The last week has seen large protests in Hong Kong against the power that the Chinese government in Beijing continues to wield over the ‘special autonomous region’. Beijing maintains the right to choose the city state’s Chief Executive, and protesters in favor of full democracy held a mock ballot to call for a different electoral system, as well as getting as many as 500,000 people to march in the streets to show their displeasure.
The Chinese government predictably denounced this as a stunt, and as ‘not legitimate’, which is obviously a rather foolish thing to say – of course it was a stunt, and no-one actually believed the results of the ballot would be considered binding. But the protest does seem to indicate a strong feeling among the people of Hong Kong.
China’s difficulties with Hong Kong stem from the ‘one country, two systems’ set-up that came about when British rule ended in 1997. The UK only agreed to hand Hong Kong back to China if the Chinese agreed to maintain the existing system for a minimum of 50 years – capitalist and with some amount of democracy (although the British themselves never gave the people of Hong Kong a fully free vote, hence why Beijing has the power to select the Chief Exec).
Consequently, China must give Hong Kong a fairly long leash, allowing freedom of the press and freedom of assembly; while also ensuring that the leash is firmly attached, and Hong Kong does not get any ideas that it is a separate or independent country from the Chinese mainland. This is achieved through encouraging Chief Execs that support the Communist party – China is also promising full elections in the future, but again, only Communist party members will be allowed to stand.
These demonstrations indicate, however, that China will eventually need to accept that it is hard in the modern era to remove democracy and freedom once people have a taste of it. The citizens of Hong Kong will not accept slippage of their rights, they will not allow Beijing to change their system without a very large fight. In fact, it seems considerably more likely that as time goes on the people of mainland China will want to increase their democracy to be in line with Hong Kong, rather than vice versa.
So rather than trying to stifle or control democracy in Hong Kong, or dismissing legitimate democratic expression as a stunt, China instead needs to find a way to slowly and carefully open itself up to democracy. There have already been some successes here, with elections for local positions being held – although again, only Communist party candidates are allowed to run in such ballots.
The introduction of a market system in China over the past three decades has done much to increase living standards, but the market alone cannot keep people happy forever. Now that the people of eastern China are wealthy (although there is still much room for improvement in the west of the country), they will begin to look for other things to increase their happiness – and they may well follow their counterparts in Hong Kong and in the west in demanding more say in those who govern them. China needs to embrace this tendency sooner rather than later, and not stifle the feelings of its autonomous citizens in the south.