Stephen Stromberg is a member of The Post’s editorial board.
HONG KONG — In the eyes of many elite observers, the pro-democracy protesters occupying streets and plazas in Hong Kong’s business and political core are hopelessly naive. Though the city is mostly self-governing, Beijing has power over its political development, and the mainland’s ruling Communist Party is unlikely to accede to popular demands for unfettered democracy. Changing course amid the dramatic popular protests of recent days could encourage subversive ideas among Chinese citizens elsewhere. Rather than encouraging change, disorder in Hong Kong could confirm Beijing’s worst fears about loosening up.
But Hong Kong residents — a majority of whom want authentic democracy, polls show — need not lose hope and quietly acquiesce to Beijing. Democracy in Hong Kong is down but not doomed.
By the terms of the “one country, two systems” arrangement negotiated during the city’s 1997 handover from Britain to China, Hong Kong is supposed to move steadily toward democracy. But Beijing must approve the steps Hong Kong takes, and Communist Party leaders have decided against a liberal approach.
The current unrest is over an electoral reform proposal Beijing put forward this summer. Under the handover arrangement, residents of Hong Kong were promised the right to elect their chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017. But China’s central government has insisted on keeping tight control on the process of nominating candidates prior to the vote. Beijing’s aim is less to control day-to-day government in Hong Kong than to ensure that the city will never have a chief executive hostile to the Communist Party.
Many protesters admit they lack leverage. The rank-and-file student activists I spoke to over the past week didn’t predict a quick or dramatic change in the course of Hong Kong’s political reform. Instead, they said that they want to raise public awareness, appeal to the city’s leaders or simply express themselves. Some activists, meanwhile, fear a violent, Tiananmen Square-style suppression of the protests, which are taking place in the shadow of a People’s Liberation Army base in central Hong Kong.
All bets would be off if Beijing decides to brutally repress the protests, which Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said Monday would not happen. Barring that astounding turn, Hong Kong’s activism may yet yield results, even if they are short of the fully democratic system the city-state deserves.
First, the demonstrations might affect Beijing’s future thinking. The fight over electing the chief executive is just one round in a series of interactions between Beijing and Hong Kong as they sort out how the city is to be governed. Communist Party leaders may get the message that they cannot slap Hong Kong — an advanced society that cherishes its basic rights, maintains the rule of law and can distinguish authentic democracy from managed democracy — without Hong Kong slapping back in a way that harms China.
Mass protests put the lie to Beijing’s contention that unrest in Hong Kong is merely the result of Western meddling and discredit its delusion that a firm grip will limit the risk of embarrassment and disquiet. These are among the reasons mainland China’s government blocked social media Web sites such as Instagram on Sunday.
Second, the demonstrations may push Hong Kong leaders to better represent the city’s interests in their interactions with the central government. The city’s political establishment is firmly pro-Beijing. But city leaders also want to avoid unrest. On Sunday Leung promised “further consultations” as electoral reform moves forward.
Third, there are many decisions left to be made — or reconsidered — on which democratic forces can make some real gains. Though Beijing may not budge on the broad outlines of its plan for chief executive nominations, the parties can soften the proposal as they hash out the details. Government officials are also now saying that the framework could be revised after 2017.
The biggest foreseeable prize for democrats is free elections for the city’s Legislative Council. Only some of its members are elected now, but that is set to change after 2017. Beijing will be less tempted to impose — and Hong Kong’s leaders less likely to countenance — restrictions on who can stand for the legislature or other controls if doing so is sure to inspire mass protests.
The activists understandably want more. In their frustration, many want the Legislative Council to reject Beijing’s chief executive election plan, which requires a two-thirds vote to pass. But that would keep the current system in place, with no popular vote of any kind for chief executive and only a partially elected Legislative Council. Given that, Beijing’s proposal is likely to attract the last few votes it needs.
That would not represent the end of Hong Kong’s democratic hopes. It would represent a new, albeit tough, phase for a valuable cause.