Perennial Issue

“Sometimes things could be right under your nose. The only problem is your eyes are above it.”  Doesn’t this old saw fit the turmoil for democratic space in next-door Hong Kong?

Local headlines rivet our attention on the Disbursement Acceleration Program. It’s the beginning of the end for President Aquino’s regime, chortle critics. It’s a bump on the road, rating firm Standard & Poor’s shrugs. The Philippines is on track to be the “next Asian miracle,” says World Bank president Jim Yong Kim.

These viewpoints smudge the fact that “the political future of Hong Kong hangs in the balance,” 17 years after Britain handed the colony to China, writes University of Hong Kong constitutional law professor Michael Davis. Will a free society emerge, as Deng Xiaoping assured in 1979? Or will Beijing rule it like the restive “autonomous regions” of Tibet or Xinjiang?

Squeezed in the middle are over 200,000 Filipinos. Many, even college graduates, work as domestics. The number of Filipino employees—new hires and rehires—crested at 131,680 last year. Their home remittances, through official channels, reached P1.8 million ($420,207).

Half a million Hong Kongers took to the island’s streets early this month. They backed an earlier informal vote, by 800,000 Hong Kongers, to elect the city’s next leader, New York Times reported. Such rights were pledged by the 1984 Joint Declaration signed by Britain and China.

“A nearly solid river of protesters, most of them young, poured out of Victoria Park into the evening, heading for the skyscraper-lined canyons of downtown Hong Kong, Asia’s top financial center.” There, hundreds staged two sit-ins past dawn. Police arrested 511 people.

Today’s demonstrators are younger than previous Hong Kong protesters. They’re computer savvy. Also, they’re leery of mainstream news media and disinterested in legal compromises. “We use activism to pressure the politicians,” a student explained.

The protesters demand “civil nomination.” That’s the term for allowing citizens to propose candidates who then get on the nominating committees’ list. No way, Beijing counters; it demands that selections be done under its eye. Beijing will vet candidates based on their “patriotism.” That’s shorthand for loyalty to the Communist Party.

This June, Beijing issued “a white paper” that claims ultimate authority over Hong Kong. That triggered local protests against the whittling down of the “high degree of autonomy” Hong Kong was promised in 1984. Davis notes in his study that Beijing claims it can interpret the Hong Kong miniconstitution as it sees fit. The territory’s autonomy, the white paper claims, derives “solely from the authorization of the central leadership.”

Hit the rewind button: Deng Xiaoping said in 1979 that the Basic Law met commitments made in the Joint Declaration. Hong Kong courts were free to interpret the Basic Law within Hong Kong’s autonomy. Foreign affairs, of course, remained within Beijing’s exclusive domain. And “universal suffrage” was to be implemented.

Not anymore. The white paper now refers to Hong Kong’s judges as “administrators.” It emphasizes that their primary role is “guarding national security.” This is the latest in the erosion of the Deng Xiaoping pledge.

The National People’s Congress Standing Committee effectively overturned a 1999 decision by Hong Kong’s highest court about local residency rights. So, what happened to Hong Kong’s “judicial independence”?

Later, Beijing made its approval a requirement for any reforms to the Legislative Council election process. And over the past decade a subservient Hong Kong government tried to ram through unpopular national security laws and policies on “patriotic education”—often derailed by Hong Kong street protests.

Beijing agreed in 2007 to allow universal suffrage to elect the chief executive in 2017. But last year, it insisted that candidates must “love China and love Hong Kong.” That’s Orwellian doublespeak—to exclude the democrats. “Thus, many locals feel they have no other choice but to take the cause of democracy to the streets,” Davis adds.

Come August, rallies plan to “shut down” central Hong Kong with sit-ins unless demands for universal suffrage are met. The “Occupy Central” group has organized an online poll.

“Shut down” probably overstates the potential impact of Occupy Central’s demonstrations. Major international banks and accounting firms, for example, tango to Beijing’s line. The street demos will “disrupt the city’s economy and threaten the peace.” Blue skies are not ahead for Hong Kong, states a Reuters report.

Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corp. (HSBC) and other banks yanked advertising from a newspaper critical of the mainland government. Standard Chartered pulled the advertising plug from the same prodemocracy newspaper. They cited “commercial considerations.”

Ernst & Young, Pricewaterhouse and Deloitte took out an ad warning that continued protests could force “multinational companies and investors” to move their regional center from Hong Kong. Now a bank is advising investors to sell stock in Hong Kong companies. HSBC revised its “Global Equity Insights Quarterly” that advised the selling of  Hong Kong stocks. “We reduce Hong Kong to underweight on concerns about negative news flow” on the demos. That was all analysts said in a report, which covers markets around the world. Reactions compelled an updated revision—with some beefed up reasons for its downgrade.

Hong Kong’s streets will play out the perennial issue. Freedom is good, but business is, well, business.

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