Saturday, September 6, 2014

Why Beijing fears free elections in Hong Kong

Ching Cheong
The Straits Times - September 6, 2014

China has adopted an exceptionally restrictive framework for the election of Hong Kong's chief executive in 2017 by decreeing that candidates for the top job must be pre-selected by Beijing, a move that effectively shuts out the democrats.

Beijing insists that the decision, which has disappointed many Hong Kongers, is aimed at safeguarding national security.

But a more likely reason is that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is losing confidence in itself, and fears that genuine democracy in the city would spark similar calls for universal suffrage in other parts of mainland China and unleash forces it cannot control.

When the CCP came to power 65 years ago in 1949, it enjoyed the full support of the people. However, its legitimacy is now constantly challenged as a result of widespread corruption.

A good indication of the CCP's worry about its grip on power is the amount of money spent in keeping the party in power: China currently spends more on maintaining internal security than on national defence.

It is also striking that President Xi Jinping constantly reminds the Chinese to have confidence in their own system despite the fact that China is already the second-strongest country in the world, economically.

Xi's remarks are perhaps a reflection of his worry that there is insufficient faith in the CCP's longevity. He has also given three major speeches on the need to guard against the kind of sudden collapse witnessed 25 years ago when the former Soviet Union broke up - an indication of how much this scenario worries him.

Given this lack of self-confidence, Beijing can hardly allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong. The demonstration effect of a free election would project deep into the mainland, causing serious repercussions for the CCP.

Fears of Hong Kong becoming a base of subversion against the mainland are deep-rooted for the CCP.

Historically, the city has performed this role twice: first, in the late 1890s when it was the base of a revolution that Dr Sun Yat Sen started to topple the Qing Dynasty; and second, between 1921 and 1949 when the CCP used Hong Kong for operations against the Nationalist government.

The tables were turned in more recent times, with Hong Kong becoming the site of massive demonstrations against the CCP.

During the 1989 Tiananmen crisis, a million Hong Kongers gathered to stage anti-Beijing protests. In 2003, half a million demonstrated against a Bill meant to safeguard China's national security.

These massive protests hardened Beijing's attitude towards the city. After the huge 2003 protest, a Chinese official sent to Hong Kong on a fact-finding mission said bluntly that if the city failed to enact the national security law, it will not get universal suffrage.

He confided to The Straits Times at that time that "there won't be universal suffrage for Hong Kong until Beijing is satisfied that one man one vote could return a candidate that loves China and Hong Kong".

This is the exact political criterion Beijing has now set for anyone who wants to be the Hong Kong chief executive, a clear sign that the current policy has its roots in the 2003 protests.

Former vice-premier Qian Qichen put it honestly when he said during his June 2002 visit to Hong Kong that the pace of democracy in the city cannot run too far ahead of that in the mainland. Otherwise, it could create intense pressure for the mainland.

This honest admission is more persuasive than whatever explanation Beijing has given to date.

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