FPI Bulletin: Hong Kong Democrats Block Beijing Power-Grab

June 24, 2015

On June 18, Hong Kong’s democracy movement scored a victory when its representatives in the legislature blocked a Beijing-sponsored initiative to determine how the chief executive of Hong Kong’s 7.5 million people is to be chosen.  Under the plan, Hong Kong’s 5 million eligible voters would have been allowed to cast a ballot in the 2017 election for chief executive, but only for candidates who passed a litmus test of loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party.  The upshot would have been to coopt Hong Kong voters into an Iranian-style electoral system. 

In spite of last week’s victory, however, a difficult road lies ahead for Hong Kong’s democrats. In part, their success or failure will depend on whether the U.S. puts greater pressure on Beijing to live up to its promise to allow democracy and autonomy in Hong Kong.

Beijing’s announcement last August of its plan for future elections triggered six weeks of massive but largely peaceful street protests dubbed the Umbrella Movement. Beijing ultimately refused to compromise and turned to having its proxies push the plan through Hong Kong’s legislature.   Although pro-democracy candidates have routinely won a majority of the popular vote in elections for the legislature, they are confined to a minority of the seats and disadvantaged by procedural rules. 

Despite heavy pressure, pro-democracy legislators defeated Beijing’s proposal.  “We are not gullible.  We will not buy into such delusions for the sake of a quiet life,” said Claudia Mo of the Civic Party, one of several democratic parties that hold seats in the legislature.  “If you want to be true to the words democracy and universal suffrage, we have no option but to vote against it.” All 27 democrats—and one apparently confused pro-Beijing lawmaker—cast “no” votes, while most pro-Beijing legislators walked out of the chamber. The resulting 28-8 tally was a major embarrassment for Beijing.

This is not the first time Hong Kong has stood up to Beijing.  Massive demonstrations forced the local government to abandon proposed national security legislation in 2003 as well as a plan for “patriotic” (i.e. pro-Beijing) school curricula in 2012.  The battle over the democratic election of the chief executive, however, is the most direct confrontation so far. For now, the current system will remain in place, under which Beijing chooses the chief executive via control of a 1,200-member committee. 

Throughout these momentous events, the Obama administration has remained on the sidelines. At the height of the Umbrella Movement protests last fall, President Obama assured General Secretary Xi Jinping that the U.S. never encouraged the protesters and that democracy is an issue “for the people of Hong Kong and the people of China to decide”— a willfully obtuse statement given that China remains a communist dictatorship.

In fact, the President’s position is at odds with the 1992 U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act that makes democracy central to U.S. policy toward Hong Kong.  However, the law’s only leverage is the threat that Washington will revoke the trade and economic ties authorized by the 1992 Act.  Yet such a step would hurt the people of Hong Kong rather than the responsible officials in Beijing.  Instead, the U.S. should look for ways to impose costs on the central government in Beijing and the officials responsible for Hong Kong affairs. 

In 1997, and since, the United States has promised to hold China to promises it made to allow Hong Kong autonomy and progress toward democracy.  “It would affect our relationship with the Chinese if they don’t live up to their agreements, ” said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright while attending the ceremonies that marked the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule.  It’s time the president and the Congress follow through on that commitment.

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The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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