The New York Times

January 27, 2010
Op-Ed Contributor

Hong Kong's Discontent


HONG KONG — This city is normally associated with money making, not radical politics. But activism has been stirring, creating unease in Beijing and among local oligarch business interests.

However puny Hong Kong’s voices of dissent may seem, they are a reminder of the catalytic role the territory has played in politics in the past — as a source of new ideas for China and refuge for dissenters like Sun Yat-sen, Ho Chi Minh and Emilio Aguinaldo of the Philippines. As recently as 2003, 500,000 protesters paved the way for Beijing’s decision to remove the then chief executive.

This week, five members of two pro-democracy political parties are due to resign from the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s lawmaking body. Their objective is to spark a special election that they want to use as a referendum on universal suffrage for the next elections in 2012.

At present, Hong Kong is on track for democratic reforms at a snail’s pace. The local administration, pressured by Beijing, which associates democratic development with dissent, remains reluctant to submit to greater public accountability.

The resignations come hard on the heels of a series of protests focused on local issues that seem to echo mainland dissatisfaction over abuse of power by officials who are often in league with business interests. One Hong Kong legislator — now pledged to resign — has used such tactics as throwing a banana at Hong Kong’s chief executive, Donald Tsang, to protest the obstruction of constitutional development.

All democrats, whether or not they support the move by legislators planning to resign, want more directly elected seats to the Legislature in 2012 and a timetable for the full democratic election of the legislature and chief executive.

At present, half of the 60-member legislature is chosen by mostly small constituencies of business and professional interests whose representatives are elected unopposed. The chief executive is chosen by a small group of electors approved by Beijing.

Recent demonstrations have been called to protest a government decision to spend $9 billion on a 15-mile rail link to the mainland’s high-speed train network. Critics say there is scant rationale for the project other than to please Beijing and provide business opportunities for the clique of companies that dominate Hong Kong’s property, utility and retail markets and enjoy cozy relationships with senior bureaucrats.

Many in the pro-democracy camp are uneasy about the resignations, which they see as a high-risk tactic that could harden Beijing’s stance against democratic progress. If it were to come to special elections, the democrats could well lose to Beijing-backed candidates. Many middle-class voters may decline to support more radical candidates. More likely still, the Beijing-aligned camp may simply ignore the election, removing its legitimacy as a de facto referendum.

Regardless of the outcome, local dissatisfaction with the government is unlikely to recede. It comes from several directions.

First, there is a growing underclass that is suffering from Hong Kong’s widening income gap; it believes the government is simply an accomplice of big business.

Second, there are many middle-class people who want stability but feel they are ignored by a government that stuffs its many advisory bodies with bureaucrats and yes-men.

Third, there is a student movement that wants to focus on issues ranging from environment to human rights. A government prone to avoiding decisions that upset property developers and big polluters is an obvious target for young idealists. Over-reaction by the police and government officials to student protests has added to anger.

As chief executive, Tsang appears powerless and indecisive. A holdover from British times, he is not much liked by Beijing and is seen as unwilling to defend Hong Kong’s self-government.

The harsh sentencing of dissidents in China has awakened Hong Kong to the need to defend its liberties. Yet, in an apparent breach of Hong Kong’s own laws, the government was complicit in returning a dissident to the mainland.

The rise in anti-government and anti-Beijing sentiment may seem surprising given the recent improvement in Hong Kong’s economy and its increasing dependence on the mainland’s surging economic growth. Patriotism and pride in Chinese achievements have also been on the rise.

But Hong Kong has always separated its Chinese identity from Communist Party rule. Beijing’s unholy alliance with local vested interests offsets much of its patriotic appeal. Recent mainland crackdowns on dissent and the Internet have added to Hong Kong’s fears. By the same token, Beijing’s recent moves may have strengthened Hong Kong’s role as a refuge for future Sun Yat-sens.

The legislative resignations may well turn out to be a tactical mistake. But as an assertion of commitment to values other than money-making, they will make an impression not just on Hong Kong but on China, where the intertwining of political power and money-making is germinating a new radicalism.