For most Westerners, Hong Kong has long been considered one of the world’s most important financial centers — a city filled with both finance jobs for top MBA graduates as well as a gateway to China’s growing prosperity. Yet what’s happened over the past weekend proves that Hong Kong must be seen as far more valuable than as a commercial center. Its people deserve both global attention and support at this historic moment.
The Internet and social media have been flooded with increasingly violent images of Hong Kong police firing tear gas into masses of peaceful prodemocracy protesters crowding the city’s streets. The scenes, for most readers, were totally unexpected and confusing.
Yet prodemocracy movements, including the now well-known Occupy Central campaign and the student-led class boycotts, have been growing rapidly over the past month following the decision by Beijing to screen and limit candidates for chief executive, Hong Kong’s top official, in upcoming elections. In 1997, in exchange for the peaceful transfer of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule, Beijing agreed that it would allow universal suffrage, granting Hong Kongers the ability to chose their own leaders. It later set 2017 as the date for those voting rights to go into effect. Now it is going back on that promise.
Protesters’ demands are simple and clear — China’s central government should let the territory’s 7 million residents have the power of “one person, one vote” to elect the chief executive. Beijing has attempted to cloud the situation, suggesting it was allowing “universal suffrage with Chinese characteristics.” It’s the same idea as “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which has allowed the government full control of nearly all aspects of the world’s second-largest economy, from the exchange rate to what foreign banks can operate there. When objections were raised in Hong Kong, Beijing insisted that there was no so-called “international standard” to define how universal suffrage.
Not surprisingly, this stance has exacerbated mistrust between the central government and the general public in Hong Kong, especially among young people. That growing rift has ended in the chaos and anger Sunday — and subsequent use of tear gas against unarmed ordinary citizens — seen on the city’s streets.
In my view, Beijing has hesitated to allow Hong Kong universal suffrage out of fear it could see other Chinese cities start to demand it as well, in particular in the relatively more developed and wealthy coastal cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai. We have seen in such places local residents, especially the fast-growing middle class, become increasingly concerned about how to protect their rights and benefits. Beijing understandably wants to tamp down on this so-called “democracy contagion” as it signals a clear challenge to the legitimacy of Communist Party rule.
In some ways, Hong Kong — a special administrative zone under the landmark “one country, two systems” scheme developed by the late paramount Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping — has proven tougher to manage than even the restive regions of Tibet and Xinjiang for officials in Beijing. As a former British colony, Hong Kong has significantly more international exposure and stronger global relations, both politically and economically. Its residents also have enjoyed the freedom of Internet access, which is not allowed in any part of mainland China, and a key factor in organizing people to defend what they believe is the right thing.
Now the whole world is watching. What is unfolding now is the biggest political crisis for Hong Kong since the 1997 handover and rightfully raising doubts over the efficiency and effectiveness of the “one country, two systems” — which Chinese President Xi Jinping recently suggested to Taiwanese representatives that he’d also like to employ in the unification of Beijing and Taipei.
So China’s top leadership face two choices. The first option is to hold a hard line against the protesters, but I doubt President Xi is ready to seen by the rest of the world as another Vladimir Putin or sowing another Tiananmen Square. The second — better — decision would be to listen to protesters’ demands and find a more constructive approach to reengage Hong Kong’s pan-democracy camp. For the sake of Hong Kong and Beijing, now is the time to embrace the right choice.George Chen is a 2014 Yale World Fellow and author of two books, “This is Hong Kong I Know” and “Foreign Banks in China.” Follow him on Twitter @george_chen.