Beijing unwise to clamp down on Hong Kong's democracy

Beijing unwise to clamp down on Hong Kong's democracy
A pro-democracy activist looks at a backdrop with Chinese characters that read "disobedience" in Hong Kong.

Yesterday's announcement of the framework of reforms for the "direct election" of Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 disappointed a large portion of Hong Kongers. For many, it was another severe blow to the prospects for democracy to flourish in the city. Now, prospects for the successful introduction of democracy to the economic hub and centre of Chinese society are uncertain, and, more broadly, the implications for reforms in mainland China are grim.

The mainland's Standing Committee of the People's National Congress announced the rules in which a nomination committee continues to exist in the nomination procedure. A 50-per cent threshold of approval by the pro-Beijing committee must be reached for any candidate to be approved on the ballot.

And thus, the dreams of the pro-democracy camp were dashed, at least in the short term. The elections committee is divided into categories based on employment, supposedly drawing upon different sectors of society.

Beijing's behaviour is causing unrest in much of the populace. In the run-up to the announcement, Beijing escalated its rhetoric against its perceived threats, on Saturday condemning actions by foreign forces that it says are attempting to turn Hong Kong into a "bridgehead" for "undermining mainland China."

Several different options were presented by the pro-democracy camp. The moderate "18 scholars" camp proposed a requirement to get the signatures of 70,000-100,000 residents prior to approval by one-eighth of the nominations committee. The Alliance for True Democracy proposed an "A or B" version in which either approval by ten per cent of committee members or a certain number of citizens voicing their approval can lead to nomination. Both were rejected.

Earlier in the week, pro-Beijing scholar Wang Zhemin, the dean of Tsinghua University's law school, called on the Hong Kong people to accept "imperfect democracy," touting the introduction of general elections as a milestone in the city's political evolution. And it is true that the current standoff may very well lead to the forfeiture of general elections in 2017 because the pro-democracy camp has threatened to sink the package in Hong Kong's legislative council. In that case, the current rules for electing the chief executive would continue to apply.

But what is misleading about this line of argument is that the current "reforms" by Beijing can actually be considered a step backward.

When Leung Cheung-ying was elected chief executive in 2012, nominees were approved with 150 votes in the elections committee, or one-eighth of the 1200 total. The proposed nomination committee for 2017 would raise the threshold to a much higher line of fifty per cent of the committee. It is only natural for critics to reason that once Beijing foresees the realistic possibility of a challenge, it will throw down a protective measure to eliminate that possibility.

The Financial Times, in reporting on the controversy over Beijing's attempts at persuasion, quoted pro-democracy lawmaker Martin Lee as suggesting that "requiring the support of half the committee was a "retrograde step" because Democrats would no longer have a chance to become candidates." "More than half is ridiculous because they (Beijing) control three-quarters," Lee was quoted as saying.

Together, Beijing's outburst at its perceived opponents, and the problems behind its line of "gradual improvement" argument, illustrate a deep lack of confidence that causes the regime to see dangers in everything and everyone that can loosen its ruling grip.

In doing so, the Communist Party is incurring greater and greater costs in the goodwill and long-term stability of populations under its control. For all governments ultimately derive their legitimacy from the consent of the people, and if the ruling class is not willing to grant rights to elected officials, that spells conflict with the people's aspirations.

The repercussions of yesterday's "Occupy Central Ring with Love and Peace" will echo far beyond the month of August. The thousands who throng at the heart of Hong Kong are not -- indeed they cannot be - Beijing's "enemy" because the very idea of condemning that many of one's own citizens as enemies makes a joke out of Beijing's dream of achieving the "Revitalization of the Chinese Nation." It is our hope that Beijing softens its hard-line stance and puts forward more effort at dialogue with the people of Hong Kong.

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