Hong Kong’s Autonomy

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Hong Kong is an island of free speech and civil liberties in an authoritarian sea. It is not, however, a democracy. Hong Kong citizens have never had the power to choose their top leader, neither as part of China since 1997 nor as an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years before that. The prospect of the first direct election of a chief executive in 2017 has increased the tension between Hong Kong’s yearning for autonomy and China’s for loyalty.

The Situation

A tumultuous season of pro-democracy protests fizzled to a close at the end of 2014. With the authorities resolute and public support waning, protesters dribbled away in December without achieving their goals: free popular elections and the resignation of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying. Police cleared away the residue of protest sites where thousands of citizens had poured into the streets in the summer and fall, blocking roads, choking on tear gas and demanding an end to what they said was China’s increased political interference. China had previously pledged to give Hong Kong citizens a leader chosen by “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee” starting in 2017. On Aug. 31 its legislature reiterated that candidates must be screened by a committee, which would give Beijing an effective veto over anyone viewed as unfriendly to the central government. China also asserted the right to interpret Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, citing it as justification for its view that candidates are to be nominated by committee rather than directly by voters and must be loyal to the Communist Party.

The Background

The 1984 Sino-British power transfer agreement specified that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years under a principle the Chinese call “one country, two systems.” The top official, however, was to be chosen by an intricate nominating process that, in the view of democracy advocates, gives few citizens a voice and puts Beijing in control. It hasn’t worked out well: The chief executives have lacked popular support, with the first one, Tung Chee-hwa, departing after protests and his successor, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, amid financial scandal. In 2007, China promised open elections starting in 2017 and debate ensued about how they should be conducted. On July 15, 2014 the Hong Kong administration published a document it called a “consultation” with residents, finding that a majority agreed with China that candidates should be nominated by a committee; each should show that he is someone “who loves the country and loves Hong Kong.”

The Argument

Student protest leaders said they plan to broaden their struggle for free elections and claim to have emboldened citizens to demand democracy. Though the public tired of the occupation, the students claim there is still support for universal suffrage that meets what they call “international standards.” Pro-Beijing groups argue that China never promised more than the limited form of universal suffrage it offered, and that the occupation damaged Hong Kong’s rule of law and standing in the international financial community. China’s wariness of Hong Kong’s democracy movement is consistent with its wider push to assert regional control and to redress the humiliation it says it suffered after ceding the city to Britain upon losing the first Opium War in 1841. The pro-democrats argue that increasing Chinese meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs violates China’s pledge to respect its principle of “one country, two systems.”

The Reference Shelf

  • Manifesto announcing a campaign for expanded democracy led by the activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace.
  • China presented its interpretation of Hong Kong democracy in a 2014 policy paper.
  • The website of the pro-democracy group Hong Kong 2020 sets forth objections to the way Hong Kong chooses its chief executive and suggests improvements.
  • The New York Times published a Q&A about Hong Kong-China tensions with Hong Kong University law professor Michael C. Davis.

First Published July 28, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:

David Tweed in Hong Kong at dtweed@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this QuickTake:

Jonathan I. Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net