Over the years, growing antagonism between the mainland and Hong Kong has greatly polarized the city-state's indigenous political balance and society. Cultural clashes and concerns about mainland China's economic influx straining Hong Kong's already limited space and resources have promoted a strong desire to preserve the city-state's political autonomy, democratic values and resources. Hong Kong's growing struggle to keep its competitive edge, lower its widening wealth gap and stop rising property prices in the face of what is characterized as the mainland's mismanagement has also increased anti-mainland sentiment.
The exacerbated tensions between Hong Kong and Beijing culminated in a series of demonstrations July 1, the 17th anniversary of the city-state's return to mainland rule. Approximately 100,000-200,000 people participated in the annual demonstration (opposition parties estimated the number of participants at 500,000). As in previous years, the demonstration, reflecting the city-state's moderate protest culture, was a venue for expression rather than an event focused on a central theme. However, tense public debates and relations with Beijing led to a broad campaign on universal suffrage and full democracy and demands for Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong's chief executive, to resign. A sit-in of approximately 3,000 students in the key business district and outside the chief executive's office followed the demonstration. The sit-in drew a heavy police presence.
The student groups apparently intended these actions as a rehearsal for the Occupy Central movement, a proposed civil disobedience protest led by three pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong's busiest central district. So far, concerns that the Occupy movement could turn violent have led the majority of the public and mainstream Occupy leaders to distance themselves from the campaigns. The main Occupy leaders have emphasized their nonviolent approach and desire for dialogue with Beijing before the central government makes a formal decision, expected in August, on how Hong Kong elects its chief executive. Nonetheless, concerns are growing that the more radical segments of the pro-democracy movement and society have momentum and could depart from the nonviolent approach to promote their political agenda.
Growing Signs of Political Radicalism
A collection of groups — the Alliance for True Democracy, the People Power group and student groups Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students — have put forward proposals in an unofficial public referendum. All proposals emphasized the public's right to nominate candidates. Notably, the near unconditional public nomination of chief executive candidates proposed by student groups earned 38 percent of the popular vote. The proposal was second only to a more moderate proposal, suggested by the Alliance for True Democracy, in which the public, a nominating committee and political parties would name candidates under a three-track model. Despite the loss in the public referendum, student groups gained open support from dozens of civil associations and scholars. Even external collaboration with Taiwanese student protesters and the pro-independence party in Taiwan has been reported.
Many groups have also demonstrated a growing desire to use protest tactics. Instances of violence, albeit rare, have occurred in recent months during political campaigns. On June 13, hundreds protesting a development plan in the northeastern part of the New Territories, which makes up most of Hong Kong's territory, blocked and attacked the Legislative Council building. Pro-independence activists also repeatedly blocked the People's Liberation Army Hong Kong garrison.
More notably, within the pro-democracy movements, the differences over the 2017 election and methods of resistance appear to have exposed fragmentation within the movements. Some, including the veteran Democratic Party, are threatening to invalidate the alliance's moderate proposals and embrace a hard-line tactic, including a call for independent Occupy movements as soon as late July. That student groups and some radical elements in the pro-democracy movement are aiming to use demonstrations and Occupy movement tactics could raise the potential for disruptive events in the city-state best known for its business-friendly and peaceful environment.
Beijing's Hard Line
Despite the Hong Kong general public's declining opinion of the mainland, there is little ground for real secession from China. However, the public's antagonism apparently exacerbated Beijing's belief that the demand for unrestrained political autonomy and an unfettered election in 2017 would lead only to further disobedience and hostility. Meanwhile, Beijing has exercised extreme caution over external forces' perceived intent to exploit the pro-democracy movements and student groups. Indeed, opposition groups' search for external support — including their latest meetings with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russell as well as contacts with dissident groups from the mainland and Taiwan — is raising Beijing's concern about political unrest or even a "color revolution" on its doorstep.
This has led Beijing to publish a white paper reinforcing its authority over Hong Kong and emphasizing that Hong Kong's autonomy is based on Beijing's "complete jurisdiction." Beijing politicians even warned that the People's Liberation Army could be brought in if the protest movement gets out of hand. However, the tough rhetoric and effort to reassert authority over Hong Kong only deepened suspicion among Hong Kong's population.
Narrowing Room for Negotiation
Beijing has made it clear that it will not tolerate a chief executive resistant to mainland rule and the Communist Party. As long as demand for independence does not gain wider support in Hong Kong, compromise over the nomination procedure or the composition of the nominating committee can still be achieved. Nonetheless, the growing antagonism cannot be mitigated without broader adjustment of Beijing's strategies, which rely heavily on closer economic and cultural connections with Hong Kong. This has only deprived Hong Kong of its distinctiveness and alienated the city-state from the mainland.
Unlike China, Hong Kong's past decades of competitiveness and prosperity relied on its vibrant and economically oriented civil society, with a tradition of accommodating foreign trade and capitalism. If this distinctiveness is to be replaced by growing similarities to mainland cities and rising political radicalization, it is only a matter of time before Hong Kong's competitive edge erodes further. Already, international audit firms and investment banks have warned that violence could scare investors away from Hong Kong.
Perhaps more critically to Beijing, China had long hoped that the one country, two systems concept could demonstrate Beijing's tolerance for alternatives to communism, laying the groundwork for improved ties with Taiwan and, potentially, a cross-strait reunification. Any alternative to a peaceful transition or complete withdrawal of political autonomy will only further distance Hong Kong, and seriously undermine Beijing's hopes for a cross-strait unification.