South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Cliff Buddle says Hongkongers deserve the right to freely elect their leader and this crisis can lead to change – if our chief executive, business sector and democrats all play their part in easing Beijing’s concerns
The dramatic scenes of mass protest on the streets of Hong Kong this week mark a defining moment in the city’s political development. It is not just a question of how the city’s leader should be elected. We are facing a crisis of governance and Hong Kong’s future is at stake.
This city’s success has been built on its reputation for being safe, orderly and efficient – a great place to live and to do business. This is why the notion of maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity lies at the heart of the arrangements put in place for the city’s return to China in 1997.
But with many thousands taking to the streets this week, main roads blocked, schools closed and businesses shut down, the city’s stability and prosperity are under threat. People from other parts of the world are asking me: “What will happen to Hong Kong?”
There is no easy answer to that question. But if we are to move forward, certain facts have to be faced.
Whatever view is taken of the Occupy Central movement and its call for civil disobedience, recent events cannot be blamed on that organisation alone. And it is all too convenient to dismiss the demonstrations as the work of a handful of so-called extremists or the shady intervention of foreign powers.
The reality is that pressure has been building within the community for many years and there has been a collective failure to deal with it. Both governments, their supporters in Hong Kong, the business sector and the democrats all share some responsibility.
Occupy Central may have initiated the civil disobedience, but the protests developed spontaneously. Those involved are ordinary Hong Kong people. They are from different walks of life. Many of them are young, but not all (this newspaper interviewed a 92-year-old demonstrator.) Most, I suspect, are breaking the law for the first time in their lives.
Civil disobedience may be new to Hong Kong people, but the desire to freely choose their own leader is not. The demonstrations are the culmination of frustrations stretching back more than 25 years.
Disputes over the electoral arrangements dogged the drafting of Hong Kong’s Basic Law in the late 1980s. The final version of that law, which took effect in 1997, provided for a conservative electoral system, much to the disappointment of people in Hong Kong.
But the drafters did include one concession. Article 45 of the Basic Law stated that the “ultimate aim” was universal suffrage, with candidates to be nominated by a broadly representative committee.
Since then, Hong Kong people have looked ahead to the day when the “ultimate aim” would be achieved. The Basic Law did not provide a timetable.
There were hopes this would be possible in 2007, a decade after the handover. But they were dashed by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee in 2004. Expectations rose again when the electoral arrangements for 2012 were considered. China’s legislature ruled out universal suffrage for that year, but decided it could be introduced for the chief executive election in 2017. It seemed that the ultimate aim was finally to be achieved.
But then, in August, the Standing Committee imposed strict limitations on the system under which this would occur. The arrangements would almost certainly lead to pro-democracy candidates being excluded. It is this decision which has sparked the protests.
There is a view that Hong Kong people have been naïve to think that the central government, which after all presides over a one-party state, would grant them the right to freely choose their leader, especially given its suspicions about subversive activity in Hong Kong.
But the promise of universal suffrage is there in the Basic Law and it is reasonable to interpret that as meaning a free choice with candidates from across the political spectrum. Otherwise, what purpose does it serve?
Now, we are facing the prospect of no progress and further years of wrangling over political reform. There is a need for change and this crisis should be a turning point.
There must be recognition by both the Hong Kong and central governments that most people here want to be able to freely choose their leader. The limited arrangements for 2017 are not sufficient to relieve the pressure or end the conflicts.
The chief executive has a vital role to play in this regard. There is a need for leadership – and for our leader to be seen to actively represent the interests of Hong Kong people. This does not mean confronting Beijing. It means accurately and frankly presenting the position in Hong Kong to the central government and seeking to ease its concerns about democracy.
The business sector has an important role to play. Beijing, understandably, places much importance on the continued economic success of Hong Kong. If the business sector embraces democratic reform, it would be much easier for the central government to accept.
Democrats, too, need to learn lessons. They have often been disunited and have failed to produce a charismatic leader who can both deal with Beijing and rally supporters of democracy.
Both governments have accepted a need to resolve the issue of universal suffrage. But this can only be achieved if the central government trusts the people of Hong Kong to freely elect a capable leader, one it can work with.
Even amidst the disruption, there is evidence that Hong Kong people are deserving of that trust.
The civil disobedience has taken on a distinctly Hong Kong form. There is always the danger that protests of this kind will descend into violence. But protesters have been peaceful so far. No cars have been burned, no shops looted or damaged. The protesters are even picking up litter. This is a remarkably orderly form of disorder. It is in keeping with the Hong Kong spirit.
The people of this city deserve to be able to choose their own leader without restrictions. They are generally sensible, pragmatic, well-informed, well-educated and civic-minded. After so many years of patience, it is surely not too much to ask.
Cliff Buddle is the Post’s editor, special projects