WASHINGTON – Will the Hong Kong protesters demanding true democratic elections for the special status territory win in the end? Who knows. Probably they will not. And yet this surprisingly large grass-roots “rebellion” should be noted, because it is an open challenge to Beijing’s will to control Hong Kong’s politics.
The Chinese government wants to establish a “guided democracy” in Hong Kong. The people will be able to vote. But the candidates for the top executive position will be vetted and approved by an ad hoc committee. Quite simply, this means that only candidates that have proven pro-Beijing credentials need apply.
Hong Kong citizens could have accepted this farce, recognizing that a semi-democracy is better than no democracy at all. But they did not. Unexpectedly, they staged protests. And the protests grew bigger and bigger.
This is a huge embarrassment for the current pro-Beijing Hong Kong leadership. But it is also a problem for Beijing, since it is the Chinese Communist Party itself that mandated the new elections procedures for Hong Kong.
At this point, giving in to the street demonstrators in Hong Kong may be impossible. This would amount to a loss of face and prestige. However, crushing the protesters in a violent manner would not look good. It would invite unpleasant comparisons with the brutal 1989 Tien An Men repression of pro-democracy protesters.
Be that as it may, one thing is clear. China, while respecting Hong Kong’s special status, intends to tighten political control. “Hong Kong people: You get to vote; but only for candidates we have pre-approved.” The people in Hong Kong saw this and resist.
Prosperity and political freedom go hand in hand
Even though we do not know how all this will end up, (probably badly), this phenomenon of large pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong underscore a point that most Western China observers try to avoid.
Indeed, despite the undeniable economic progress made by China in the last 30 years, this is still an illiberal autocracy, unwilling to transform itself.
The citizens of Hong Kong know this. And therefore, without challenging the basic reality that China is ultimately in control of the former British colony, they fight to protect what makes them different: political freedom.
While most mainland Chinese may feel differently, (they have never known democracy), in Hong Kong people believe that economic prosperity and political freedom are inseparable.
I think Thomas Jefferson would agree.