Report: The Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Movement's Perils and Potential

Dennis Kwok at a political rally. Photo Credit: Voa News.

Hong Kong Legislative Council Member and representative of the legal profession, Dennis Kwok, visited Georgetown University on December 9th to update the student body about the present condition of the pro-democracy movement in the semi-autonomous region. Kwok last visited Georgetown in April of 2019, just weeks before the beginning of a protest movement that has lasted more than 7 months.

On November 24, Hong Kong held its first elections since the weekly protests began nearly 7 months ago. Pro-democracy candidates won 392 out of 452 available seats in local district councils, a stunning success for the movement. Kwok told the audience that Beijing was shocked to learn of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preferred candidates’ significant losses—local establishment politicians were shocked, too. When asked how Beijing’s prediction could be so inaccurate, Kwok argued President Xi has fostered an organizational culture that rejects objective analysis. The Mao-era style of leadership encourages intelligence operatives and political analysts to hide objective analysis; Kwok argues that bureaucrats just give “the right answer.” US policymakers should use this episode to inform their analysis moving forward—what President Xi is saying in public about an issue is likely to be exactly what party members are being told to believe, and thus, what officials will report back to party leadership. In this way, China could become more predictable—what used to be propaganda from the central government could be considered a roadmap to what the CCP perceives as its political reality.

Following the November 24 elections, the biggest challenges and risks for the pro-democracy movement lie in their governance of the territory. Kwok asserted that, because pro-democracy candidates swept district elections and are now responsible for governance, poor provision of services or unresponsive representation threatens the movement’s success. Voters who perceive their newly elected officials as aloof or incompetent could abandon pro-democracy candidates at the Hong Kong Legislative Council elections in September 2020. For the pro-democracy movement to remain a potent political force, young candidates and newly elected officials must concentrate on governing and demonstrate the ability of the party to lead not just protests, but the territory, too.

The CCP will not exploit the elected officials’ weaknesses because it runs contrary to party thought on the matter. The Beijing narrative is that poor economic opportunity has riled up pro-democracy sentiment. President Xi has chosen to focus on technical indicators of economic success and ignore political issues that animate the movement. Beijing’s narrative is good news for pro-democracy elected officials. If the CCP stymied efforts to provide the goods and services that newly elected democrats are responsible for administering, then they could successfully undermine the movement. But, because Beijing sees economic opportunity as the solution to Hong Kong’s woes, they are unlikely to hamstring the government’s efforts. Looking forward to the September 2020 elections for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, the CCP may decide to disqualify certain candidates from running—which it has done to one person before, Joshua Wong. Kwok admits that he could be disqualified by Beijing just for visiting other countries, though he seems undeterred.

Kwok asserted the ultimate goals of the Hong Kong pro-democracy moment are to remain part of China, have the CCP give Hong Kongers full voting rights, and act as the negotiating party on behalf of Hong Kong as the two systems determine Hong Kong’s post-2047 future—the year when Hong Kong’s independence expires under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement signed by the United Kingdom and China. Kwok asserted that Hong Kong needs full suffrage for the government to have legitimacy in any future negotiations with China. Negotiations about the handover of Hong Kong to China began in the late 1970s, taking nearly 20 years to complete. Kwok argues that the future political agreement between Hong Kong and China will require just as long to facilitate, so China should quickly grant Hong Kong residents the right to vote. Kwok stressed the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement does not desire independence, but merely a seat at the table when determining their political structure. One potential change that Kwok sees that the Legislative Council could affect is voting rights for industry representatives. As a representative for the legal profession, Kwok is elected by the owners of law firms; these voting rights for representatives of specific professions could be expanded to members of the profession—not just CEOs—without the support of Beijing.

As a result of the protests in Hong Kong, Taiwan’s previously unpopular president, Tsai Ing-Wen, has skyrocketed in popularity ahead of the January 2020 elections against the CCP-friendly KMT party. The Taiwan Relations Act of 1979 sets forth US policy towards Taiwan’s unification with China. The US government only supports the peaceful reunification of China and Taiwan; this is to say, the US is only committed to stopping the use of military force to reunify China and Taiwan. Any other reunification is not against US policy. Over the next two decades, China can test tactics and operations below the level of armed conflict that would trigger a response from the US in both Hong Kong and Taiwan. Actions in Hong Kong that do not trigger sanctions by the US will be understood as a “green light” to take those same actions in Taiwan. As future presidents may shy away from sanctioning Chinese officials for actions in Hong Kong, China could grow more aggressive in Taiwan. President Xi announced his opinion in recent weeks that “One Country, Two Systems” could be an appropriate model for the governance of Taiwan, pointing to Macao as the example; President Tsai, in contrast, points to Hong Kong. The US will find itself in an unenviable position—the sudden realization that violent political operations have crept into Taiwan that were ignored in Hong Kong could trigger a US response. China, for its part, would see the response as unwarranted because such actions in Hong Kong had not triggered sanctions.

On November 27, the President signed into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA). The HKHRDA amends the Honk Kong Policy Act of 1992, which sets out special recognition of Hong Kong by the US for trade, the use of dollars for clearing bank transactions, and many other benefits. The HKHRDA makes three significant changes to the Policy Act of 1992: first, the President must certify annually that Hong Kong is “sufficiently independent” as to warrant special treatment under US law; second, Hong Kong citizens applying for visas to the US cannot have adverse actions (charges of rioting, imprisonment, etc.) by the Hong Kong government held against them for actions related to pro-democracy protests; third, the HKHRDA compels the US government to sanction anyone responsible for “extrajudicial detention, arbitrary detention, or torture of any person in Hong Kong, or other gross violations of internationally recognized human rights in Hong Kong.” China’s Foreign Minister likened the bill to “slander of China to a level close to madness.” The new provisions of the HKHRDA will further strain the Sino-US relationship—annual reviews of China’s treatment of Hong Kong will provide red meat to propagandists, while threatened sanctions smack of “US imperialism and interference.”

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