Recent developments in Hong Kong – from the violent disturbances in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok district on the first day of the Chinese new year to the disappearance of publisher Lee Bo – have taken concerns about political risk in Hong Kong to a new level, both in the city and beyond.
The dominant explanation for Hong Kong’s political problems in much of the international media and among some Hong Kongers is that they are the result of the central authorities (Beijing) tightening its grip on Hong Kong politics and society.
But if anything, the “occupy” movement of autumn 2014 and debates since it have demonstrated the limits to Beijing’s ability to influence, let alone control, events in Hong Kong.
China’s impact on HK
The reality is that a complex mix of local, national and global factors explain the underlying trends in Hong Kong.
Significant stresses lie within Hong Kong itself rather than in the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing. Socioeconomic forces are a key driver, in particular the growth in income inequality, rising prices of housing and other basic commodities, and the effect of increased immigration, especially from the rest of China.
Governance challenges result from a constitutional arrangement whereby a legislature – which is substantially elected effectively – acts as opposition to an unelected executive. And although a sense of dysfunction has grown since Leung Chun-ying’s administration took charge in 2012, the roots of the current governance challenges predate his administration.
Combined with growing socioeconomic divisions in Hong Kong, the impact of China's economic rise has fuelled new forces in Hong Kong politics, which in turn tap into long-standing antipathy to China's ruling Communist Party from a sizeable proportion of Hong Kong people.
Global politics is also a factor, with some arguing that the Hong Kong protests of 2014 should be seen as part of a global wave of protest; the “Sunflower Movement” in Taiwan in early 2014 certainly appears to have inspired some of Hong Kong’s “occupy” protesters.
Another structural factor needs more consideration. Although tensions had begun to appear in the first decade after the 1997 handover from Britain to China, they were balanced by the pre-2008 global and Chinese economic boom, with a sense that Hong Kong had broadly benefited both from China’s economic rise and from globalisation.
However, in recent years international concern about the implications of China’s economic rise has grown, extending to many people in Hong Kong.
For some, the growth in Chinese tourism, investment in property overseas, and commercial expansion have been a financial opportunity, but for many, their effect on rising prices and Hong Kong’s changing demographic profile are a threat.
This is all the more so for a crowded city which can’t hedge the effect of China’s rise as other global cities can – although strengthening Hong Kong’s economic links across Southeast Asia would help.
The anti-mainland sentiment
These trends may be further exacerbated by the sense among many Hong Kongers that, although the city is clearly accepted by the vast majority as a part of China, they have somehow not benefited from the rise of China.
Dramatic transformations, particularly in places such as Shenzhen just north of Hong Kong, have brought China’s cities closer to Hong Kong in terms of hard infrastructure, though Hong Kong still enjoys a separate political and legal system, and a better public provision of education and healthcare.
Combined with growing socioeconomic divisions in Hong Kong, the impact of China’s economic rise has fuelled new forces in Hong Kong politics, which in turn tap into long-standing antipathy to China’s ruling Communist Party from a sizeable proportion of Hong Kong people.
In particular, there has been a steady rise in anti-mainland sentiment, seen in some politicians’ “de-mainlandisation” slogans dating back a number of years, and a growing emphasis on Hong Kong identity as something separate or different from Chinese identity.
Post-Occupy, a frustrated minority have begun to advocate separation or independence for Hong Kong.
These political trends have contributed to the polarisation of Hong Kong society and the futile political standoffs which have left the political reform process stalled and exacerbated the city’s governance challenges.
I contend that the causes of this are much more about the mutual interaction between the structural consequences of China’s rise and local politics than any policy choices in Beijing.
But the outcomes have created nerves in Beijing about its ability to influence events in Hong Kong, and the central government’s responses have only hardened positions in the city.
Indeed, rather than an increase in Beijing’s “control”, attempts to intervene simply highlight the limits of Beijing’s ability to influence Hong Kong politics and society.
Several candidates for the February legislative by-election talked about the need to find a middle way, but they performed poorly. Instead, 15 percent of the votes cast went to the pro-independence “Hong Kong Indigenous” candidate.
It therefore looks unlikely that moderate voices will prevail, and instead political and socioeconomic tensions will remain high through 2016 September legislative elections.
With another small-circle Chief Executive (head of government) election to follow in spring 2017, the political tensions in Hong Kong will only rise further.
Tim Summers is an adjunct assistant professor at the Centre for China Studies at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.