Hong Kong At a Crossroad: Economic Prosperity or Freedom?

Hong Kong At a Crossroad: Economic Prosperity or Freedom?

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The Chinese diasporas in Los Angeles and around the world are concerned about the police crackdowns. Chinese originally from Taiwan and Hong Kong are particularly supportive of the students. The rest have mixed feelings.
 
When Britain transferred Hong Kong back to China in 1997, I was living in Asia. I wondered then which of these values would become more important to the people of this unique island overtime: economic prosperity or freedom of expression

One could argue that in Singapore, another Asian financial center that competes with Hong Kong economically, the people there prize economic prosperity over freedom of expression given their acceptance of this city-state’s authoritative government.

Many wealthy Hongkongese, however, wanted both so several years before the handover, they moved to Vancouver and other parts of Canada with a number came to Los Angeles. This group was skeptical of Beijing’s guarantee that things would remain the way they were , with Hong Kong as a special administrative region, and therefore didn’t want to take a chance by staying.

For the expat community and the multinational corporations in Hong Kong, it was purely economic opportunity. That’s what drew them to this important financial center that ranked only behind New York and London in the first place. If China’s policy somehow causes a decline in business profits, they have no problem of relocating their families and operations to Singapore or other locations in Asia.

Of course native Hongkongese wanted both values too. It’s been 17 years since China took over Hong Kong and the economic structure there has been relatively untampered. But the people also knew from the beginning that political control was of paramount important to Beijing when Tung Chee Hwa, a pro-China businessman, was elected as the first Chief Executive through the managed electoral process.

In the Hong Kong election system, people vote for their local representatives to the Legislative Council, who in turn cast votes to elect the Chief Executive. For many years, some progressive council members have been pushing for a popular vote system but constantly get bogged down by their pro-Beijing counterparts.

Also for years, Martin Lee, the barrister leader of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, was seen as a potential catalyst that could foster democracy on this island of 7 million but he never really gained much traction.

The issue of direct election emerges every time Hong Kong is about to elect a new leader. However, this time Hong Kong students suddenly have become vocal and quickly ballooned in big numbers, aggressively protesting and demanding political reforms.

Reminiscing of the Arab Spring in Cairo, Egypt, they clashed with police, mobilized themselves through social media communications, and occupied the main business district Central. But there’s one big difference. Hong Kong students are less interested in economic reforms but more passionate about instituting real democracy on the island starting with universal suffrage.

Essentially, the students’ demands, if met, would totally change China’s Special Administrative Region to one that mirrors a Western democracy, contrasting the current system in The People Republic of China. They want to elect their leaders directly instead of through the electoral system in which candidates are vetted and nominated by Beijing government.

One lesson from the student-protest experience in Egypt is that students generally tend to be bad at political organizing. Once Hosni Mubarak was ousted, the students didn’t know what to do next as they fumbled to structure a political party to participate in the election. In the end, another general is now head of Egypt.

The Chinese diasporas in Los Angeles and around the world are concerned about the police crackdowns. Chinese originally from Taiwan and Hong Kong are particularly supportive of the students. The rest have mixed feelings.

It’s unknown whether Hong Kong students would succeed with their aspirations at this point. However, it seems that as the protest progresses, people in Hong Kong are increasingly siding with the students and leaning toward the value of freedom of expression by demanding universal suffrage.

Julian Do is Director of LA Beez.