Forging consensus in Hong Kong

There is no clearer expression of the kind of liberties enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong than last week's unofficial referendum on electing the Chief Executive. The Chinese authorities would not have brooked a similar stunt elsewhere, especially when the encore was a march by half a million people demanding greater democracy, to coincide with the July 1 anniversary of the territory's handover to China. Those behind these efforts and a threat to disruptively occupy the central business district contend that Beijing's pronouncements in a White Paper of its "comprehensive jurisdiction" over Hong Kong are too expansive.

What else would one expect than for Beijing to see the effort by the pro-democracy movement, to secure the public's right to nominate candidates and elect a Chief Executive, as the thin end of the wedge. How would it tamp down similar impulses elsewhere should the heroics of Hongkongers gain traction? All the more, the "one country, two systems" formula and the Basic Law, the territory's mini Constitution, are not to be seen as a guarantee of full autonomy, from China's perspective.

What is most germane to the discussion is the manner in which Constitutional issues are worked out, or at least held at bay in the hope of a new dispensation. Street politics as a means to democratic ends have led to poor results in many places, notably Thailand. Ceaseless turmoil and chaos in one of the world's most open economies would carry considerable risks, as foreign financial institutions and business analysts have pointed out.

One might wonder why people who had been content to accept pronouncements and impositions while under British colonial rule have been champing at the bit ever since China reclaimed Hong Kong in 1997. The stakes are high given both the economic impact of disturbances in the heart of the city and the political consequences of defying Beijing. An unwelcome intervention is something no one would wish upon Hong Kong.

The best one might hope for is that China's leaders have the confidence to put up with some dissent while exploring political solutions over time, perhaps as a means of better understanding Hong Kong's psyche and of experimenting with fresh strategies in a changing political landscape. China has agreed to the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage from 2017. But what really matters is the manner in which candidates are picked and deemed eligible for office by the powers that be. Reformers would gain more by directing energies to such political matters than by placing undue weight on persistent ructions to bring about change.