The protests continue in Central Hong Kong this week, despite the increasingly forceful dispersal attempts by the city’s police. Pepper spray, billy clubs and even dogs have been used with only temporary success, as video and images of beaten protesters go viral across the city, fanning the flame of further protests. The cause of their protests are two-fold; first Hong Kong’s residents want universal suffrage in the election of their Chief Executive; they feel that the Election Committee system of nominations and elections is too deeply dominated by Beijing controlled committee members and does not represent the average Hongkonger; secondly there is great concern for the longevity of the “one country, two systems” principle, striking at the heart of Hong Kong’s autonomy, an integral part of many Hong Kongers’ identity as citizens of a free society. Taken together, these issues show a Hong Kong that does not feel protected by or represented in Beijing.
Tensions have been brewing since June of this year, when the central (Beijing) government released a white paper that had a starkly different view of the “one country, two systems” rule enshrined in Article 31 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic China. The paper spoke not of rights, but privileges granted by the central government to Hong Kong, of sovereignty derived from the (Chinese Communist) Party rather than the People. The document was anathema to members of Hong Kong’s government and academia, who have taken it for granted for the duration of Hong Kong’s reunification with China, particularly as it is based in Chinese, rather than British common law.
The “one country, two systems” principle was established by former Chinese Premier, Deng Xiaoping, who led China from 1978 to 1992. The policy has been applied to formerly Portuguese Macau and nominally to Taiwan, which China claims to exert authority over. While the advantage of being Chinese law is that the principle is harmonized and established within Chinese legal culture, problematically the interpretation and implementation of Chinese law can be more easily adjusted or removed to suit the whims of Beijing, rather than being grounded in precedent and protected by the common law hong Kong inherited from the British.
Despite the precariousness of the “one country, two systems” principle, the major furor that now engulfs Hong Kong concerns the election of the Chief Executive, or CE, the head of Hong Kong’s government. Hong Kong’s Basic Law (the Hong Kong constitution) provided that for at least 50 years after the return of Hong Kong, the capitalist, common law system used when the territory was a British Crown Colony (1841-1997) would remain in place. Article 15 of the Basic law provides that the government in Beijing shall initially have the authority to appoint the CE, rather than affording the citizens of Hong Kong suffrage to elect their own choice. However, the Basic Law also requires the gradual and progressive movement towards universal suffrage amongst Hong Kong’s citizenry; Chapter IV, Article 45 holds that:
The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government.
The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. 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.
In August, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC; Beijing’s legislature) made their most recent changes to the next election of the CE, to be held in 2017. It announced that the nomination for CE would be held by the same Election Committee of 1200 Hong Kong citizens which had elected the current CE, Yeung Chun-Ying, and that following the nomination, the candidate or candidates selected by that group would be elected by universal suffrage of Hong Kongers of voting age. The NPCSC did this in fulfillment of a 2007 resolution that it would introduce universal suffrage in Hong Kong elections for the 2017 CE election.
The citizenry of Hong Kong, and its students specifically, balked at the announcement. They felt that the election would be as much a sham as the current process, when Mr. Yeung had been elected by a total of 689 votes from the 1,200 member Election Committee and Beijing declared that the process resulted in a “democratically elected” leader of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s population exceeds 7 million. While Article 45 (cited above) requires that the nominating committee be “broadly representative”, the protesters consider its current (unelected) composition to be entirely too supportive of the central government and of the wealthy. The protesters cite the Basic Law’s Article 39, which asserts that:
The provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [ICCPR], the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [ICESCR], and international labour conventions as applied to Hong Kong shall remain in force and shall be implemented through the laws of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
The rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong residents shall not be restricted unless as prescribed by law. Such restrictions shall not contravene the provisions of the preceding paragraph of this Article.
The protections of the ICCPR and ICESCR, particularly Common Article 1, require that “All peoples have the right of self-determination” to “freely determine their political status.” Those rights are diametrically opposed to the Chinese Communist Party’s regime and particularly to the current President of the People’s Republic, Mr. Xi Jinping, a reported hardliner who has named “Western constitutional democracy”; “human rights” as two of the seven perils facing his government’s control.
Halting the current protest isn’t merely a preference for maintaining the status quo to Mr. Xi; for him, liberal institutions taking root in his own country presents an existential crisis for the Chinese Communist Party. Xi is unlikely to budge from requiring that the CE of Hong Kong be malleable to the CCP, if not an outright spokesman for Beijing.
The last time the CCP faced mass-organized student dissidents was Tiananmen Square in 1989. Hong Kong’s Mr. Leung was ominously referencing that history last week, when he declared that Hong Kong and her students should consider themselves “lucky” because Beijing hasn’t intervened in a similar fashion, yet. Should Beijing decide to roll the tanks in, it is difficult to imagine a different outcome than 1989, when the world condemned China, but did little beyond offering platitudes of regret. China’s economic position in the world has only strengthened in the intervening quarter century, and no nation readily appears to have the will or the means to sanction her actions. The latest talks between Beijing and the protestors have stalled; beatings, dogs and pepper spray have not availed Beijing or its proxies. Let us hope that the government doesn’t escalate the violence and repeat the bloody sins of its past.
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