Analects, The Economist – PEOPLE in Hong Kong have responded with alarm, and some defiance, to a white paper issued by China’s leaders about the city’s political future. In rallies outside Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong on June 11th, politicians and protesters burned copies of the report and accused officials of treating the city’s constitution “like toilet paper”.
Legislators accused Beijing of reneging on its treaty obligations under the 1984 Sino-British declaration, signed between Margaret Thatcher and Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang, to make Hong Kong a semi-autonomous region of China. The agreement said Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy and maintain its capitalist system for a period of 50 years until 2047; and many of the city’s social and political freedoms (such as being able to protest against the Communist Party) have indeed been retained.
But the white paper stressed that Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy “is not full autonomy” and the city’s ability to run its local affairs comes solely from the authorisation of the central leadership. It also says that Hong Kong residents hold “too many wrong views” with regard to the “one country, two systems” principle that governs the territory’s relationship with Beijing. The white paper’s suggestion to “above all be patriotic” has grated with many who object to equating patriotism with support for the Communist Party. The report also provoked the ire of the city’s judiciary for suggesting that judges have a “basic political requirement” to love the country. The Hong Kong Bar Association hit back with a statement warning that imposing political tests on judges would undermine Hong Kong’s rule of law.
Some protesters see a silver lining. Coming days after tens of thousands of people held a candlelit vigil to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and weeks before an annual pro-democracy march on July 1st, many observers say the white paper may prompt bickering local politicians to work together and motivate the public to participate in pro-democracy demonstrations. “We should thank Beijing for adding fuel to the fire,” said Benny Tai, one of the leaders of Occupy Central, a protest group. It has threatened to rally thousands of protesters to paralyse the city’s financial centre if the electoral proposal that the Hong Kong government is scheduled to release by the end of the year does not meet international standards. On June 22nd Occupy Central will hold an informal city-wide referendum asking citizens to vote for their preferred type of electoral reform.
The chief executive of Hong Kong (a city of 7m people) is currently picked by a committee of 1,200 people. The Chinese government has promised to allow the selection of Hong Kong’s next leader, in 2017, through universal suffrage, but insists it has no obligation to allow an open nominating process. Many in Hong Kong believe that limits will be imposed on who is able to stand.
The bluntness of the Chinese government report has led some to suspect that leaders in Beijing are deliberately provoking dissent in order to justify a crackdown. Zhou Nan, a former head of the party’s liaison office in Hong Kong, has called the Occupy Central movement “illegal” and said the People’s Liberation Army could intervene if the planned protests escalated into riots. Foreign communities in the territory have also expressed concern, with some chambers of commerce taking out adverts in local Hong Kong newspapers urging the Occupy Central protesters to back down. That seems unlikely, and the city looks set for a long, hot summer of political dispute and angry protest.