Hong Kong needs its autonomy to progress

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For the last few years, Hong Kong has readied itself for the ongoing debate and protests that have raged through the city’s business district of Central.

Occupy Central, a movement dedicated to civil disobedience and organized by professors, lawyers and members of the clergy, was already hyped up last summer. Many writers and witnesses have referenced the Tiananmen Massacre and the tragedy that unfolded during China’s last large civil disobedience occupation. However, it is important to note that while the possibility of a crackdown is not negligible, China faces a unique set of constraints from the international community that limits its hand. Last time, China was in the midst of its “dark ages,” not the economic juggernaut it is today.

A sudden change in tactic on the part of the Hong Kong government reveals the new approach being implemented by Beijing and Hong Kong. A week ago, video footage of crackdowns on violent protesters showed tear gas canisters being hurled into large crowds. As a Hong Kong resident myself, it never would have crossed my mind that extreme political unrest reminiscent of the Arab Spring was occurring in Hong Kong.

It is important for people to know about the events unfolding in Hong Kong, a city that has long served as the bridge from Eastern to Western worlds. While the bulk of China’s population lives below or on the poverty line, Hong Kong’s citizens enjoy a much higher standard of life, equal to that of the United Kingdom or Iceland.

Additionally, the future of the small territory offers valuable insight into the future of China. The way in which China reacts in the coming weeks, apart from its expected condemnation of the protests, will give hints of China’s long term political future.

As a student from Hong Kong, I am often asked what Hong Kong actually is. Is it an independent city-state like Singapore? I always reply with “it’s part of China, but Hong Kong keeps a separate government.”

This is officially called the one-country, two-systems government as outlined in the Basic Law, the de facto constitution of Hong Kong. The Basic Law was written when Hong Kong transitioned from British colony to reclaimed special administrative region of China. As a result of this history, Hong Kong was once a prized possession of both Britain and China. It served as the gateway for the Chinese to sell their goods and for the British to gain access to the lucrative, emergent markets in China. However, the rise of Shanghai as China’s own financial hub in the last decade or so has dimmed Hong Kong’s importance. While Hong Kong remains a major city that many corporations focus their operations on, it is not as indispensable as it used to be.

The Basic Law also guaranteed Hong Kong a large amount of autonomy in affairs not concerned with national defense or foreign diplomacy. This autonomy formerly meant that Hong Kong would be able to hold its own elections in 2017. Each citizen would receive one vote, and candidates would be nominated from Hong Kong by the Hong Kong people. This was the vision many Hong Kong citizens had harbored. However, the Chinese government disagrees, and released a statement over the summer saying it would only allow Hong Kong elections under the condition that the candidates be approved by the mainland. Clearly, “universal suffrage” isn’t very universal in the Chinese government’s vision.

Hong Kong has prized itself on being Asia’s “World City.” Although competition may have diminished the city in terms of economic might, it remains a pearl that has been long prized by both Eastern and Western cultures. As a result, it prides itself on being Asia’s best place to live, work, or do business. It has accomplished this all under the one-country, two-systems rule. Many people recognize this and are proud of this fact, and consequently, economic progress for them also means political progress — specifically, democratization.

Many critics in Hong Kong and China point out that Hong Kong already enjoys a high degree of autonomy and should not be complaining. But changes in China’s hierarchy, as well as their plan to “allow” universal suffrage point to the fact that Hong Kong may be going backward in terms of political organization.

Xi Jinping, China’s new president, has been shown to be a strong, decisive leader and is very much focused on a consolidated, executive office in China. His quick movement to dismantle the corrupted elite offices in China, as demonstrated by the capture of Zhou Yongkang over the summer, paints a picture of a powerful and determined leader. Recognizing this, the people of Hong Kong fear that the elements that made Hong Kong so dynamic may soon disappear, especially as China tightens its grip around the city.

Going forward may be a tall order, but in the eyes of Hong Kong citizens, the Umbrella Revolution is the only thing stopping them from sliding back down.