Chinese officials have called it a “leap forward” for democracy in Hong Kong. Yet their announcement on August 31st of plans to allow, for the first time, every Hong Kong citizen to vote for the territory’s leader has met only anger and indifference. Joy was conspicuously absent. This is not because Hong Kong’s citizens care little for the right to vote, but because China has made it abundantly clear that the next election for Hong Kong’s chief executive, due in 2017, will be rigged. The only candidates allowed to stand will be those approved by the Communist Party in Beijing, half a continent away. At its worst, this risks provoking a disaster which even China cannot want. Democrats are planning protests. It is unclear how many people will join in, but the fear is that the territory’s long history of peaceful campaigning for political reform will give way to skirmishes with police, mass arrests and possibly even intervention by the People’s Liberation Army. That would disrupt one of Asia’s wealthiest and most orderly economies, and set China against the West. But even if, as is likely, such a calamity is avoided, this leap sideways is a huge missed opportunity not just for Hong Kong but also for the mainland. A chance to experiment with the sort of local democracy that might have benefited all of China has been missed.
China’s announcement marks the end of an era. No longer is it possible to argue that the development of democracy in Hong Kong can forge ahead even in the absence of political reform in Beijing (see article). The arrangements, set out by China’s party-controlled parliament, the National People’s Congress, were needed because of a pledge to grant the territory a “high degree of autonomy” and eventually “universal suffrage” when it took over from Britain in 1997. To most people, that meant having the right to choose their leader themselves.
China has stuck to the letter of its promise, but not the spirit. In 2012 the chief executive was appointed by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with the party’s yes-men from among Hong Kong’s business and political elite. The proposal for 2017 is that a similar committee will select candidates who will then be presented to all Hong Kong’s voters for election. In theory the committee could allow through candidates of many political stripes. In practice, pessimism is more than justified. Only two or three candidates will be allowed, and each must win the support of at least half of the committee. Under this arrangement, democracy will mean little more in Hong Kong than it does elsewhere in China, where every adult citizen can vote for local legislators—as long as the party approves.