Hong Kong 2017: a pivot towards or away from freedom?
In Hong Kong’s Central district, buses trundle pastbearing the message: “In Hong Kong we trust, we love, we appreciate.”
The signs are part of the government’s “Appreciate Hong Kong” campaign, which is seeking to calm growing discontent among the people as the city prepares to elect its next leader in 2017.
Residents are wondering whether Beijing will allow the election of a candidate who is seen as more moderate than Chief ExecutiveLeung Chun-ying, and what that would mean for Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. And they wonder if it might pave the way for democracy.
“The Basic Law said that, in 2007, the people of Hong Kong would be ready to decide on one man, one vote ... but now we’re at the year2016 and this target has receded even further into the horizon,” said Anson Chan, the city’s former chief secretary.
Chan is a staunch supporter of democracy in Hong Kong and has been dismayed at the lack of progress in securing the vote.
“If we have a new chief executive ... I think the general public will hope that we will begin to heal the rift in society – that the new regime will be more inclusive of politicians and more inclined to listen to the people,” said Chan, 76, who is retired from politics, but is now throwing her weight behind the democracy movement.
But there remains fear in Hong Kong that Beijing will continue its hardline stance, eroding the city’s special status, which guarantees its residents more freedom than those enjoyed across the border.
Beijing seems mostly concerned about the stability of China.
“Xi Jinping’s thought is that central control will be able to manage [the situation] better,” said Stephen Ortmann, a research fellow at the City University of Hong Kong’s Department of Asian and International Studies.
“I don’t think that’s beneficial for a place like Hong Kong, but they’re worried it [China] would disintegrate if all the regions got more power,” Ortmann said.
The city’s small independence movement worries Beijing. But Hong Kong fears that losing its special status as an autonomous region of China with a more trustworthy legal and governance system could be a death knell for the city.
“The day we become like just another Chinese city, I think Hong Kong will be marginalised very quickly. Where can we contribute towards the growth of China as a whole other than holding on to our strengths?” Chan said.
Unlike mainland China, Hong Kong’s internet is uncensored, its residents are allowed to demonstrate peacefully and its legal and governance systems are separate from China’s - all guaranteed under the treaty that ceded Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997.
“All those strengths revolve around rule of law, keeping an independent judiciary, keeping a squeaky clean civil service and protecting our basic rights and freedoms,” she added.
China’s hardline stance during Leung’s tenure has not done much to allay those fears. It is part of what has led some Hong Kongers to look more closely at independence.
The disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers in 2015 and their later reappearance on Chinese state television confessing to their crimes; the unprecedented disqualification of six lawmakers by the Electoral Affairs Commission from public elections; and Beijing’smost recent interpretation of Hong Kong law to ban two lawmakers from taking office at the Legislative Council have set the scene for more concern and confrontation.For Chan and others, Leung appears to be fanning the flames of as mall independence movement in the city, spinning bogeymen out of issues that bear no real threat to China and drawing a rift between Beijing and the city. Thousands turned up to an independence rally in July after the candidates were disqualified. Before then, the movement drew much smaller crowds, of around 200 avid supporters.
But that could lead to Chinese authorities cracking down harder on what they see as a small number of Hong Kongers agitating for independence, seeing them as representative of the broader community.
Nonetheless, the mood appears to be shifting. Leung announced in early December he would not run for a second term to the relief of those who feel the deep divisions within Hong Kong.
The democrats have also secured a quarter of the seats on a roughly1,200-person committee to elect the next chief executive, making it likely for those votes to play a key role in electing Hong Kong’s next leader.
“I like to interpret [Leung’s announcement] as Beijing paying attention to Hong Kong and listening to the Hong Kong people,” said Chan. “Harmony comes from listening.”
“It’s exciting times ahead,” said Chan. “This has re-energised the entire community.”
If moderate voices prevail in Beijing and Hong Kong, the city could still become the testing ground for democracy in China that was envisioned by the creators of “one country, two systems.”