No place for pan-democrats in today's Hong Kong

Political analyst Wang Qingmin notes that given the near-total power of the Chinese government over Hong Kong, perhaps Beijing can afford to show more tolerance towards the people and government of Hong Kong. This might actually encourage the moderate pan-democrats who love Hong Kong to contribute, which would also benefit mainland China.
People wave the flags of Hong Kong and China on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade in Hong Kong on 1 July 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
People wave the flags of Hong Kong and China on the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront promenade in Hong Kong on 1 July 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

The nomination period for the Hong Kong district council elections ended on 30 October. But all opposition parties, including the Democratic Party, the city’s largest pro-democracy party, failed to register any nominees for the upcoming elections. This means that all seats in the district council have been taken in advance by the pro-establishment camp, clearly proving that Hong Kong has basically lost its political diversity. 

The current political environment in Hong Kong is indeed concerning. Here, I will briefly review the history of Hong Kong’s political changes and offer some suggestions pertinent to the situation.

Brief history

In 1841, Hong Kong came under British colonial rule. The colonial era saw significant development and prosperity despite the oppression and exploitation of the city and its inhabitants.

Over the course of more than a century, apart from achieving stellar economic achievements and the flourishing of ideas and culture, Hong Kong’s political developments — such as the institutionalisation of the rule of law, political participation, representative government, and freedom of expression and the press — broke new ground and developed even as they underwent some unexpected detours. 

In the past, former Hong Kong governor Sir Mark Young proposed the Young Plan — a post-WWII constitutional reform proposal attempting to introduce representative democracy in colonial Hong Kong which was partially implemented. Later on, the last Hong Kong governor Chris Patten rolled out controversial policies to quicken the pace of democracy. Regardless of their intentions, the city’s democratic politics made some progress.

Hong Kong’s sustained prosperity is not solely due to its business-friendly policies — its rule of law and liberal democracy (albeit limited) are in fact what give the Pearl of the Orient its shine.

Protesters inside the chamber of the Hong Kong Legislative Council complex in Hong Kong on 1 July 2019, on its anniversary of its handover to Beijing. (SPH Media)
Protesters inside the chamber of the Hong Kong Legislative Council complex in Hong Kong on 1 July 2019, on its anniversary of its handover to Beijing. (SPH Media)

Following Sino-British negotiations and the handover of Hong Kong, Hong Kong retained much of its rule of law and democratic system from the British colonial period under the framework of the Chinese constitution and Hong Kong's Basic Law. This was further enhanced and developed through the joint efforts of the pro-establishment and pan-democratic camps. 

Hong Kong’s sustained prosperity is not solely due to its business-friendly policies — its rule of law and liberal democracy (albeit limited) are in fact what give the Pearl of the Orient its shine. More importantly, the city's economic prosperity can be shared with its people thanks to Hong Kong's democratic politics, active civic life, and freedom of the press and expression.

The Hong Kong system

Hong Kong was already relatively prosperous after WWII, but corruption was rampant; the upper echelons profiteered while the common people suffered. Apart from political factors, the turmoil that the city experienced in the 1960s was fundamentally due to the people’s dissatisfaction with the British colonial administration’s disregard for people’s rights and livelihood. 

Subsequently, Hong Kong became more peaceful and harmonious due to the strengthening of the rule of law and the development of liberal democracy, which gave Hong Kongers more peaceful, reasonable and smoother channels to express and fulfil their demands.

Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy is controllable — it is impossible for the system itself to spin out of control.

Pedestrians walk across a main road in Hong Kong on 20 July 2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
Pedestrians walk across a main road in Hong Kong on 20 July 2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

After the handover, although Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy brought about some problems and side effects, its flaws do not detract from the overall value of the system. This is not only the opinion of the democrats but also a viewpoint long held by the mainland’s central government, the Hong Kong government and the pro-establishment camp.

Besides, with the Basic Law and other institutional measures in place, such as the existence of functional constituencies in the Legislative Council, it is clear that Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy is controllable — it is impossible for the system itself to spin out of control.

Violence and protests

However, the anti-extradition bill protests that occurred in 2019-2020, how it had unfolded and lost its original intention, as well as the violence and the talks of “Hong Kong independence” and racial discrimination that ensued, were indeed distressing and regrettable. Back then, I had also criticised the situation. 

However, the opinions of different parties show that complicated factors led to the tensions, which should not be simply condemned without careful consideration. Even if they must be criticised, they must be taken separately and treated differently from other pan-democrats who oppose violence and love the country and Hong Kong.

... the majority of pan-democrats have maintained their patriotic and democratic stance for decades.

A protester throws a molotov cocktail at the Hong Kong police in a bid to slow down their advancement at Wan Chai, Hong Kong on 29 September 2019. (SPH Media)
A protester throws a molotov cocktail at the Hong Kong police in a bid to slow down their advancement at Wan Chai, Hong Kong, on 29 September 2019. (SPH Media)

Since mid-2020, through the enactment of the national security law and other measures, China’s central government, the Hong Kong government and other authoritative organisations not only successfully quelled the protests and cracked down on those who advocated “Hong Kong independence” and resorted to violence, they also virtually wiped out the power and influence of Hong Kong’s pan-Democrats along the way. This not only surprised me, but many others as well.

I also find this heartbreaking and regrettable. While there is indeed a minority of pan-democrats who advocate “Hong Kong independence” or who have participated in violent and other unlawful activities, the majority of pan-democrats have maintained their patriotic and democratic stance for decades. They have expressed love for the country and Hong Kong, and contributed greatly to China’s national development, the well-being of Hong Kongers and the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. 

... since 2020, these pan-democrats are either in prison or have left Hong Kong...

Contributions of pan-democrats

They were involved in the Sino-British negotiations over the handover of Hong Kong, the drafting of the Basic Law, the political reforms in the special administrative region after the handover, and various policies related to people’s livelihoods. 

The pan-democrats have also made outstanding contributions to events such as the Beijing Olympics, the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands movement, and in condemning Japanese war crimes. These demonstrate their passionate love for the country and people.   

And since 2020, these pan-democrats are either in prison or have left Hong Kong; the influence of pan-democratic political groups and related civic organisations is virtually gone. The current situation is indeed saddening. Even if they made some mistakes or even committed crimes, they should not be overly mistreated. Their punishment should be moderate and restrained, taking into account their past contributions.

People walk past a banner for the national security law in Hong Kong on 15 July 2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)
People walk past a banner for the national security law in Hong Kong on 15 July 2020. (Anthony Wallace/AFP)

But based on the current situation, China’s central government and the Hong Kong government are not going easy on them, but hope to completely remove their influence instead.

The electoral overhaul of the upcoming district council and the drastic reduction of the number of directly elected council seats is a case in point; the 2021 Hong Kong legislative election, which was long revamped and saw the pan-democratic camp’s handful of candidates in the primaries being wiped out in the end, is a painful precedent. All this proves that the Hong Kong government no longer tolerates the existence of the pan-democratic camp in politics, and is silently allowing the pro-establishment camp to take full control.

Although Hong Kong’s rule of law ranking and the quality of its civil service are still among the top in the world, it is difficult to be optimistic about how long such high standards can be maintained without the supervision and guarantee of a certain degree of freedom and democracy.    

An unsavoury situation

This situation is worrying as the government’s ability to communicate with the public and the effectiveness of the Hong Kong government have been called into question due to the lack of diverse voices. This is in fact the inevitable homogenisation of politics and public opinion.   

Lack of dissent easily leads to dictatorship; lack of competition affects efficiency; and lack of good advice, regardless of how unpalatable they may sound, breeds various evils behind prosperity. 

Although Hong Kong’s rule of law ranking and the quality of its civil service are still among the top in the world, it is difficult to be optimistic about how long such high standards can be maintained without the supervision and guarantee of a certain degree of freedom and democracy.    

People walk along a promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on 31 August 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)
People walk along a promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong on 31 August 2023. (Isaac Lawrence/AFP)

The central and Hong Kong governments now have an iron grip on Hong Kong. Even if it loosens a little, the country’s and government’s control over Hong Kong will not be affected. Under such circumstances, it would not hurt if the central and Hong Kong governments can show goodwill, leave some breathing room and be more accepting of the moderate pan-democrats who love the country and Hong Kong. Such pan-democrats could well be a useful force in monitoring the government and the pro-establishment camp.

Besides, history is ever changing and no man or force can remain unshaken forever. Kindness begets kindness: “Don’t burn bridges.”

Back in the day, Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had an admirable attitude towards Hong Kong.

Moderation and a lighter touch

When it comes to political concepts, laws, stances, conscience, morals and human nature, be it the pro-establishment camp or the pan-democrats, whether Hong Kongers or mainlanders, Chinese people with different values and positions should not go overboard with their actions. Politicians should all the more follow the golden mean and have a heart of kindness and forgiveness. 

In this way, families, people, society, politics and the world will be harmonious, and the city and country will enjoy lasting peace and security. Back in the day, Chinese leaders such as Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao had an admirable attitude towards Hong Kong.

This photo taken on 13 September 2023 shows surveillance cameras (left) as people walk along the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. (Peter Parks/AFP)
This photo taken on 13 September 2023 shows surveillance cameras (left) as people walk along the Kowloon side of Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. (Peter Parks/AFP)

I hope that Hong Kong society and the central government will look back on the magnanimity and foresight of their predecessors when they dealt with Hong Kong-related issues, and be more tolerant and friendly towards the pan-democrats and other civic forces who do not have ill-intentions, are well disposed and love the motherland and Hong Kong, given the absolute political superiority they now wield.

This will alleviate the current oppressed political environment in Hong Kong, and effect small but meaningful and significant changes for the long-term prosperity and enduring peace of Hong Kong, the Chinese mainland and the nation.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “香港政体与环境应有多一些包容”.

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