Beijing has dealt another setback to democracy in Hong Kong. On Sunday, August 31, China’s central government dashed hopes that the chief executive, the top official responsible for the city of 7.2 million people, would be democratically elected in 2017. Rather than open nominations to anyone, including pro-democracy candidates, Li Fei, an official of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, announced that candidates for the top job will need the support of at least 600 members of a 1,200-person committee composed largely of pro-Beijing businesspeople and other allies. Echoing China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping, Li signaled that democrats would not have a chance because only those who “love the country, and love Hong Kong” would be allowed to run, a phrase understood in Hong Kong to mean those loyal to the Communist party.
The desire of the people of Hong Kong to elect their own leaders is clear. This was the message of stunning demonstrations on July 1, and an earlier unofficial referendum in which nearly 800,000 cast ballots in favor of a competitive election for the chief executive. Although Beijing will allow all eligible Hong Kong citizens to vote in the election for chief executive, they will be able to choose only from among candidates handpicked by party officials. It will be a massive exercise in cooptation. Rather than Hong Kong leading political reform throughout China, as many hoped, Beijing will impose its version of “democracy” on Hong Kong.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Great Britain departed from its former colony, it signed an agreement with Beijing guaranteeing Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy in all but defense and foreign affairs. Under the treaty signed by Zhao Ziyang and Margaret Thatcher, Hong Kong was to be invested with executive, legislative, and independent judicial authority.
It’s no surprise that the Chinese Communist party isn’t living up to those terms. Nor are elections the only area where Beijing is interfering. The judicial system is another—Beijing has overruled Hong Kong’s highest court—and law enforcement and the media are two more. In the days before Beijing’s announcement, the heretofore-respected Independent Commission Against Corruption raided the home of businessman and media mogul Jimmy Lai. He supports democracy and the Occupy Central movement, which plans civil disobedience in response to Beijing’s ruling. In retaliation, Lai has been targeted with death threats and a macabre fake obituary. Last year, British banks HSBC and Standard Chartered withdrew advertising from Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper, reportedly under pressure from Beijing.
These days, London toes the same line as British banks. Prime Minister David Cameron has made commercial relations with Beijing a top priority, downgrading support for Tibet and the Dalai Lama before embarking on a trade delegation to China in late 2013. In July, he failed to meet Hong Kong Democratic party founder Martin Lee and Anson Chan, a former chief secretary in the Hong Kong government, in London. His coalition partner, Nick Clegg, head of the Liberal Democrats, met them anyway. Good for Clegg. And Lord Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, is taking his government to task, questioning Britain’s “sense of honour” over Hong Kong in a blistering column in the Financial Times.
The United States too has obligations, both moral and statutory. Congress should urgently update the United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, the thrust of which is to end separate, favorable treatment for Hong Kong if Beijing undermines Hong Kong’s autonomy. That’s punishing the victim. Instead, Beijing should be made to bear the consequences of its actions. Visa bans and financial sanctions on officials responsible for undermining Hong Kong’s democracy, like Li Fei, would be a start.
Above all, the United States must place Hong Kong in a broader context. Beijing’s actions there are an extension of the political crackdown General Secretary Xi Jinping is carrying out on the mainland while consolidating his power. Announcing the U.S. “pivot to Asia” before the Australian parliament in 2011, President Obama linked America’s strategic interests to the success of democracy in the region, committing “every element of American power” to achieving “security, prosperity, and dignity for all.” It is not likely that Beijing will curb its aggression in the South China Sea if Washington reacts passively to this latest blow to Hong Kong.