It is hard not to frame the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as the defining struggle in an uneasy marriage. It can also be viewed as a battle for the “Asian values” of the 21st century. Or, as the party bosses in Beijing probably see it, the tantrums of a privileged child. Since the bustling metropolis and financial centre transferred from British control to China in 1997, it has enjoyed special status among China’s cities, under the naively hopeful, anxiety-inducing mantra of “one country, two systems”. China promised it would tolerate more democracy in Hong Kong than enjoyed by other citizens on the mainland. This political semi-autonomy was supposed to lead to “universal suffrage” for the city.
It was a promise that China broke in August, when it announced guidelines for the inaugural 2017 elections for the Hong Kong chief executive. Thus far, the city’s leader has been effectively selected by Beijing. Under the new norms, Hongkongers could elect their key official in perfectly free elections — except, Beijing would have total control over who could contest. The Standing Committee of the Politburo in China dismissed “open nominations” for the elections, which would just “create a chaotic society”.
On 26 September, outraged Hongkongers led by student leaders from Occupy Central With Love and Peace, took to the streets, blocking main thoroughfares and laying siege to government buildings. The city ground to a halt. On 3 October, a harsh response from the police served to galvanise even more people, with at least 200,000 gathering two days later.
The protests began to wind down on 7 October, after the Hong Kong government agreed to formal talks with protesters, now scheduled for 10 October. But even at their height, the protests stayed scrupulously peaceful.
Parallels to the situation leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre — in which several hundred protesters were cut down by troops in 1989 — were too obvious to be ignored. Like then, the protesters were idealistic students pitted against a massive security State, grown manifold in power and stature today.
Like Deng Xiaoping then, China’s hardline President Xi Jinping exerts almost complete control over the military and the party apparatus. In 1989, the People’s Daily called the movement a “revolt” and the students “counter-revolutionaries” in a front-page editorial. On 2 October, another front-page editorial chastised the Hong Kong protesters, though its tone was milder.
Beijing imposed an almost total blockade of information on the protests percolating into China, perhaps afraid of emboldening dissidents on the mainland.
Beijing cancelled group tours to the city from the mainland, clearly intending it as a punitive measure. The measure, which came during a key holiday week in China, was expected to impact the city’s economy, which overwhelmingly depends on the services sector, because Chinese tourists are big spenders. Though retailers were visibly hit — losing almost $300 million between 1 and 5 October — figures released by the Hong Kong government seemed to show that tourist arrivals had not been impacted as curious Chinese flocked to see “democracy- in-action”. Tourist arrivals actually registered an increase of more than 5 percent over the previous year.
And this is exactly where this battle between the “two systems” in “one country” will be won or lost. On one side is the power of the purse: without the Chinese tourist dollars to underpin it, freedom will sour for Hong Kong. On the other side is the power of example: the experience of Hong Kong’s freedom for a visitor from restrictive China can be subversive. After all, Hong Kong is now just another city in China.
If that is not enough, Hong Kong also represents a larger, intellectual challenge for China’s governing philosophy, which like all revolutionary outgrowths, is built upon a single, rigid framework. China believes that “democracy” is a western concept and hence is unsuited to “Asian values”.
Democracy in Hong Kong will mean “same people, two values”. In the end, China may find that the “virus” of freedom infects the body of the mainland.