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The Vanishing Democracy in Hong Kong

Riot police attacked a legislator and other protesters, January 2020, Hong Kong. The author, who once worked for the UN in Beijing and spent time in Hong Kong, says that although the struggle for “democratic space” has been uneven and hurt by China’s repressions, young activists for freedoms could still trigger change. CREATIVE COMMONS

Recent events in Hong Kong should alert those people who hope that economic development can lead to democratic change. A few weeks ago, the territory’s fragile democratic order took another hit when opposition members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council resigned to protest the disqualification of four of their members, labeled by the Chinese authorities as “unpatriotic.”

I have a personal attachment to Hong Kong reaching back to the days when I was working in Beijing for the United Nations Development Program. Hong Kong was the place where my family and I fled for short breaks from the drab conformism and irritating restrictions of the Chinese capital, which had yet to throw off the stultifying vestiges of the Cultural Revolution. Hong Kong, by contrast, was full of life, with its enticing restaurants, bustling stores, lively markets and modern services that worked with admirable efficiency. Two of my children were born there.

We were living in China when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher visited in 1982 to discuss the future of Hong Kong in anticipation of the expiry, in 1997, of the British lease of the so-called New Territories, on which the island of Hong Kong depends for much of its food and water.

Her visit began with a hiccup. My wife, Soheir, got an urgent call from a friend at the British Embassy in Beijing: did she have any hair rollers? The always immaculately coiffed Mrs. Thatcher had left hers at home. Fortunately, the day was saved when Soheir found some — at the state-run hairdressing salon for foreigners.

Worse was to come, however. Leaving the Great Hall of the People after her meeting with Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader, Mrs. Thatcher stumbled on the steps and fell. This was taken as a bad omen in Hong Kong. As details of the talks emerged, it was clear that China would insist on a full return of sovereignty in 1997.

Two years later, in 1984, Britain and China signed a Joint Declaration, which promised continued autonomy for Hong Kong but not democracy. In truth, Hong Kong was never a representative democracy; it was an undeclared marriage of convenience among Britain, China and the powerful local business community (as well as British business interests), which kept the economy thriving and the politics in check, providing China with a convenient gateway for international trade and finance.

Nevertheless, in the run-up to the handover, the last colonial governor, Chris Patten, introduced a limited form of public suffrage — over Beijing’s loud objections.

With the recovery of sovereignty in 1997, China sought to elide the reality of Hong Kong’s subservient status by coining a slogan for the new dispensation: “One country, two systems.” In fact, there is only one system — ensuring that Beijing has the final say on critical decisions.

Yet the struggle for democratic space has continued, bravely led by local actors keen to preserve their freedoms, restricted though they are.

The struggle has been uneven. Much of the Hong Kong business elite — the territory has one of the highest concentrations of billionaires on earth — do not want to upset Beijing; some of the senior echelons of the professional classes and civil service are also reluctant to challenge Chinese authority.

The young people of Hong Kong are less quiescent. In 2019, a proposed law allowing for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to China sparked mass demonstrations orchestrated by youthful protestors; they reignited in July this year, when Beijing imposed a repressive national security law.

These protests also reflect uneasiness about other aspects of life in Hong Kong. The city has benefited greatly from China’s economic renaissance; its economy expanded 15-fold from 1979 to 2019. But inequality is growing. Young people, better educated than ever before, face an uncertain future and worry that the personal liberties they have grown up with may be curtailed; they look across the border and do not like what they see.

The scale and intensity of the protests over the security law presents the Chinese leadership with an acute dilemma. Crushing protestors by brute force, as happened in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, would undo much of China’s efforts to polish its international credentials. But withdrawing the law would show irresolution, never a welcome prospect for an authoritarian regime.

The coronavirus — unintentionally — came to Beijing’s rescue. As the virus surged in Hong Kong, a general lockdown was ordered. It remains to be seen if mass demonstrations will resume when the health emergency ends; if they do, Beijing has indicated that it is ready to intervene. The all-powerful Chinese Communist Party, led by Xi Jinping, seems intent on enforcing strict compliance with Beijing’s decisions.

So should we write off Hong Kong’s attempt at limited democracy as a failed experiment, defeated by the Chinese Communist Party’s tight grip on power?

Since I arrived there in 1979, China has undergone radical change. Then, only 18 percent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas; today, that figure is about 60 percent and rising. Poverty has declined dramatically and higher education has expanded significantly. Will this transformation produce political change? It’s hard to say, but as we have seen in other East Asian countries like Japan, South Korea and Malaysia, better educated, wealthier urban populations are usually more open to change than their poorer rural counterparts.

China routinely rejects international calls for democratization, at home or abroad, arguing that they infringe on sovereign rights. The UN Charter doesn’t include the word “democracy” nor does it appear in the UN’s sustainable development goals, although they do call for “effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions.” During my time in China, we certainly did not broach such issues, although we did discuss economic reform. Later, UN colleagues took on sensitive social questions like the spread of HIV and quietly helped to shift attitudes for the better. But fundamental concerns about human rights and democratic participation were not on the agenda when I was in China. This is a debate that will have to emerge from the internal dynamics of Chinese society.

And that may happen.

There is another wave of change coming — generational change. China’s senior leaders and its rapidly aging population grew up in the shadow of Mao Zedong’s calamitous Great Leap Forward and his immensely violent Cultural Revolution. Given those disasters, it’s not surprising that both the leadership and population at large have put a premium on stability and material well-being. But over the next 20 years, a new, more prosperous generation with no personal experience of those traumatic years will emerge; it may well be less accepting of the trade-off between state-imposed stability and personal freedom, especially if growth slows and economic disparities expand. Despite Internet restrictions, China’s young people are more connected to the wider world than ever before and ingenious enough to find ways around the information blockade.

This does not mean that China will move inexorably toward Western-style liberal democracy, whatever that might be; but neither is the country destined to remain a one-party state. So perhaps those courageous activists in Hong Kong are the vanguard of a China that will eventually find space for more democratic freedoms, despite its long tradition of authoritarian rule.

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Alan Doss is the former president of the Kofi Annan Foundation and author of “A Peacekeeper in Africa: Learning From UN Interventions in Other People’s Wars.”

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