In the midst of an upheaval in the prosecution of the Afghanistan war, the G-8 and G-20 meetings, and the continuing saga of the BP oil spill, a political earthquake that took place in Hong Kong last week escaped notice.
The big news was not actually the passage of political reforms by the territory’s partially democratic legislature -- it was, instead, how these reforms came to be and what they actually mean. The reforms were minor and the details arcane: Hong Kong’s leader, in the future, will be selected by a committee of 1200, up from 800, in an electorate of almost 3.5 million registered voters. There will be ten new seats, and some of these will be chosen in a complicated way that is better than was initially proposed. The legislation contained no commitment to the fully democratic election of the chief executive or for the legislature itself, which will continue to include members representing “functional constituencies” (small electorates dominated by anti-democracy allies of Beijing). Citing their continued commitment to full democracy, and concerns about legitimizing features of the current system, members of the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats, and independent pro-democracy legislators voted against the proposal.
Yet, all but one of the legislators of the Democratic Party – the longest serving and largest bloc of democrats, with members active since British rule and the Tiananmen massacre, the event which galvanized the democracy movement in 1989 – voted “yes.” It turned out that representatives of the Democratic Party had met with Beijing’s representative to Hong Kong to work on the proposal, and that this led to a very minor compromise on Beijing’s part that gave the Democrats political cover to vote for the legislation.
At one time, such meetings would have been considered meddling by Beijing and a violation of its pledge to allow Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” in all but defense and foreign affairs. But last week’s events show how acceptable an overt role by Beijing in the territory’s politics has become.
Something else has also changed. Last week’s debate over the electoral legislation was framed as progressiveness versus intransigence. It used to be Beijing that was considered intransigent for refusing to allow democracy in a territory where a decisive majority want it and are undeniably ready to exercise it. Instead, now those who want the autonomy they were promised and real democracy rather than a bogus variety are called “hard-line” and “radical.”
Beijing has had the last word on Hong Kong’s political development since the territory was returned to PRC rule in 1997. Whenever Beijing felt it necessary to curb Hong Kong’s democracy movement, it did. In 2007, it ruled out democratic elections for the chief executive until 2017 and for the legislature until 2020. The legislature was structured in such a way as to deny the majority of Hong Kong people, who favor democracy, a way to achieve a democratic system.
Yet Beijing has also had to be sensitive to public opinion in Hong Kong, and around the world. When it overstepped, for example, by trying to have a law enacted that would make political dissent more dangerous, the Hong Kong people resisted, marching by the millions. Now Beijing’s “meddling” has increased and is conducted with the stalwarts of the democratic camp. Unfortunately, these events received scant attention from the U.S. and other democratic countries, which once pledged to help advance democracy in Hong Kong.