Protesters chant slogans during a march in Hong Kong on September 7. They demanded the release of mainland Chinese dissidents and rights activists so they could spend the Mid-Autumn Festival with their families. Image Credit: EPA

Margaret Thatcher, the late British prime minister, once praised Deng Xiaoping’s famous “one country, two systems” formula for Hong Kong as an “ingenious idea” that elegantly grafted the capitalist British colony back on to Communist China.

In the years immediately after Hong Kong returned to China’s fold as a “special administrative region”, its civil freedoms and capitalist economy were safeguarded. But almost two decades after the 1997 “handover”, the former Chinese leader’s apparently simple solution has become a source of misunderstanding and conflict.

The Chinese government and Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp are locked in a bitter fight over fundamentally different visions for the territory’s political future. One emphasises Beijing’s ultimate authority while the other stresses the sanctity of Hong Kong’s “second system”.

It is a contradiction that “one country, two systems” delayed addressing, but can no longer be avoided.

The fight has brought thousands — opponents and supporters of Beijing — on to the streets of Hong Kong in recent months exposing the tensions over the territory’s future.

A pro-democracy rally in July ended with hundreds of arrests after activists held an overnight sit-in in Hong Kong’s central business district. Last month, officers from the territory’s anti-corruption agency raided the home of Jimmy Lai, publisher of Hong Kong’s Apple Daily newspaper, in an investigation into his donations to pro-democracy legislators.

To some, the raid on Lai’s home was particularly ominous, similar to politically motivated investigations in mainland China.

“I think it’s basically the criminalisation of politics or activism,” says Mark Simon, a top Lai lieutenant.

Others suggest Beijing increasingly views Hong Kong as a national security concern and is acting accordingly, potentially breaching promises made in a 1984 “joint declaration” with the United Kingdom to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy after the handover.

Those fears have added momentum to the pro-democracy campaign.

This was made more urgent on August 31, when China’s National People’s Congress, the arbiter of the Basic Law — under which Hong Kong is governed — said the territory’s next chief executive could be elected by universal suffrage. Theoretically this would give Hong Kong’s 5 million registered voters, who routinely cast ballots in legislative and district council elections, a historic opportunity to choose their own leader in 2017.

The NPC ruled that no more than three candidates could run and only then after being nominated by half the mostly pro-Beijing members of a 1,200-strong committee. Hong Kong democracy advocates condemned it as a “fake election” offering voters a choice between “a rotten apple, a rotten orange and a rotten banana”.

“Some people are not willing to admit that the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong is that between a central government and a local government,” says Zhang Dinghuai, a Basic Law expert at Shenzhen University. “Two radically different views on universal suffrage have formed in Hong Kong, triggering instability. The central government needed to show its bottom line as soon as possible.”

China’s insistence on screening candidates is consistent with its stance that the territory’s leader should be a “patriot” — a word that in Chinese combines the characters for love and country. In announcing the NPC ruling, Li Fei, a top official, said the chief executive “must be someone who loves China, loves Hong Kong and will safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests”.

Asked if love of country equated to love of the Communist party, Li implied that it did, explaining that Hong Kong’s chief executive was answerable to a government in China whose constitution affirmed the party’s primacy. Zhao Lei at the Central Party School in Beijing, the premier training ground for cadres, adds that there is a need to “nurture and strengthen a feeling of national identity in Hong Kong”.

“Democracy in Hong Kong without national identity would be like a ship with a motor but no rudder — it would run fast but without direction,” says Zhao.

While love of country and love of the party may be inseparable in Beijing’s eyes, this concept is alien to the many Hong Kong residents who found refuge during periods of political turmoil on the mainland, including the famine that followed a botched modernisation drive in the late 1950s and the cultural revolution of 1966-1976.

Few people in Hong Kong expected China to allow arrangements that could result in the election of a chief executive that it did not approve. Chan Kin-man of Occupy Central, the group spearheading a Gandhi-style civil disobedience campaign for more expansive political rights, says Beijing does not want “to create aspirations” for democracy in mainland China.

“In human history, no one ever got democracy from Communist rule. It is mission impossible,” says Chan.

Simon at the Apple Daily Group agrees that Beijing sees the territory “affecting China”.

“If they set a precedent down here where they’re not controlling things, then that precedent is going to slowly drift up north [to the mainland]. They don’t want to give people ideas,” says Simon.

China’s willingness to tolerate opposition in Hong Kong has declined in tandem with the territory’s perceived importance to the Chinese economy. When Chris Patten, Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, assumed his post in 1992, China’s economy was only about five times bigger than Hong Kong’s. Today it is 35 times larger.

“It has clearly become an asymmetric relationship,” says Arthur Kroeber at GaveKal Dragonomics, a consultancy. “In the 1990s Hong Kong was much more important to Beijing because China needed a lot of money and expertise from Hong Kong and they really depended on Hong Kong infrastructure, such as its port.”

Beijing also trod more carefully during much of the 1990s because a smooth transition of power in Hong Kong was critical to the restoration of its international standing after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.

But 25 years on, a newly assertive Beijing appears unfazed by the opinions of others. Kroeber says there is “little concern in Beijing about how its Hong Kong policies will appear to the rest of the world”.

In the eyes of the Chinese government, Hong Kong increasingly appears to be an ingrate. Mainland Chinese residents are generally courted for their tourist dollars and more than 40 million visited the territory last year, according to government statistics. But they are now reviled as “locusts” by many Hong Kongers who blame them for crowding public spaces, using public services and contributing to runaway property prices. “I don’t think Hong Kong is a spoiled child but it has been treated as a favourite child,” says Zhao at the Central Party School.

Beijing’s harder line is in keeping with its uncompromising approach over its many territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam — and also a domestic propaganda campaign aimed at bolstering President Xi Jinping’s image as a strong leader in the mould of Deng.

“There has been a big shift since Xi Jinping took over. He is obsessed with state security,” says Willy Lam, a veteran China watcher, who adds that the president is “magnifying the threat posed by antipatriotic traitors in Hong Kong ... to stoke the flames of nationalism”.

While Beijing has long worried about “anti-China” elements in Taiwan, Tibet and the region of Xinjiang, where a violent Muslim separatist movement is gathering steam, Hong Kong has only recently become a more serious concern.

Lam says Beijing became more interested in 2003 when big protests ended the career of Tung Chee-hwa, the territory’s first chief executive. He says it was “scared that things could get out of control” in the territory.

As a result, says Lam, the Communist party created a so-called “leading group” of senior cadres on Hong Kong, which was overseen by Xi for several years. The tougher Chinese line on Hong Kong comes as Xi propels a series of campaigns partly aimed at creating a solid power base and cementing himself as a strongman.

The pro-democracy backlash in Hong Kong is particularly galling to the country’s communist leaders. For the party, Britain’s seizure of Hong Kong after the Opium War of 1842 marked the beginning of more than a century of “national humiliation” at the hands of foreigners.

Ahead of the NPC announcement, Chinese officials castigated anyone pushing for a more expansive form of universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Zhang Xiaoming, head of the Chinese government’s representative office in the territory, warned that “some international forces” were trying to cause trouble and that China had to “prevent the city from becoming a base against the mainland under the facade of democracy”.

David Zweig, a China expert at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, agrees that China’s obsession with security is colouring its policy on Hong Kong.

“The Chinese framework for universal suffrage in Hong Kong is a victory for those in the national security camp and those who want to maintain control,” he says. “They are convinced that the US and Brits are out to undermine them ... They live in a world of conspiracies.”

Over the past year, China has accused the top US and British diplomats in Hong Kong of meddling in its domestic affairs by wading into the democracy debate. And it is especially sensitive about their interactions with members of the pro-democracy Democratic and Civic parties.

Hong Kong is “going in the direction of Tibet”, according to Alan Leong of the opposition Civic party, adding that Chinese officials have never explained to him how universal suffrage would threaten the state.

“Come on, just give me your thinking how national security will be compromised by making us our own bosses,” he says. “This is just an excuse.”

In defending the NPC decision, Li criticised some democrats’ insistence that the new electoral arrangements should adhere to “international” standards, arguing that the territory would enjoy genuine universal suffrage under Beijing’s plan because all registered voters could cast ballots in the chief executive poll.

Emily Lau, head of the Democratic party, counters that China has reneged on its promise and is “trying to wriggle out of the generally accepted definition” of universal suffrage. Leong goes further, saying that Beijing is trying to justify the kind of system used in authoritarian regimes.

“Under Li Fei’s logic, North Koreans are enjoying universal suffrage,” says Leong.

–Financial Times