There was always a question mark over China’s commitment to the ‘one country, two systems’ formula for Hong Kong. The current turmoil in the former British colony shows that large sections of the people there are increasingly suspicious of Beijing’s plans for governing it. It started as an angry reaction to the ‘white paper’ on Hong Kong that Beijing released in June. “The high degree of autonomy enjoyed by Hong Kong,” the document says, “is subject to the central government’s authorization.” It so alarmed pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong that they threatened to shut the city with an ‘Occupy Central’ programme. The document, they fear, is the death warrant of the rule of law and the freedoms that they enjoyed and that the people in the Chinese mainland are denied. The white paper’s reiteration that Beijing has “complete jurisdiction” over the territory is also seen as a warning to pro-democracy groups. All this has come in the midst of a popular demand that the people be allowed to directly elect Hong Kong’s chief executive in the next elections due in 2017. At present, the chief executive is elected by the territory’s legislature only from a panel of candidates chosen by Beijing.
How he handles the situation in Hong Kong will be a crucial test for Xi Jinping, China’s new leader. While he has moved faster on further liberalizing the economy, Mr Xi has shown no love for democratic politics. Beijing’s responses so far to issues relating to Hong Kong also suggest a hard approach. It is no secret that last weekend’s protests against the ‘Occupy Central’ programme had been stage-managed by Beijing. But Beijing cannot afford to let the situation in Hong Kong get out of its control. A continuing crisis in Hong Kong can damage its reputation as a major international financial centre. The blame for that will rest more with Beijing than with the pro-democracy groups. It is unlikely that Mr Xi will use a strategy in Hong Kong that will hurt China’s vital economic interests. At the same time, China’s image will be battered if it tramples on Hong Kong’s democracy stir. Beijing has too many problems with its neighbours, such as Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, to want fresh troubles at home. What it does in Hong Kong may also have an impact on Beijing’s ties with Taiwan. But most important, the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong will inspire dissenters in the Chinese mainland.