Should it matter to the rest of us that Hong Kong has erupted this past week with demonstrations for democracy? China’s rulers say this is an internal matter. Western leaders, while expressing concern, seem inclined to agree.
In the streets of Hong Kong, tear gas and arrests have not stopped the protests; they have fueled them. The growing turnout has raised the specter of China’s Tiananmen Square uprising 25 years ago, and its grim suppression with the bloodshed of June 4, 1989. Many are warning that Hong Kong’s bid for its basic rights cannot end well.
Let us set aside for a moment the temptation to second-guess the tactics of Hong Kong’s democrats. It is important to understand what’s at stake. For 25 years, the world has admired the photo of a lone man standing up to a column of tanks in Beijing. Different time, different place, and a new cast of characters. But fundamentally, this is the same confrontation. The desire for democratic rights is again colliding in the streets with the interests of China’s powerful dictatorship.
China will draw fresh lessons from how this shakes out. So will China’s fellow tyrannies around the globe. Hong Kong is protected—at least in theory—under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which laid out the terms on which Britain handed this former Crown Colony back to China in 1997. Under the agreement, Hong Kong was promised 50 years of “a high degree of autonomy,” an arrangement summed up by former Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping with the formulation “one country, two systems.” The result is that Hong Kong, perhaps more than any other place on the planet, occupies an extraordinary position between the tectonic plates of dictatorship and democracy.
For Hong Kong and Beijing, the current earthquake has been decades in the making. I witnessed its early stirrings when I arrived in Hong Kong in 1986, to spend the next seven years working on the editorial page of the Asia Wall Street Journal. Hong Kong was then a British colony. There was no self-rule. But there were some major benefits. Hong Kong had free markets, British rule of law, and a colonial government that answered, ultimately, to British voters. There was accountability.
It was clear back then that Hong Kong had the makings of a successful independent nation—more so than many of the newly formed countries which in the postcolonial era following World War II were gaining independence. Hong Kong’s people were never given that choice. Britain had wrested Hong Kong from China in the 19th-century Opium Wars, later leased the adjacent New Territories, and in 1984 decided to hand it all back—transforming Hong Kong in 1997 from a colony of Britain to what is effectively, if not officially, a colony of China—a Special Autonomous Region.
In this arrangement, Hong Kong was promised the opportunity to choose its own leaders. It was clear that genuine elections were the best hope for Hong Kong’s free society insulating itself against China’s tyranny. It was also clear even under the British, back in the late 1980s, that the fix was in. The British colonial government, prone to opining that Hong Kong’s people were apolitical and had no real interest in electing their own leaders, had no intention of introducing direct elections. It was left to Beijing to interpret that promise.
And so, after years of evasion, delay, and creeping influence from China, came the trigger this August for the current protests: Beijing’s decision that in 2017, Hong Kong’s people would be allowed for the first time to vote for their chief executive—undercut with the cynical proviso that nominees for the post would effectively be chosen by Beijing. This is both repressive and insulting. Not only would it transform the long-promised vote into a sham, but it would present Hong Kong’s people with the dilemma that in the very act of voting, they would be endorsing the fraud.
Last month I was in Hong Kong, and while there I went to speak with one of the most venerable figures of Hong Kong’s democracy movement, 76-year-old Martin Lee. Eloquent, soft-spoken, and indefatigable, Lee still speaks and marches in the forefront of Hong Kong’s protests, though he is no longer the most prominent face of dissent. That torch has passed to the much younger generation now wielding cell phones and parasols in the streets, in the movement quickly dubbed the umbrella revolution. But for a clear articulation of the big picture and basic issues, Lee has for decades been a clarion voice.