Hong Kong has not reached a 'now or never' moment in its democratic development, as supporters of Occupy Central seem to believe, and calm negotiation is best.
Amid the political reform controversy, Beijing is often portrayed as reneging on its promise of universal suffrage, trampling on Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy, turning a deaf ear to people's demands for democracy, and quietly eroding Hong Kong's freedom of expression. So, the argument goes, it's now or never between purgatory and paradise, and let's "Occupy Central" if we must, to force Beijing's hand.
As Hong Kong awaits the National People's Congress Standing Committee pronouncements later this month, a little cool-headedness will not be remiss.
As Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has pointed out, universal suffrage was not spelt out in the Joint Declaration. It was Beijing's idea in the first place to introduce it in the Basic Law, a national law of the People's Republic of China. Beijing has no reason to risk its international credibility by eating its words. Indeed, its recent statements make this clear.
Under "one country, two systems", Beijing has never allowed, let alone promised, that Hong Kong people can have a completely free hand in choosing who they want. In accordance with Article 45 of the Basic Law, the selection of the chief executive must be "by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures". No alternative is contemplated, nor is there any provision to allow the nominating committee to delegate or dilute its collective power of nomination.
Legally, this rules out direct nomination by other means, including public nomination.
Article 45 of the Basic Law aims to minimise the chance of someone being elected in the rough and tumble of universal suffrage who may intend to subvert the Communist Party in Beijing. This doesn't mean that the chief executive must be a Communist Party member, nor that he or she may not stand up to Beijing in defending Hong Kong's interests. If it were so, the "two systems" would wither in the eyes of the world. But it does mean that no chief executive can be allowed to lead Hong Kong into becoming a base for subverting the mainland regime. This is the "one country" side of the bargain.
So, does Article 45 measure up to the so-called "international standards of democracy"? Perhaps not. But, in terms of democratic legitimacy, this is infinitely better than any system Hong Kong has had.
From Beijing's perspective, then, why should it worry about the nomination procedures, since it wields the substantive power of final appointment? The answer is that it understands this is a nuclear option. If Beijing should refuse to appoint someone duly elected, there would be an international outcry of electoral charade. The whole credibility of "one country, two systems" would be in tatters. The people of Hong Kong would become disgruntled, and political unrest would ensue.
The subtext in Beijing's pronouncements so far is that it does want to make sure no one is allowed to run for election who is a potential subversive. Hence its requirement of "patriotism". After all, this is a natural requirement expected of a Hong Kong SAR chief executive accountable to the central government.
This does not necessarily mean that Hong Kong people would not have a genuine free choice, because the nominating committee can be made as broadly representative as possible, provided that the voting balance between the different sectors underpinning Hong Kong's economic and social viability - the business, professional, grass-roots, and political sectors - is carefully maintained.
Indeed, Beijing has suggested that pan-democrats are not automatically ruled out.
We should also address some of the more outrageous claims and counter-claims.
Despite worries raised by the recent spate of street protests, Hong Kong is not becoming a police state. The city is today known as much for its numerous protests as its tolerance for them. Hong Kong has retained, for 20 years in a row, the top rank as the world's freest economy, according to the Heritage Foundation. This would not have been possible if Hong Kong's civil society had failed to make the grade. Indeed, Beijing should be proud to nurture this city with its world-class infrastructure and independent judiciary.
What of Beijing's worry about foreign instigation? It's not just paranoia. The Hong Kong media has been awash with revelations of donations of millions of dollars to "democratic" politicians, activists and civic leaders, all from one single source, who is reported to have ties with US politicians like Paul Wolfowitz.
The donations included some HK$20 million to Joseph Zen Ze-kiun when he was head of the Hong Kong Catholic diocese, who had been active in rallying his fold behind anti-Beijing protests.
What might come easily to Beijing's mind is Pope John Paul II's famous role in inspiring the Polish people's movement that triggered a chain reaction that led to the Soviet bloc's collapse. Small wonder, then, that Beijing remains suspicious of possible plots to foment a Hong Kong revolution agitating for the Communist Party's downfall.
Clearly, "two systems" cannot exist independently of "one country". A high degree of autonomy, yes, but not to the extent of threatening the stability of the "one country". The recent publication by Beijing of a white paper on Hong Kong means to tell the world where Beijing's red lines are.
Moreover, the Anti-Occupy Central movement has now gathered some 1.5 million signatures. Whatever statistical doubts remain, this shows that despite considerable support for "universal standards of democracy", a vast proportion of the people do not subscribe to tilting at windmills to the bitter end, to go for all or nothing.
Fissures between Hong Kong and Beijing are worsening. Hong Kong deserves more democracy by open, fair and accountable universal suffrage in 2017. But a mutually acceptable package should be calmly negotiated in accordance with the Basic Law. It could risk losing all by digging in its heels and using coercion, however "peaceful", to force Beijing's hand to do the impossible.
Andrew K. P. Leung is an international and independent China specialist based in Hong Kong