At the beginning of this month, two prominent Hong Kong democracy advocates visited Washington to seek America’s support.

Vice President Joseph Biden “dropped by” to meet Anson Chan, a former top civil servant under both the British and Chinese administrations, and Martin Lee, a distinguished barrister and founder of the territory’s democratic party. The White House press office gave a brief “read out” of the meeting citing America’s “long standing support for democracy in Hong Kong and for the city’s high degree of autonomy.”

Considering China’s predictably negative reaction, and the low priority given to supporting democracy abroad by the Obama administration, the White House reception for the Hong Kong democrats was respectable. At the same time, Mrs. Chan and Mr. Lee might share the sentiments a Russian democrat opposition politician expressed after a meeting with President Obama: “less than what we wanted but more than what we expected.” What Hong Kong’s democrats need is for the U.S. to explicitly support democratic elections for the chief executive and a fully democratic legislature.

Beijing is expected to decide sometime this year on changes to how the chief executive will be chosen in 2017, but few expect real progress toward democracy. Beijing set up the post-1997 government it wanted so that it could rely on pro-Beijing “patriots” who “love Hong Kong” to run Hong Kong. Under the system devised by Beijing, the chief executive is chosen in a manner reflecting “the actual situation” in Hong Kong. Far from full democracy, Beijing’s “ultimate goal” is for Hong Kong people to vote on candidates selected by a “broadly representative nominating committee” and in keeping with “the principle of gradual and orderly progress.” In the past, such gradual progress has meant expanding the committee that rubber stamps Beijing’s choice of chief executive from 800 to 1,200.

Beijing’s interpretation of the “actual situation” differs from what Hong Kong people want and is at odds with democratic principles. At the same time, without legitimacy and accountability, Hong Kong’s government is growing weaker and concerns about the future stability rising. There are increasing tensions between Hong Kong citizens and Mainland Chinese residents, deterioration in press freedom, and incidents of violence against journalists. The possibility of provocations orchestrated by Beijing to justify a clampdown, including the imposition of an anti-subversion law, is real, especially during civil disobedience campaign planned for this summer.

Beijing likely prefers the problems of authoritarian rule to allowing democracy. In the past, American leaders have tried to reason with Beijing that greater liberalization is in Beijing’s interest – but Communist party leaders tend not to see things the same way as elected democrats.

Washington needs to go further than bland statements about democracy and autonomy, concepts that Beijing is adept at manipulating. In a recent paper, Larry Diamond, a democracy scholar at Stanford University, flatly rejected the current system for selecting the Hong Kong chief executive as undemocratic. Nor would a system that allows all Hong Kong voters to cast a ballot be acceptable if they are denied a “meaningful choice” of candidates. Professor Diamond cited Iran, where the Guardian Council approves candidates, as an example of a system that is undemocratic, despite the ability of all of Iran’s eligible voters to cast a ballot. Professor Diamond writes:

the authorities in Beijing have the power and authority to determine whether Hong Kong will achieve democracy at a particular point in time, but they do not have the right to redefine what democracy is.

Beijing’s Communist party leaders may not mind if Hong Kong’s political system resembles Iran’s, but Washington must – or stop pretending it supports democracy there.

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