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Sieren's China

Frank Sieren / reJuly 1, 2014

Beijing doesn't want to grant free elections to Hong Kong, even though that was a condition when Great Britain transfered sovereignty to China in 1997. That's not very clever, says DW columnist Frank Sieren.

Hong Kong Skyline (Foto: picture-alliance/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

July 1 is the 17th anniversary of the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain to China. And the new rulers in Beijing should have a close look at how the people of Hong Kong celebrate this day. The majority won't be in the mood for a huge reunion party. It is more likely that several thousand people will march through the streets and protest against Beijing's policy. The protests have already been announced. The people are angry, not because of irreconcilable differences with Beijing, but because of Beijing's insensitive recent handling of the Special Administrative Region.

Success story: "one country, two systems"

That's a shame, since the reunion with Hong Kong has been considered a success story which no one in the West thought possible 17 years ago. Wealthy Hong Kong citizens even fled abroad shortly before the British returned the city-state to China. They feared that the booming city would collapse economically. But their fears have been unfounded. Hong Kong with its economy-friendly tax system and its clusters of well-established banks, auditors and lawyers has remained China's service center. Even more important: Beijing has kept the local laws, as promised. The currency and the freedom of expression have been more or less untouched. The strategy has been: one country, two systems.

One promise, however, has remained unfulfilled so far: it was agreed that the citizens of Hong Kong would be allowed to freely elect their local government for the first time in 2017. Under British rule, that wasn't possible for them. But as the deadline approaches, both sides are getting nervous. It seems that Beijing has another idea of free elections than the population of Hong Kong. The Communist Party plans to let the people of Hong Kong vote - but only wants to allow four candidates that are to be handpicked by Beijing.

Insensitive Beijing

A white paper published by the Chinese government at the beginning of June, has not shown that Beijing wants to change its course. On the contrary: the document has unnecessarily heated up the mood. The large degree of autonomy in Hong Kong is limited to the degree of autonomy which the central Chinese leadership allows, the paper states patronizingly. The citizens of Hong Kong have reacted by setting up a referendum for more democracy. By Sunday (29.06.2014), around 800,000 of the seven million citizens had participated. That's about 20 percent of the electorate. This is a surprising amount but not even half a majority of voters. If they want democracy, it should be done right. That should be the motto.

And therefore the decisive question is: if there was an official referendum, would the majority vote for more democracy? Or would they be afraid of the repercussions of teaching Beijing a lesson?

Frank Sieren (Foto: Frank Sieren)
DW columnist Frank SierenImage: Frank Sieren

That is not yet decided. Which direction the people of Hong Kong lean depends on Beijing's sensitivity. Declaring the self-organized referendum illegal even before the results have been announced wasn't very clever. And it isn't a sign of modern conflict management that the state-run Chinese daily "Global Times" has called the referendum an “illegal farce.” But in contrast to the government, they can at least say that as a newspaper, modern conflict management is not their job. Their job is to represent a controversial opinion. And that's what they've done.

In Beijing, they think more about what allowing more democracy in Hong Kong means for China. It is highly unlikely that the party's power in the entire country is endangered when the people in Hong Kong are allowed to freely elect their chief executive. Every freely elected politician in Hong Kong knows of Hong Kong's dependence from China. For example, without interfering in Hong Kong's sovereignty, Beijing can limit the number of Hong Kong visa for mainland Chinese and increase the obstacles for an entry to the People's Republic. It doesn't take more to make Hong Kong struggle.

Hong Kong should remain a progressive test lab

Therefore, Beijing could be far more relaxed than it is at the moment. Every child in China learns about "one country, two systems" in middle school already. The people on the mainland know that the newspapers in Hong Kong are not censored and that there is a different legal system. Nevertheless, they haven't cried "we want that, too" yet. And they won't do that in the future, either, even if Hong Kong receives another privilege in free elections. And so Hong Kong should remain what it has been in the past and why the reformer Deng Xiaoping has considered it as important: a progressive development center for new trends in China and a model for Taiwan.

For the first time in decades of political silence, there is a real approach between the two Chinas. Only last week, China's Taiwan Affairs Minister Zhang Zhijun traveled to the island. It is the most senior visit from a Chinese politician since the national Chinese government fled from the victorious Communists in 1949. Taiwan, which is a now a nearly functioning democracy and still calls itself Republic of China, is not recognized as a sovereign state by the mainland. But it is good news that politicians from both sides, who have been strongly opposing each other, have made up their mind to agree to a closer contact. This truly is another clear indication for what's happening next: the two Chinas will grow closer together. China's insensitive approach in Hong Kong, however, is providing Taiwan's opposition new arguments.

Our correspondent Frank Sieren is considered one of the leading German experts on China. He has lived in Beijing for the past 20 years.