The current crisis goes back to the vague words and conflicting interpretations of the tense handover period, writes Keith B. Richburg. (Alex Hofford/EPA)

Keith B. Richburg, a freelance writer based in Asia, was The Washington Post’s Hong Kong bureau chief from 1995 to 2000 and The Post’s China correspondent from 2009 to 2013. He is currently researching a book on China.

Deng Xiaoping, China’s late, great leader, was lauded as a visionary when, in talks with British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, he articulated a formula that would allow Communist China to take control of Hong Kong in 1997: “one country, two systems.”

It was a construct unique to China, offering Hong Kong what Beijing’s leaders promised would be “a high degree of autonomy” and a “gradual” path to democracy. It was a way to reassure nervous Hong Kong residents thinking of fleeing for refuge abroad that the longtime British colony would retain the characteristics that turned a “barren rock” into a prosperous and sophisticated global financial center. It was an answer to Hong Kong’s democratic proponents, who thought the end of colonial rule should bring with it the right to vote for a leader in free and fair elections.

It was also a fiction.

China never intended for Hong Kong to operate independently of the Communist-run central government in Beijing. China wanted to run Hong Kong precisely as the British had: administered by a senior official handpicked by the metropole — called a governor by the British, a chief executive by the Chinese — with limited or no local input. For Beijing, “one country” was always more important than “two systems.” And the promises of democracy and universal suffrage were just that, promises, left deliberately vague and couched with such qualifiers as “eventual” and “step by step.”

The current crisis in Hong Kong — which has brought students and pro-democracy activists to the streets — poses the most serious threat to the Chinese Communist Party since Tiananmen Square. And it all goes back to the vague words and conflicting interpretations of that tense handover period.

Consider the pledge in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that says: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Read the most favorable way, that provision sounds as if Beijing agreed to soon let Hong Kongers freely choose their leaders. To the students and others who have taken to the streets, China’s legislature reneged on that promise in August when it ruled that a nominating committee controlled by Beijing would remain in force even after Hong Kong elections shift to a one-person, one-vote system in 2017.

But Beijing never had any intention of relinquishing its control over the nominating committee, or its ability to determine what makes that key committee “broadly representative.”

If Hong Kong’s pan-democrats were taken in by, or chose to believe, the notion that Beijing would allow real democracy in Hong Kong, they were hardly alone. Legions of Western scholars and journalists helped perpetuate the delusion that as China became more affluent, it would become more open and democratic. It was an idea not without precedent. Elsewhere, authoritarian regimes fell as middle-class populations expanded and people demanded a greater say in running their own affairs. It happened in South Korea in the late 1980s and Indonesia in the late 1990s.

So it became an article of faith in some circles that China would follow the same path. An autonomous Hong Kong was in China’s interest, the argument went. Besides, the believers noted, China was already becoming more open, and the divergence between authoritarian China and open Hong Kong would grow smaller and smaller with time. Some predicted that the Communist Party might eventually split. Others talked dreamily of the “Singapore model,” in which the Chinese Communist Party would remain dominant but would compete in multiparty elections, as Singapore’s ruling party does.

“There are strong reasons to believe China will honor its commitments to Hong Kong,” veteran journalist Frank Ching wrote in a typically upbeat article in Foreign Affairs magazine at the time of the ’97 handover. He blamed the foreign press (including, I presume, me) for harboring “hostility over China’s military crackdown in Tiananmen Square.” He added, “The press is unwilling to give China the benefit of the doubt.”

Other Foreign Affairs writers over the years were even more bullish in virtually predicting that the Chinese Communist Party would either reform or die. “In many crucial respects, China’s hybrid neo-authoritarian order eerily exhibits the pathologies of both the political stagnation of Leonid Brezhnev’s Soviet Union and the crony capitalism of Suharto’s Indonesia,” Minxin Pei, then a scholar at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment, wrote in 2002. Six years later, Brookings Institution Chairman John L. Thornton quoted Chinese officials offering several East Asian examples that China’s democratization path might follow: Japan, where the Liberal Democratic Party has remained dominant; authoritarian Singapore; or “the freewheeling multiparty system of South Korea.”

And in the same publication in 2010, George J. Gilboy and Eric Heginbotham suggested that incremental change in China “is almost certain to continue,” posing the risk to the party of “a more politically active urban middle class or an internal party split.”

So far, the predictions have proved overly optimistic at best. After two decades of double-digit economic growth, China has indeed become richer, and its middle class has expanded. But the party remains as entrenched as ever. And President Xi Jinping has taken an even harder line than his predecessor in centralizing power and cracking down on dissent, including arresting activists and bloggers and reining in the unruly Internet as a forum for debate. For now, it seems, political reform is way off the agenda.

China’s Communist officials continue to try to buy time: extolling the progress already made, pointing out that China is still a “developing country” and speaking about “gradually” building a democratic system “suited to the conditions.” Those were the claims I heard when I first covered China as a Hong Kong-based correspondent in the mid-1990s, and I heard the same worn phrases repeated again and again when I returned to run The Washington Post’s Beijing and Shanghai bureaus from late 2009 until early 2013.

An admission here: I, too, at times got swept up in thinking that maybe, just maybe, there were shards of light in the slow movement toward political reform.

In the fall of 2011, I covered elections for seats on China’s local “people’s councils,” the lowest rung in the Communist Party’s multi-tiered hierarchy. The councils are powerless advisory panels, kept around to perpetuate the myth of grass-roots participation in decision-making. But something fascinating was stirring then. More than 100 independent candidates were running for council seats, and many of them were engaging in active campaigning. They were using social media, specifically weibo, China’s Twitter, to announce their candidacies and outline their views on local issues such as parking problems and neighborhood parks. And, for the first time in China, they were generating publicity outside of official channels.

Yet their efforts — and mine, finding and interviewing many of them for a story in The Post — came to naught. Most were disqualified from running on technical grounds. Those who made it through the vetting lost at election time. Several faced harassment, house arrest or bans on travel abroad. Like the much-trumpeted “village election” experiments in the 1980s, this exercise in Chinese democracy turned out to be a farce.

In the spring of 2012, I attended the final news conference given by Wen Jiabao, China’s prime minister, who would be stepping down in a planned reshuffling of the top leadership. It was a ritual appearance following the yearly meeting of China’s rubber-stamp legislature, and I was among the foreign journalists invited to submit questions in advance — one of the rare chances for reporters to question a top leader.

My question for the prime minister was this: With much of the world in 2012 holding democratic elections — the United States, France, South Korea, Japan, Egypt and Taiwan, to name a few countries — when would Chinese be able to enjoy the same privilege of electing their leader? To my surprise, my question was accepted — I was asked only to excise Taiwan from the list — and I was able to ask it at the press conference.

“We must pursue a step-by-step approach in this process,” Wen replied. “We also should believe when the people have shown they are capable of running a village, they will also be capable of moving from running village affairs to running the affairs of a township and a county. And that will be a gradual process. It needs to proceed in an orderly way and under the leadership of the party.”

Of course, Chinese have shown that they are perfectly capable of running not only a village but a huge de facto country like Taiwan (which China considers a renegade province).

And if China were really interested in experimenting with local democracy and true autonomy, what better place to start than modern, sophisticated Hong Kong? Hong Kongers are, if anything, pragmatic and, given the choice, would probably elect moderate local leaders who could guarantee continued stability and prosperity.

One start — and a way to defuse the current crisis — would be for Beijing to remove its handpicked chief executive, C.Y. Leung, who was never the first choice anyway but got the job when the mainland’s preferred candidate became too embroiled in scandal. Leung was already deeply unpopular in Hong Kong. His stance on the protests — including the initial call to use tear gas and pepper spray against unarmed students, and his later tone-deaf comments — has only made him even more a target of popular anger and ridicule. A welcome interim leader for Hong Kong would be the popular former top civil servant Anson Chan, who would have wide support and could serve out the remainder of Leung’s term until a real election could be held in 2017. But as of this writing, Beijing appears to be digging in against any compromise and sticking with Leung, who Thursday night declared that he would not resign.

Hong Kong is clearly ready for democracy. But real autonomy, and a real election with an unknown outcome, are far too risky for Beijing’s current rulers. It’s something Beijing never intended — despite Chairman Deng’s masterfully nuanced formulation. And the brave students and other activists who shut down central Hong Kong cannot change that single, immutable fact.

keith@keithrichburg.com

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