IT WAS in a hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, that Edward Snowden, a 29-year-old American, popped up on June 9th, to reveal himself as the whistle-blower on a worldwide surveillance network run by his country’s National Security Agency. To many Americans, and some Chinese too, it seems bizarre that someone fearful for his safety and freedom should flee America to take refuge in a part of China. But as he put it: “The people of Hong Kong have a long tradition of protesting in the streets, of making their views known.” Hong Kong is a unique part of China. Mr Snowden, the leading actor in a global drama, is now also part of a local subplot, about whether that uniqueness can be preserved.
Even as a British colony, Hong Kong was an in-between place. More Chinese dissidents than Western ones have fled there, but Mr Snowden is not the first to regard it as a haven for rebels seen as criminals at home. When it was handed back to China in 1997, it was guaranteed its own legal system for 50 years, with freedoms of speech and assembly. No other place in China marks the anniversary on June 4th of the killing of protesters in Beijing in 1989. This year, in pouring rain, at least 54,000 people (by the conservative estimate of police) took part in the annual candlelit vigil in Hong Kong’s Victoria Park; organisers claimed 150,000 turned up. Some of those will soon join in another annual ritual of protest meant to defend such freedoms—a march on July 1st, the anniversary of the handover.
They may be free to speak. But Hong Kong’s people have never been able to choose their leaders in a fair election. Britain used to dispatch colonial governors. Now labyrinthine procedures ensure that China can handpick the “chief executives” who have replaced them. For most of the 7m people in Hong Kong the lack of democracy is bothersome and unfair, but less of a worry than the high rents. A small but vocal fraction, however, worries very much—because it regards democracy not only as Hong Kong’s right but also as a necessity to guarantee Hong Kong’s freedoms. China has promised eventual “universal suffrage”, but the definition of that often-postponed goal grows ever murkier.
Where free speech is allowed but meaningful voting is not, other ways of posing questions and measuring popular support become powerful tools. To China’s rulers, Hong Kong’s marches, sit-ins and opinion polls look like the thin end of a wedge, forcing in a discreet but dangerous bit of democracy. This explains some hysterical responses to a rather wonkish movement that took a step forward on June 9th. After months of planning, 700 activists gathered to organise a campaign for genuine democracy, under the banner “Occupy Central” (echoing “Occupy Wall Street”, Central being the city’s main financial district).
Dreamed up by a law professor, Benny Tai Yiu-ting, the movement has earmarked half a dozen dates stretching into next year when the whole of Hong Kong will be invited to decide what should be the movement’s specific demands. Then, in July next year, just before new rules are to be decided for the next “election” for the chief executive in 2017, the results of these deliberations will be put to the public in a straw poll. If the government rejects the outcome, 10,000 or more Hong Kongers will occupy Central, blocking traffic and commerce, until their will be done. A separate initiative launched in 2010 was supposed to trigger a de facto referendum on democracy. It backfired, failing to rouse the masses while dividing the pro-democracy political parties. Occupy Central is designed to circumvent the parties altogether.
It has struck a nerve. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, warns that if the movement takes to the streets, the outcome won’t be “peaceful”. China Daily, a Beijing newspaper, says “it is very likely to trigger violent confrontation between the participants and inconvenienced bystanders.” Ching Cheong, a journalist who knows both sides well, says he fears violence on the scale of 1989.
Mr Leung is not on strong ground when he objects to the use of informal polling to determine a political outcome. That is how he got his job last year. Opinion polls showed how much damage scandals had done to his rival, Henry Tang Ying-yen, China’s first choice and hence seen as a shoo-in. Mr Leung’s surprising victory disrupted a long-standing alliance between the upper crust of local tycoons, solidly behind Mr Tang, and the rest of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp. It was almost as if the people had picked their own man. To scotch any idea that in 2017 they might actually do so, Qiao Xiaoyang, a senior legislator from Beijing, in March travelled to Shenzhen, just over the border in China proper, and asked Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing lawmakers to join him. He confirmed that the plan for 2017 is to use a nominating committee much like the unrepresentative 1,200 “electors” of 2012. Candidates who “oppose the central government” will be excluded.
The disunited front
In local council elections the pro-Beijing parties have been winning the honest way. In 2011 they took home 55% of the popular vote and, being excellent grassroots organisers, a far greater share of seats. But with the rupture of the tycoon-Beijing alliance, it is tougher to do this for the top job. A string of minor scandals has hobbled Mr Leung’s government, starting with an unauthorised trellis built on one of his houses. These were merely distracting until May 24th, when Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, the man who ran Mr Leung’s successful campaign, had to quit his cabinet. A loss-making commodities exchange he ran had folded, and within days he was under criminal investigation. Mr Leung hardly needs Occupy Central’s help to “paralyse” his government.
The democrats, usually the more fractious side of the political divide, seem for once to be finding a few things to agree on. Universal suffrage, for one, which this time they might be able to define clearly enough to stick to. And, for another, the defence of those freedoms that so appealed to Mr Snowden. Banyan for The Economist