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Impact of Hong Kong Vote

Sep. 6, 2016

People in Hong Kong know better than anyone else that a new political reality is emerging with the results of Sunday's election.

The opposition not only retained the one-third minority they needed to veto important bills, they were also able to gain additional seats.

One local newspaper said that voters had signaled a strong demand for political change. Another suggested that young bloods gave the veterans a pasting.

Among the new legislators are so-called "localists," who favor independence from China. They won seats for the first time, and Beijing reacted quickly.

The State Council's Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office warned that "a push for independence poses a threat to the country's sovereignty and security" and that "it would hurt Hong Kong's prosperity and stability."


From Colony to 'One Country, 2 Systems'

Hong Kong's origins as a British colony began in 1842. The arrangement came from the Nanjing Treaty, which followed Britain's aggression against the Qing Dynasty in the Opium War. Being a port free of tariffs allowed it to become one of the world's leading economic centers.

During World War Two, Hong Kong came under Japanese occupation. After the conflict ended, Britain retook control. Hong Kong became home to thousands fleeing China's civil war and the Cultural Revolution. Its economy flourished under free-market principles.

Negotiations for Hong Kong's complete return to China began in 1982. The end of a 99-year lease established in 1898 was drawing near.

After 2 years of talks, British officials agreed to the handover. China agreed to maintain a "one country, 2 systems" framework for 50 years. This was meant to preserve the capitalist economy and rights established under the UK, including freedom of speech, the press, and assembly.

On July 1, 1997, 150-years of British rule came to an end. Hong Kong was returned to China.

"The Chinese government will firmly maintain the one country, 2 systems framework after Hong Kong's reversion to China," Chinese President Jiang Zemin said at the time.

However, friction has continued to rattle the territory. In 2003, Hong Kong authorities drew up a draft bill to regulate subversive activity against the Chinese government, setting off protests. The public opposition forced authorities to scrap the bill.

Hong Kong's economic ties to the mainland have continued to grow stronger. Amid China's rapid economic rise, massive amounts of Chinese funds have flowed into the territory, boosting its economy.

In 2014, Hong Kong was rocked by the "umbrella revolution." Demonstrators demanded a democratic process to elect Hong Kong's chief executive. Authorities, however, refused to retract their controversial plans to restrict candidates for the post. This time, the protesters failed to get the changes they rallied for.

There is growing anxiety among people in Hong Kong that their high-degree of autonomy under the one-country, two-systems agreement is no longer guaranteed.


Pro-democracy Advocate Speaks Out

What are the challenges this territory faces now? I interviewed a key figure in Hong Kong politics who has witnessed developments since the days of British rule.

Anson Chan served as Hong Kong's Chief Secretary, the territory's second-highest post, for several years before and after the territory's handover. Later, she went on to serve as a member of the Legislative Council. She now works for a think tank and is known as a vocal advocate of democracy.

Sho Beppu: Why were you worried that one point that you might not be able to retain the one-third minority?

Anson Chan: Because this year more than ever, we face a very formidable election machinery from the pro-Beijing camp. They have unlimited resources. On the pan-democratic side, their resources are extremely stretched. So all we can rely on at the end of the day, is the wisdom and vision of the ordinary voters, and I think this time we can be very, very proud of Hong Kong people.

Beppu: In addition to pan-democrats, new young law makers were able to secure their seats in the legislature -- those are the localists who are even calling independence. How do you see new move?

Chan: It is a very, very small voice. The government has deliberately stopped the fire in terms of the movement for independence. But if you ask anybody in Hong Kong, they will tell you there is only a small number who are advocating independence. Because Hong Kong people are very pragmatic, they know that independence is not a viable option. But what they do want to see is to be able to maintain our lifestyle, our culture, our core values, and for Beijing and the SAR government to implement faithfully "one country 2 systems."

Beppu: What do you think is behind this new idea?

Chan: The immediate trigger is clearly the lack of progress in implementing genuine universal suffrage. But underlying this is a growing sense of anger, of frustration and disaffection with the current government. Because we have a chief executive who does not share our core values, who does not help us defend “one country, 2 systems”. We have seen increasingly blatant interference from the Liaison Office, which represents the central government in Hong Kong.

But under our Basic Law, which is our mini-constitution, they have no role to play in the internal administration of Hong Kong. That is strictly within the purview of the SAR government, because we're supposed to have a high degree of autonomy, Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. And yet, everyday, you see the Liaison Office speaking out, telling us what to do and not to do. And Hong Kong people do not like this.

Beppu: We know that you played a very important rule in the handover in 1997. Did you anticipate at that time that the people of Hong Kong will have this kind political will almost 20 years later?

Chan: No, I think certainly if you had asked me on the eve of the handover whether I anticipated Hong Kong being what it is today, I would say definitely “no,” because in the 4 years that I remained chief secretary after the handover, Beijing was absolutely honoring its promises to the people of Hong Kong. They left Hong Kong people completely alone, there was absolutely no interference.

But particularly under the current chief executive CY Leung, we have seen a steady erosion of the rule of law, our core values, even our very good reputation of being squeaky clean, because you may have read about the recent staff upheaval in the ICAC. And we seriously are concerned about whether our anti-corruption organization can continue to maintain its independence. So I certainly did not envisage that things would deteriorate to such an extent. And this divided society, this lack of regard for the promises laid down in the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, that is what adds to people’s frustration.

But of course on top of that, young people face a very, very bleak future. Competition is keen, jobs are not so easy to come by. But particularly in terms of, for example, wanting to own your own accommodation, property prices in Hong Kong are sky high. So no matter how hard you work, how hard you save, young people just don’t feel they will ever be in a position to own their own property. Now you can say that some of these problems are not unique to Hong Kong. That’s true. Young people elsewhere are also experiencing this. But young people elsewhere are not seeing a steady erosion of their lifestyle, of their culture and their core values.

Beppu: But you're not saying that Hong Kong should have stayed as a British colony forever?

Chan: No, I think most Hong Kong people accept the return of sovereignty to China. They share Chinese achievements, but in recent years we also see for ourselves what is happening in the mainland -- the increasing repression against the press, against dissidents, even rounding up human rights lawyers. We see endemic corruption although Xi Jinping is trying to do something about it. And Hong Kong people have not been raised in that sort of culture. We want to keep what is good about Hong Kong, and that is respect for the rule of law, respect for human dignity, basic right and freedoms, but equally important freedom of the press, freedom of information, freedom of assembly, etcetera.

Beppu: How do you think Beijing would be watching the results of yesterday? Do you think they are quite nervous?

Chan: I hope the election results will send a very clear message to Beijing and also to our chief executives.

Beppu: And finally, what is for you an ideal relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland?

Chan: I think the ideal situation is for Beijing to stop interfering, to trust the people of Hong Kong, to trust their good sense, their pragmatism. Most Hong Kong people love our country. We share in our country's achievements. But we also want to see our country becoming strong, not just in economic terms or military might, but in terms of how it treats its ordinary people. So if you want to stop this voice for independence, it's very easy. You just revert back to "one country 2 systems."

China's assertive policies are becoming a major issue in many elections in this part of the world. I've seen that this January in Taiwan, where many voters were affirming their Taiwanese identity. I've seen that this May in the Philippines, where candidates were repeatedly asked about their country's territorial dispute with China. And now in Hong Kong -- here as well, many voters expressed their opposition to China's growing political influence.

But what next? It is certainly not ideal that tensions between the pro- and anti-Beijing camps spread all around Asia. That is why the new lawmakers in Hong Kong have a big responsibility. If they can find a way to overcome their polarized politics, that would definitely be a valuable lesson for other parts of the region.