Is Hong Kong protests just about democracy?

The tension in Hong Kong has escalated and sparked a city-wide lock-down forcing the Hong Kong Police to use tear-gas to control the protests and bringing the Asian financial hub to a stand-still. The protests even spread to a number of global cities such as Melbourne, with Hong Kong students protesting outside the State Library supporting their comrades back home.

The question that needs answering is what the Occupy Central protests are actually about. Is it just about achieving democracy as discussed in the media? The fact is it is not as binary as it seems.

After the handover of Hong Kong, the position of Chief Executive replaced the Governor of Hong Kong. In fact is since the handover, the government of Hong Kong was seen by many analysts and commentators as illegitimate because the Chief Executive was not fully democratically elected by the people of Hong Kong and is seen as controlled by the Chinese government.

The Chief Executive since 1997 until now is elected by an election committee made of representatives of the community (divided into sectors). The number of representatives varied between each election since 1997 and in the last election was over 1000 people.

In 2007, the Chinese government promised universal suffrage for the position of Chief Executive to be implemented by 2017. This means every citizen is allowed one vote to elect the Chief Executive in Hong Kong for the first time in the island’s history. The tension behind Hong Kong is due to a decision by Beijing that the candidate selection pool of three will be chosen initially by the 1200 people election committee.

The issue people have is that the election committee is perceived as pro-Beijing and hence the perception that under this system, it is not a ‘full democracy’.

Interestingly, under British rule, Hong Kong never had the opportunity to elect their own Governor, a position appointed by the British Monarch. The discussion about universal suffrage is in fact a big step for Hong Kong’s democracy as it begun a process to explore the opportunity to allow the people of Hong Kong to have a say in selecting the Chief Executive.

In other functioning democracies such as Australia, our Governor General and Head of State is appointed by the Queen with advice from the Prime Minister of Australia, and is an accepted democratic state and arguably one of the best in the world.

So what is the real issue in Hong Kong?

The real issue in Hong Kong is not democracy but the lack of trust in the Chinese government. Under British rule, there were successive Governors of Hong Kong who had the vision to build Hong Kong to becoming one of the most innovative cities and successful financial hubs in Asia and the world.

The real problem is that the people of Hong Kong are exposed to mostly negative news of China’s rule in the mass media. These media reports constantly focus on the reduced standard of living, lack of transparency, increased intensity of social issues, inequality, misconducts of officials and more. China is constantly blamed by the mass media all over the world for the negative impact it has made to the society in Hong Kong. What is less frequently discussed is that all these issues are affecting every country globally including flourishing democracies like Australia.

Additionally, there has always been discrimination in Hong Kong towards people from mainland China with a feeling of superiority under British rule, adding to the negative perception and fear.

Understandably, there are reasons for concern, and there are many areas that need urgent attention, and some are vital for Hong Kong to remain as a special administrative region with elected representatives. However, unless Hong Kong becomes an independent country, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong will need to be appointed and approved by Beijing. This is no different from former Governors of Hong Kong who have always been appointed by London.

On the other hand, there are reasons to be optimistic too. China’s acceptance of the universal suffrage discussion suggests that they are keen to experiment with democracy. This could be a good opportunity to test the current system and continue to make incremental improvements to a democratic system under Chinese rule.