What next for Hong Kong?

July 02, 2015 11:25
Following the Occupy protests last year, Hong Kong's pan-democrats (center) have rejected the government's electoral reform package. Meanwhile, anti-Beijing sentiment or 'nativisim' is on the rise in the city. Photos: HKEJ, Reuters

The question of how Hong Kong will choose its next chief executive in 2017 has long divided the territory. On June 18, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council vetoed the Chinese Communist Party’s plans to reform the territory’s voting system. The outcome of the vote was expected. But it leaves Hong Kong no closer to democracy than it was before. So what happens next?

Pro-democracy legislators denounced the proposed scheme for the 2017 vote— "Democracy with Chinese characteristics"—as a sham. Though passing the legislation would have given Hongkongers the right to vote for their next leader, their choice of candidates would have been restricted to a pre-approved shortlist, chosen by a group stacked with pro-Beijing supporters. One group of pro-Beijing supporters walked out minutes before the vote was cast, assuring the result.

Public opinion is divided on the issue. Some people believe that this was Hong Kong’s best chance at getting a vote, and that other reforms might follow later—to have a vote in China, they say, even one with limitations, would be a huge step forward.

But others dismiss that notion, arguing that agreeing to such proposals would mean accepting the Beijing government’s choice forever.

This second group is the more vocal: when the Chinese government ruled out free elections last year, thousands of protestors occupied several main streets for 79 days. Images of those sit-ins were broadcast around the world—particularly when police used tear gas on protestors on Sept. 28. Yet the demonstrations achieved no change: the government in Beijing did not budge.

If anything, opinion in Hong Kong is now becoming more fragmented. The failure of the pro-democracy protests has helped fuel a “localist” movement, a loose array of individuals and groups less rigidly focused on political reform (though the causes often overlap).

The growth of this local sentiment, sometimes referred to as “nativisim”, reflects long-standing misgivings about encroaching mainland influence. Hongkongers increasingly prize their own local identity at the expense of “greater China”, as it is sometimes called.

A poll last year by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that just 9 percent of respondents identified themselves solely as “Chinese”, down from 32 percent in 1997.

Arguments about Hong Kong’s housing, healthcare, education system, and even transport, increasingly raise questions over how the territory should interact with the mainland.

Hong Kong’s economic growth is slow, income inequality is gaping, salaries have fallen in real terms, and many blame mainlanders for rocketing property prices. Millions of shoppers arriving from mainland China, many taking advantage of Hong Kong’s zero sales tax and keen to stock up on imported goods that are hard to find on the mainland, have aroused discontent too.

All of this contributes to a growing feeling, particularly among young people, that the Hong Kong government has sold out to the one in Beijing.

The Chinese government has at times shown itself surprisingly willing to appease some localist sentiment, such as moving to restrict some unlimited-entry visas to Hong Kong. But it is in no mood to seriously reassess its stance on democratic reform.

Since taking up office in 2012, President Xi Jinping has stepped up efforts to stifle any dissent on the mainland. He rejects making any concessions in Hong Kong that might inspire pro-democracy activists across the border. The Chinese government often portrays Hong Kong’s mostly polite and peaceful protests as a direct threat to national sovereignty and security, in an effort to discredit even the moderates.

The last 12 months have been among the most politically divisive in the history of Hong Kong’s Chinese rule. Rejection of voting reform is likely to kick at least some of the biggest and most obvious fights a little further into the future—it is not yet clear what or when the next flash point between Hongkongers and the pro-Beijing government is likely to be.

The pro-democracy legislators won an important vote but, as yet, little power. Discontent will continue to bubble.

Rosie Blau, China Correspondent for The Economist, is the writer of this article.

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