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Explosive mixture

Frank Sieren/ jp
October 6, 2014

The fight for free elections in Hong Kong has not been won - it has merely been postponed, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

A pro-democracy protester acts as a lookout. (Photo: ED JONES/AFP/Getty Images)
Image: Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

The state gave up first. In the middle of last week, most of the police forces were withdrawn after firing tear gas at student protesters. Now the students are also retreating. A few hundred of them have stayed put and might possibly succeed in galvanizing tens of thousands once again. But not even mass protests are enough to alter the balance of power.

Beijing will retain its influence in Hong Kong, which is not only part of China, but unable to survive without it. The prosperity of Hong Kong depends on which Hong Kong visas for mainland Chinese and mainland China visas for residents of Hongkong Beijing approves. The protesting students should not let this be forgotten amid their understandable euphoria.

At the same time, Beijing's hold on Hong Kong is also the main reason why the country's leadership could afford to be a bit more generous about free elections. Even if candidates who had not been handpicked by Beijing were to stand for election in Hong Kong and even if a candidate critical of Beijng won, Beijing would still be calling the shots. Why won't it risk a little more democracy?

The main argument for a democratic Hong Kong is Taiwan. "One country, three systems" – the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan – is one of Beijing's top priorities. Recent years have seen Beijing and Taipei City edge closer and closer together. But right now, this advantage is being wasted. The Taiwanese are more skeptical than ever. Without public support, Taiwan's politicians cannot continue courting the mainland.

Frank Sieren. (Photo: Frank Sieren)
Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

If Deng Xiaoping, China's godfather of economic reform, were still alive, he would probably be more adventurous than the country's current leadership. A country encompassing several systems was, after all, his idea. Deng would have declared Hong Kong a special democratic zone where China could experiment with democracy, just as he made Shenzhen, the city adjacent to Hong Kong, the first Special Economic Zone in 1980. At the time, shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution, the communist leader's move shocked the party and was seen as high-risk, effectively opening the country up to capitalism.

Today, Beijng's hardliners argue that any fire that threatens to spiral out of control must be put out immediately. This, however, is no longer a workable strategy. Hong Kong is too far down the road. Even the British colonial rulers should have introduced more democracy. Now Hong Kong's middle class is chomping at the bit, and will continue to do so.

But the student protests also have a more banal background - the one-dimensional structure of the city. The economy and rampant consumerism are not standing in the way of Hong Kong being world-class so much as its lack of subculture. It needs more artists and a student district which can evolve and flower. Hong Kong needs to be more like Berlin. But this is not something that Beijing can grasp. Subculture is hardly its strong point, nor is it Leung Chun-ying's, the property tycoon and surveyor who serves as Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Even though normality has now more or less returned to Hong Kong, the stubbornness of the leadership in Beijing and the naiveté of the Hong Kong protesters are still in a stand-off. Many of the young demonstrators take their affluence for granted and forget where it comes from. Hong Kong has the freest universities in China because the prosperous city can afford to maintain the educational traditions introduced by the British colonial powers.

Hong Kong is wealthy because it is the gateway to China. That this has been forgotten is reflected in the arrogance many Hong Kong residents show mainland Chinese, which is worse even than the West Germans' snobbery about East Germans in the 1990s. This attitude should not be tolerated any more than the rude and often uncouth behavior of many mainland Chinese who visit Hong Kong to spend their variously-gotten gains. But the people of Hong Kong should remember to treat the mainland Chinese as guests or at least customers, since they contribute to the city's wealth.

This doesn't mean that Hong Kong should bend over backwards in gratitude to Beijing. In recent years it has fought some significant and constructive battles. Beijing's attempt to introduce compulsory “patriotic education” classes in Hong Kong schools, for example, was thwarted by protests in the city that were considered and moderate.

With the recent mass demonstrations, Hong Kong's students have now challenged the system, but when they call for more democracy, they would do well to remember that even when hundreds of thousands of protesters take to the streets, they still represent a minority in a city with a population of 6 million - even if they are a minority with broad public support. The leader of the protest movement, for one, should pause to ask himself a few key questions. Is there majority support in Hong Kong for free elections? Probably. Is 17-year-old Joshua Wong capable of attracting majority support? Probably not. Do the majority of Hong Kong voters want lasting strife with Beijing? Probably not.

Amid all their excitement at the demonstrators' overnight vigil on the streets in downtown Hong Kong; the selfies; the sense of community in this notorious eat-or-be-eaten society; the understandable delight in having made history, the students should not forget that they are playing a dangerous game. Today they showed that they are responsible young people. Hopefully they will remain levelheaded and not gamble with the future of Hong Kong, the freeest part of China. And hopefully, Beijing will start to understand that a more democratic Hong Kong will ultimately benefit China.

DW correspondent Frank Sieren is a bestselling writer ("Geldmacht China") and one of Germany‘s leading experts on China. He has lived in Beijing for 20 years.

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