Hong Kong's freedom affects us all
Nine years after the massacre of Chinese democrats in Tiananmen Square, I visited China as Leader of the Official Opposition in our Parliament. As is customary, we were met at the airport by a small group of officials, including several from the international liaison department of the Communist Party. Although most of my itinerary had been arranged in advance, our hosts nevertheless asked, “Is there anyone else you would especially like to see?” To which I replied, somewhat to the consternation of our embassy staff, “Yes, I would like to meet my equivalent, the leader of the official opposition in China."
After a brief huddle, one of the officials (whom I knew from a previous trip) replied: “We think that if there is such a person, he is probably in jail, or should be. But actually, the closest thing to you is Martin Lee in Hong Kong.” Mr. Lee was a founder and leader of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong and an elected member of the Hong Kong Legislative Council.
Flash forward 16 years – Hong Kong’s democrats and the territory’s Legislative Council are once more very much in the news, as opposition continues in the face of policies emanating from Communist authorities in Beijing.
The immediate issue is the manner whereby the territory’s next leader will be chosen in 2017. Democrats in Hong Kong want universal suffrage and the right to freely choose the chief executive. But a few weeks ago, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress rejected those demands, insisting that any candidate for the position of chief executive must first be approved by a nominating panel controlled by Beijing. In protest, leaders of the Hong Kong “Occupy Central” movement are preparing to blockade the city’s financial district.
Under the policy of “one country, two systems” adopted when Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, Hong Kong residents generally enjoy more regional autonomy and freedoms than their mainland counterparts. But the current controversy now pits the concept of “state-directed democracy” adopted by Beijing and other authoritarian regimes, against the “citizen-directed democracy” favoured by Hong Kong democrats and Western democracies.
Up to this point, under “one country, two systems,” Hong Kongers have also been allowed to enjoy property rights and economic freedoms not possessed by most mainland residents. But if its democracy is to be increasingly directed by the state, one wonders how long it will be before state-directed capitalism, the other main plank in Beijing’s ideological platform, prevails over Hong Kong’s market-driven capitalism.
As with the fate of citizen-directed democracy, the West also has a vested interest in whether market-driven capitalism will survive in Hong Kong and be able to coexist with Beijing’s state-directed version.
Whereas the Great Wall of China once kept China isolated and insulated from the rest of the world, it is now the Great Web of China, woven from the silken but strong-as-steel threads of trade and government-to-government relations, that extends China’s influence to dozens of countries from Asia to Africa, the Middle East and Latin America. In all these countries, China consistently offers state-directed capitalism and democracy as superior, stabler alternatives to the Western-style alternatives.
Whether the canary of political and economic freedom in Hong Kong survives and prospers or succumbs to the suffocating fumes of state control is an issue of importance to us all.
This column was published by the Globe and Mail on September 26, 2014