Pro-democracy lawmakers display placards against Li Fei, deputy secretary general of the National People’s Congress' Standing Committee, during a briefing session in Hong Kong Monday, Sept. 1, 2014. Hong Kong pro-democracy legislators have disrupted the Beijing official’s speech as he sought to explain a decision to tightly limit voting reforms for the southern Chinese financial hub. The placards read "Break a promise" and "Shameful." (Kin Cheung/AP)
September 2

“ONE COUNTRY, two systems ” was the People’s Republic of China’s promise to the people of Hong Kong, Britain and the world as Beijing prepared for the scheduled reversion of the former British colony to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. As explained by Deng Xiaoping during the talks with London in 1984, China’s policy was that Hong Kong’s “current social and economic systems will remain unchanged, its legal system will remain basically unchanged, its way of life and its status as a free port and an international trade and financial centre will remain unchanged.” The People’s Liberation Army would occupy the place but only “to safeguard our national security, not to interfere in Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Our policies with regard to Hong Kong will remain unchanged for 50 years, and we mean this.”

For those of us who support a democratic transition for all of China, the “one country, two systems” notion held out the hope that Hong Kong’s well-developed freedoms and rule of law, and the prosperity they so manifestly fostered, would serve as a model of sorts for the rest of the nation — that Hong Kong’s system would gradually spread to the People’s Republic, not the other way around.

Alas, the Beijing government has made clear that it has no intention of letting such a thing happen. Any political convergence between tiny Hong Kong and the party that rules the vast mainland will occur on the latter’s terms. A newly promulgated electoral law all but guarantees that the next chief executive of Hong Kong will be chosen by voters in 2017 from a short list selected, for all intents and purposes, by a Beijing-dominated, 1,200-member committee.

Superficially, the new setup is somewhat more democratic than the current system, in which the committee decided among a list of candidates with no voter participation. Actually, though, it is a step backward; at present, pro-democracy groups could at least nominate a candidate for consideration by the committee. Under the new law, it will be practically impossible to get a true opposition candidate before the voters. It will be democracy with participation but without competition, and without accountability, which is no democracy at all.

That’s the way Beijing wants it, of course. The decision is of a piece with President Xi Jinping’s general squeeze on dissent of all kinds since his accession to power at the end of 2012. It bluntly rejects the demands of Hong Kong’s democrats, grouped under the banner of Occupy Central. It sets the stage for greater divisions and possible unrest in Hong Kong, where Beijing has already mobilized large crowds to counter Occupy Central’s even larger and — so far — peaceful demonstrations. In the pursuit of spurious “stability,” China’s leaders may actually be endangering the special atmosphere that helped make Hong Kong a wealthy financial center in the first place.

The fact that Mr. Xi would rather take that economic risk than allow Chinese citizens to practice democracy in even a small corner of his realm speaks volumes about his values and priorities.