An online magazine of news and opinions from the Asia New Zealand Foundation

The origins of Hong Kong's "umbrella movement"

 By Frank Wilson, retired career diplomat

News that the protests in central Hong Kong have much diminished in size and that some form of dialogue between the students and the Hong Kong government is about to get under way is a positive, if tentative, move forward. 

The differences among the main parties involved – the various and disparate elements of the protest movement, the Hong Kong administration and the central government in Beijing – remain large and will not be easily bridged. But time for reflection and time for discussion are necessary steps towards some form of resolution of Hong Kong’s present crisis.

It is not possible to predict how soon or how far progress towards any settlement can be made. But it is perhaps opportune to reflect on some of the underlying conditions that have led to the present impasse and which resulted in the excitements of the past weeks.

The essential features of Hong Kong’s present status were first broached in 1982, during United Kingdom Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s talks with the then Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping. Negotiations that followed this historic encounter led to the Joint Declaration, which contained a roadmap for how Hong would be administered. Hong Kong would be permitted “a high degree of autonomy”, underpinned by the principle of “one country, two systems”. Hong Kong would preserve its capitalist economic, legal and political systems for 50 years.

The Joint Declaration included a clause that Hong Kong’s future chief executive be appointed “by election or through consultations held locally”.

Move on to 1990. After years of fraught negotiation, the Joint Declaration was superseded by a document known as the Basic Law, which is essentially Hong Kong’s constitution.  The Basic Law sets out the rights and responsibilities of the Hong Kong government and of the central government. 

Given that the main reason for the recent demonstrations has been the issue of the election of the chief executive, it is important to recall the precise language on this point in the Basic Law.  “...The selection of the chief executive… [shall be] by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

Within this formula there is sufficient ambiguity to permit differing interpretations of how the chief executive is selected. That is the nub of the present contretemps. 

Hong Kong is a wealthy, well educated, sophisticated city state with freedom of expression and the rule of law. All the pre-conditions exist, many feel, for universal suffrage and the open election of the chief executive. 

On the other hand, Hong Kong is part of China and sovereignty lies with China. Therefore Beijing has the right – not to say the power – to impose its views on how the election process should be organised.

On 31 August, China’s National People’s Congress announced, after a long process of consultation in Hong Kong, that a largely undemocratically appointed electoral committee would be empowered to choose the chief executive candidates in 2017. 

These two or three approved candidates would then be put forward to the Hong Kong public for a popularly contested election.  The democratic lobby in Hong Kong argues that this amounts to the pre-selection of pro-Beijing candidates and limits freedom of choice.

The central government says this process ensures that only ‘patriotic’ candidates who love the motherland can be elected.

Behind Beijing’s attitude seem to lie two main concerns. The first is a need for social and political stability. Many of the older generation, both in China and Hong Kong, recall with horror the Cultural Revolution. This writer has been told many times that the Cultural Revolution represented, as far as they were concerned, untrammelled democracy – and they want none of it.

At a time of increasing social and economic tensions in China, the possibility of Hong Kong electing an unapproved candidate as chief executive seems to be viewed as a risk not worth entertaining.

The second concern is the view that the protest movement in Hong Kong by no means represents mainstream or even majority opinion. Beijing is sensitive to the views of big business and other commercial interest groups who wish for calm and order so that their economic objectives may be fulfilled. Democracy yes, but in good time and not at the cost of disruption is a common refrain.

The central government therefore has been extremely cautious in its interpretation of the Basic Law.  In doing this it has stirred up the hornet’s nest we have witnessed over the past weeks.

Images sourced from Flickr users Pasu Au Yeung and かがみ~ under a Creative Commons licence.

October 2014