Hong Kong: It's a difficult battle, but the students should get their say

David vs. David
A woman reacts as pro-democracy protestors gather outside the government headquarters office in Hong Kong.

With the world media outside China focusing on Hong Kong’s democracy protests, it’s easy to forget that it began as a fishing village, became a British crown colony in 1841, and had Canadian soldiers help defend it until the Japanese seized it in late 1941. From 1945 to 2011, its population ballooned from 600,000 to seven million. Today, Hong Kong is a leading world financial and trade centre, enjoying the ninth-highest GDP per capita ($53,203 vs. $11,904 for China) and supporting about a third of the foreign capital flowing into China.

Various factors have assisted Hong Kong’s development, including: The rule of law/independent courts, economic freedom, free speech/media independence, and an influx of entrepreneurial refugees from Maoist China after 1949. Despite efforts by Beijing to favour Shanghai before and since the transfer of sovereignty in 1997, Hong Kong still surpasses its rival as the principal financial centre in China.

Canada’s Clive Ansley, who practised law in Shanghai for 14 years, explains the rule of law disadvantage of the mainland for both domestic and foreign investors: “Courts in China are mere ‘theatres’ … Those who hear the case do not make the judgment; those who make the judgment have not heard the case.” The Communist Party and its members remain above the law; insider judges decide significant cases behind closed doors; corruption permeates China except for Hong Kong.

One of the student leaders, Joshua Wong, 17, who became perhaps the most visible face of the Umbrella Revolution, was released by a Hong Kong judge within 48 hours after his arrest. On the mainland, some were surprised that he was not facing years in prison for ‘disturbing public order’.

Since 1997, Beijing has ruled Hong Kong under a “one country/two systems” formula supposedly guaranteeing it a high degree of autonomy and freedom. In late summer, however, a committee in Beijing rejected widespread Hong Kong demands to nominate their next leader themselves, rather than being allowed only to choose from among candidates approved by a nominating committee dominated by Beijing allies. The result was a week-long boycott of classes and peaceful demonstrations in September by students attending 20 universities and colleges.

Officials of ‘CY’ Leung, “elected” chief executive of the city in 2012, deployed a series of contradictory initiatives: dispatching and then recalling riot police the next day; refusing to negotiate with the students and then calling for talks; announcing a policy of waiting out the protests and then setting a deadline to end them.

[ On the other hand: David Jones: Picking a fight with China is not a good idea ]

Martin Lee, 74, formerly an elected member of the Legislative Council (Legco) and leader of its Democratic party, writes:

“Like many of the other ... nonviolent protesters…, I was shocked when the pro-democracy crowd was met by throngs of police in full riot gear, carrying weapons and wantonly firing canisters of tear gas … the message … is clear: the people of Hong Kong will fight for our freedom and way of life. At a time when the world is wondering if China will be a responsible member of the global community, Hong Kong has become the essential test.”

A man takes a picture on a wall full of messages left by pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

Regina Ip, 64, an elected member of Legco and leader of the pro-Beijing New People’s party, says she wants a democratic system that suits rule by Beijing and indicates that she might seek to replace Leung in 2017.

More than a decade ago, as Hong Kong’s senior security official, Ip attempted to enact in Legco a law on treason and subversion, which was widely criticized as unreasonably eroding public liberty. The measure failed to pass and she resigned in 2003, but was elected to a Legco seat first in 2008. Her view of the protests:

The reality in Hong Kong, naturally, is we are part of China. You can’t really go against Beijing. Those students, you know – all those protests, Occupy Central, class boycott  is not going to move Beijing.

Anson Chan, chief secretary in both the Hong Kong British colonial government and then the one under Beijing sovereignty, notes:

One of the most profoundly disappointing responses to the events in Hong Kong has been Britain’s silence … It did after all sign a treaty (in 1984) that guaranteed Hong Kong’s core values and way of life, including freedom of speech and assembly, until 2047… I thought that … Britain and China would … move steadily towards genuine universal suffrage … Chinese leadership is not monolithic and … one needs to assert one’s own interests ... The Hong Kong people everyone has seen on the streets have been very reasonable ... despite some terrible provocation.

Another factor at play appears to be the ongoing conflict between the Party factions of Chinese President Xi Jingping and former president Jiang Zemin. Xi is targeting Jiang allies, including Leung, over corruption. Leung also attempted unsuccessfully to have the mainland curriculum adopted in Hong Kong schools and allowed democracy activists, Falun Gong practitioners and independent journalists to be attacked by thugs with impunity. He will probably be removed, but most Hong Kong residents, who yearn for democracy, want to choose his successor themselves.

(Photos courtesy Reuters)

David Kilgour is co-chair of the Canadian Friends of a Democratic Iran and a director of the Washington-based Council for a Community of Democracies (CCD). He is a former MP for both the Conservative and Liberal Parties in the south-east region of Edmonton and has also served as the Secretary of State for Latin America and Africa, Secretary of State for Asia-Pacific and Deputy Speaker of the House.