On July 1, the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China, more than 500,000 people held large-scale pro-democracy demonstration in support of universal suffrage and political development in the city. This was the biggest street demonstration in Hong Kong’s history.
The scale of the protests reflects local residents’ anger and frustration at Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s democratic development. As a Special Administrative Region of China, Hong Kong retains “a high degree of autonomy” with its own executive, legislature, and judiciary system under a “one country, two systems” framework. However, in early June, the Chinese government issued a strongly-worded “white paper,” asserting that Hong Kong does not have “full autonomy” and the ultimate power over the city lay with the Beijing authority. A few months earlier, the central government also stressed that the election of the next chief executive in 2017 only allows candidates who “love China,” although it promised Hong Kong could vote for their own leader by universal suffrage in 2017.
The local pro-democracy activists regard Beijing’s instructions as a violation of “one country, two systems.” They organized Occupy Central protest group and held an unofficial city-wide referendum from June 22 to 29. A total of 798,000 Hong Kong residents—more than a fifth of the city’s electorate—had voted in this “civil nomination”. This vote, however, had been dismissed by Beijing as “illegal and invalid.” A state-run newspaper, Global Times, even published an editorial, urging that Hong Kong people not be “kidnapped” by the radical opposition.
The roots of political tension between Hong Kong and Beijing lie in the local people’s deep distrust toward China’s communist government. In an article published in Financial Times (Chinese version) on July 1, I argued that Beijing’s original goal was to establish a de-politicized, elitist-ruled governance in Hong Kong (for a Google translated version of the article, see here). However, the 1989 Tiananmen incident led to the emergence of party politics in the city and significantly changed the direction of history. In particular, the pro-democracy party arose and quickly gained wide popular support. They are less interested in legal compromises with the central authority and demand full democratic reforms, which clearly come into conflict with Beijing’s political stance. This ultimately pushes Beijing to tighten its control over Hong Kong’s political development.