organised by “Occupy Central” political campaigners has drawn nearly 800,000 voters comprising electronic votes and those voting in person. This is purported to show how Hong Kong should elect its next chief executive or top leader in 2017 by universal suffrage, which has been officially pledged by Beijing.

The referendum presents alternative methods of nominating candidates according to international standards of democracy. While the organisers, several academics and political activists admit that the referendum does not have legal status, they do point out that the public voice is loud and clear. The government has come out to say that the public’s aspirations will be taken into account but any final electoral reform proposals must comply with the Basic Law or Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and the decisions of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the prescribed context of Beijing’s pledge for universal suffrage.

Under the Basic Law, any electoral reform package must first be endorsed by a two-thirds majority of the legislature. But slightly over one-third of the votes are in the hands of anti-establishment or anti-Beijing legislators. They therefore have a veto on the passage of the electoral reform. They support the referendum.

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The referendum was originally thought to draw only a modest level of support as the organisers’ radical Occupy movement was beginning to lose steam. However, at the 11th hour, the momentum was unexpectedly boosted by a political bombshell from Beijing in the form of a White Paper issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet.

The White Paper spells out the rationale and meaning of “One Country Two Systems”. It reaffirms that the One Country is the fountain of the Two Systems and has full oversight over how the Two System works.

Immediately, the Paper ignited a barrage of condemnation in Hong Kong. Prominent members of the legal profession protested against the perceived trample over judicial independence. Anti-establishment and anti-Beijing legislators had a field day in attacking it as a blatant attempt to roll back Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Many members of the public, particularly the younger generation, feel betrayed.

Disillusioned youth

Indeed, among the younger generation, there is no love lost with the central government. Since the return of Hong Kong to China, the two sides have become much more economically integrated, but despite Beijing’s regular economic policies in support of Hong Kong, psychologically, many Hong Kong people remain more estranged from, than empathic towards, the motherland. There is more of a Hong Kong-centric rather than a national identity. China’s negative national image as a repressive country doesn’t help.

Closer economic integration has resulted in exacerbating this lack of national empathy. Examples include a tsunami of mainland China visitors, some with legal Hong Kong family ties, swamping the city’s limited infrastructure, bidding up property prices and causing shortages of necessities such as baby milk powder, maternity wards and school places. Also fuelling an anti-establishment mindset are social tensions caused by rising economic inequalities, unaffordable private property prices and perceived powers of vested business interests.

Since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong has become one of the world’s richest entities. It has managed to retain its status as the world’s freest economy for the 20th year in a row, according to the Heritage Foundation, a prominent US think-tank. Hong Kong’s freedom of expression is for all to see, as open criticisms, if not insults, of the Hong Kong and Beijing governments are almost a daily occurrence.

Things, however, seem to have gone from bad to worse. Increasingly, government infrastructural plans promoting wider economic integration, which will benefit Hong Kong as much as the mainland, are being filibustered. Pre-handover colonial flags were being waived in demonstrations.

Recently, several protesters attempted to break into the local garrison of the People’s Liberation Army. Only days ago, a huge group of angry protestors tried to storm the building of the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s parliament), narrowly triggering a re-enactment of Taiwan’s example. Moreover, electoral proposals put forth by the anti-Beijing camp blatantly flout or undermine the authority of the nominating committee under the banner of “international standards”.

During a recent visit to the United States, prominent leaders of the “democratic” campaign were met personally by US Vice President Joe Biden, lending them high-level support.

Beijing’s tightening grip

So it’s perhaps no wonder why Beijing has seen fit to put markers down. The Two Systems must not be hijacked to subvert, undermine or short-change the One Country. Above all, the Basic Law must be fully upheld.

In reality, there is no question why Beijing would not agree to make the process of its promised universal suffrage more democratic provided the provisions of the Basic Law have been complied with. Making the nominating committee more widely representative may be an option, if the same balance between the four broad sectors of interests is maintained.

However, Beijing is unlikely to cave in to the threat of Occupy Central. Least of all, it is unlikely to savour the erosion if not the breakage of the Basic Law, the pillar supporting the One Country Two Systems bargain. Otherwise, Deng Xiaoping, the father of this unprecedented formula, would be the first to turn in his grave.

Andrew Leung is an independent China analyst who has held many senior government positions in Hong Kong. He is a frequent contributor on international TV networks.