Protesting students have achieved more than they think

November 18, 2014 08:16
Many students are reluctant to abandon their quest, feeling that they have little to show for their efforts. But that is not true. Hong Kong is now very much in the world’s consciousness, largely due to the students’ efforts. Photo: AFP

In the 1980s, when China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping introduced the concept of “one country, two systems”, people in many foreign countries were skeptical that it could be done. China proved them wrong.

Ironically, now, after 17 years of experience, it seems that the Chinese government is beginning to agree with these foreign skeptics. Instead of emphasizing “two systems”, Chinese officials are increasingly putting the emphasis on “one country”.

Interest in Hong Kong is unusually high these days. Hong Kong was the focus of a joint press conference held last week by US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

After the American leader first mentioned Hong Kong, President Xi was quick to respond that “Hong Kong affairs are exclusively China's internal affairs, and foreign countries should not interfere in those affairs in any form or fashion”.

In the past, there was always a feeling in Hong Kong that leaders in Beijing did not take much of an interest in the city’s affairs, since they had extremely serious problems on their plates. But now, clearly, Hong Kong is very much on the minds of top Chinese officials.

That is not necessarily a good thing. Protests in Hong Kong inevitably lead to crackdowns and a tightening of controls by Beijing.

As pro-democracy protests spearheaded by the Hong Kong Federation of Students wind down in the face of court orders, Beijing remains adamant that a decision made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee on Aug. 31—whereby the central government will, in effect, be able to control whose name appears on the ballot for universal suffrage elections for chief executive in 2017—will not be revised.

Many students are reluctant to abandon their quest, feeling that they have little to show for their efforts.

But that is not strictly true. For one thing, Hong Kong is now very much in the world’s consciousness, largely due to the students’ efforts. Whatever happens in Hong Kong will occur with the full attention of the world, even though China’s leaders may not be happy with that.

Last Thursday, the US Congress moved to adopt legislation called, with unmistakable clarity, The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which will entail regular monitoring of the political situation.

This week [Nov. 20], the Congressional-Executive Commission on China holds hearings in Washington on Hong Kong; the witnesses will include the last British governor, Chris Patten.

The British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee is also holding hearings on Hong Kong and, while this may not to lead to any concrete action, it does indicate that the United Kingdom is aware of its continuing responsibility to ensure that China abides by the commitments it undertook by signing the Joint Declaration on Hong Kong in 1984.

Arguably, even China has made an important concession, though the protesters have not acknowledged this. In the dialogue the Hong Kong government had with the student federation last month, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam repeatedly asserted that the framework laid down for the 2017 election is not meant to be the final word but can be improved upon in future elections for chief executive.

This is not a commitment that the authorities in Hong Kong can make on their own, since the central government is responsible for the pace of democratization in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. Mrs. Lam must have obtained consent from Beijing.

The Hong Kong government has also agreed to submit a report to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of the State Council on public sentiment in Hong Kong in the wake of the controversial Aug. 31 decision, which in theory can lead to a reassessment by the central government.

While it is highly unlikely that the Hong Kong government will report that public sentiment is overwhelmingly opposed to the decision, the submission of a report will provide an opportunity for the Hong Kong authorities to show that they objectively reflect public sentiment to the central authorities. Not to do so will be an opportunity lost.

In other words, the students have chalked up considerable achievements. They can go home with their heads held high.

Beijing may well decide that it will not make any further concessions. It may even curtail existing rights and freedoms by ensuring implementation of Article 23 of the Basic Law, which criminalizes a range of political activities.

Ironically, however, even if Beijing narrows the scope of Hong Kong’s autonomy, it will never acknowledge that it had made a mistake in the first place. It will announce that “one country, two systems” is alive and well, even while it moves away from its original policies. Change by redefinition is among the key weapons in the Chinese armory.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.