Democracy – the Bee in China’s Bonnet

Last week, the People’s Liberation Army conducted an air-and-sea drill in the middle of Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour. Official comments describe the exercise as a necessary drill in order to better handle emergency service responses. However, many local citizens have expressed scepticism, viewing the incident as a warning to the public against supporting the Occupy Central Movement. This brings into question the efficacy of the ‘One Party, Two Systems’ policy, which was enacted following the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1997, signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping. The Declaration guarantees autonomy over domestic affairs, including the political and economic spheres, until 2047. Chinese state intervention is deemed justifiable when national security is perceived to be at stake. But with increased protest and dissatisfaction, there is growing sentiment in Hong Kong that the 50-year grace period is not being honoured, merely serving as a façade.

Image courtesy of Voice of America, © 2012, some rights reserved

Image courtesy of Voice of America, © 2012, some rights reserved

Perhaps more directly, the drill has also been viewed to be a response against a recent break-in, in which protesters waving the colonial Hong Kong flag stormed the People’s Liberation Army’s Central Barracks. The building, formerly known as the Prince of Wales Building, previously housed the Head Office of the British Army in Hong Kong. Recent renovations have seen a star one-storey high adorning the barracks[i]. With such evident attempts to remove the colonial legacy left behind in the city, it is clear to see why such protests are aggravating the Chinese state. The waving of the colonial flag may be little more than a symbol adopted to display dismay with the Chinese government’s perceived disrespect of the 50-year grace period, but it holds much stronger significance. According to the Public Opinion Programme launched by the University of Hong Kong, the majority of people in Hong Kong choose to identify as ‘Hong Kong citizens’. In comparison, this outweighs those identifying themselves as Chinese citizens by 20-30 percent[ii]. This begs the question – are the people of Hong Kong looking back at the colonial regime with a sense of nostalgia? Or is this merely a sign of protest to challenge the pending control of a new regime? Have things really changed since the 1997 handover?

Since the handover, Hong Kong’s capitalist society has continued to thrive, and the PRC pose little interference into the financial sphere. The most striking comparison between the British and Chinese rule over Hong Kong is the lack of universal suffrage. Hong Kong’s citizens have been and continue to be unable to vote. This continues to be a root cause of the public’s dissatisfaction with the government. When comparing Chinese and British rule in Hong Kong, it is almost impossible not to consider which the public favour. Ultimately, this is the wrong question to ask. They would simply rather be left alone –truly autonomous, with no pending date upon which their autonomy comes to an end. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be a possibility.

Tension has risen with the growing support for the Occupy Central Movement, a pro-democracy group campaigning for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law[iii] outlines the electoral procedure for the appointment of the Chief Executive, stating:

“The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures”.

Currently, the Chief Executive is appointed by a group said to speak in the Hong Kong’s public interest; a group chosen by the People’s Republic of China’s Central government. The government has set 2017 as the deadline for this ultimate aim to be achieved. However, it is highly unlikely such an aim is to be realised within this timeframe, contributing to the increasing dissatisfaction from the public with their own lack of representation. This in turn serves to show why the recent People’s Liberation Army drill in the middle of Hong Kong’s harbour was received by many as a direct threat challenging their already restricted autonomy.

China’s growing military prowess has been further heightened amid reports that China is constructing its second aircraft carrier, which has a speculative completion date of 2020[iv]. This pushes them into a further position of strength among the other great powers, further heightening concern for those who believe in the ‘China Threat’. Should this growing presence lead to further demonstrations of their power in Hong Kong, it certainly will not be in the name of ‘improving the efficiency of emergency services’. Whilst last week’s drills may have indeed been as previously stated, further action may not be acknowledged as such.

There are several things one must take into consideration. This was neither the first, nor the last protest in the name of democracy in Hong Kong. The campaign for universal suffrage has been a longstanding one which seems to be gaining further ground, and the pro-democratic movement continues to progress as we draw closer to the 2017 deadline. On universal suffrage being the desired outcome, every party seems to agree. However, it is the pace at which this is realised which seems to be the source of recent conflict. The military drill in Hong Kong last week served as a reminder of the growing tension, and brought to the fore issues that are only going to become more contentious. When looking at the bid for a truly autonomous Hong Kong, will slow and steady win the race? In this case, perhaps not.