Mainstream media’s focus on the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy divide in Hong Kong overlooks Beijing’s decisions throughout Hong Kong’s struggle to democratise. Why did Beijing propose electoral reform in 2014? What does it say about the regime?
Two years after Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, a 2014 movement aimed at resisting electoral changes proposed by China’s National People’s Congress (NPC), Hong Kong’s democratisation once again receives global attention as three leaders of the movement were found guilty of unlawful assembly on Sept. 22nd.
The mainstream media has portrayed the movement as a battle between the pro-democracy camp and the pro-Beijing camp. The effect? An even more polarized polity, with citizens grappling to fit into either of the extremes. Today, Hong Kong has surely become more fragmented than ever. Yet, few media outlets have taken the trouble to point out the complexity of the division. According to The Washington Post, the Umbrella Revolution has sparked divisions between the younger and older generation and even amongst the two camps themselves. A Times article also points out that voices of Hong Kong’s majority appears to be neglected as the pro-Beijing and pro-democracy camps dominate the battlefield.
Since mainstream media focuses heavily on the division in Hong Kong, China’s political decisions leading up to the movements are largely overlooked. Despite so, examining Beijing’s actions prior 2014 can provide valuable insights into its decision-making rationale.
The Umbrella Movement can be traced back to a supposed agreement between the Hong Kong Chief Executive and the NPC in 2007. According Hong Kong’s narrative, Beijing promised to institute universal suffrage starting from the 2016 Legislative Council election, a perceived move towards democratization.
In 2014, however, the NPC demanded that the 2017 Chief Executive election candidates be nominated by a pre-screened committee, giving the NPC tremendous control over the nomination. It was this unanticipated decision from Beijing that sparked the 2014 protest that lasted for almost 80 days.
The NPC’s decision to curtail electoral freedom in 2014 is curious, for Hong Kong’s violent response was hardly unpredicted. Notably, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, a civil disobedience campaign that later characterized much of the Umbrella Movement, began to take actions as early as 2013. To ensure the institution of universal suffrage, the Occupy Central campaign even launched a civic referendum, aimed at determining how the electoral system will operate with universal suffrage.
Additionally, it seems unnecessary for Beijing to push for electoral restriction so urgently. Hong Kong’s political culture prioritizes economic and political stability over democratic ideal. Its pragmatic culture makes it unlikely to elect a Chief Executive that presses for immediate independence from China. Judging so, Chin-Hao Huang, a Professor of Social Sciences (Political Science) at Yale-NUS College, views China’s 2014 decision as a “miscalculation.”
Further, Beijing has already had considerable, and even increasing, control over Hong Kong’s politics ever since 2003. The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (LOCPG) has long been suspected to orchestrate “patriotic” mass campaigns and endorse pro-Beijing candidates, thereby influencing electoral results. The NPC also shapes voter preference and public opinion via other grassroots organizations and civil societies it established in Hong Kong.
Beijing also has a record of kidnapping political dissidents in Hong Kong to China. The lack of due process in Hong Kong for detaining citizens reflects Beijing’s expansive control. If so, was there truly a need for Beijing to restrict electoral freedom in Hong Kong?
Perhaps the NPC’s decision can be easily explained by China’s increasing need to control Hong Kong. The autonomous territory has risen to one of the most important economic hub in Asia over the years. Exerting more influence over Hong Kong is certainly in China’s interest.
Having tolerated Hong Kong’s 2003 protest against national security law and 2012 protest against reforms in national education, Beijing probably believes that it will lose control over Hong Kong if it continues to accede to democratisation.
Another explanation is that the outbreak of large-scale protests in 2014 was unanticipated for both Beijing and Hong Kong. According to Dr. Elton Chan, another Political Science professor at Yale-NUS College, the majority of Hong Kong’s population did not believe that such a massive protest could be successfully carried out, nor did the government in Beijing.
Dr. Chan said that Beijing’s decision to truncate electoral freedom in 2014 was only part of a larger series of moves aimed at increasing control over Hong Kong since 2003. Still, he characterized Beijing’s decision in 2014 as “unanticipated” and “abrupt.”
Although intentions behind Beijing’s decision in 2014 remain uncertain, the resulting political polarization in Hong Kong probably favors China. This is because an increasingly fractured and disunited polity creates opportunities for the NPC to intervene via pro-Beijing grass-root organizations and corporations.
Meanwhile, the Umbrella Movement may also be a starting point for serious political discourse in Hong Kong. Pro-democracy camp may seize this opportunity to redefine their stance and come up with a more definite political stance. Young activists who emerged during the Umbrella Movement are also now prominent figures in Hong Kong’s political scene, pushing for a stronger pro-democracy stance.
It is certainly premature to determine whether the outcome of the Umbrella Movement favours Beijing or Hong Kong, but China’s decision to directly influence Hong Kong election reflects an insecure regime. Its unfamiliarity with the concept of universal suffrage and its pursuit of complete security prompted it to restrict electoral freedom in Hong Kong.