Ker Sin Tze For The Straits Times

Mong Kok is not Tiananmen Square

Thousands of protesters blocking the main road in Mong Kok last week. China views the protests as a local incident and Beijing has said it has confidence in the Hong Kong government to handle the situation.
Thousands of protesters blocking the main road in Mong Kok last week. China views the protests as a local incident and Beijing has said it has confidence in the Hong Kong government to handle the situation.PHOTO: REUTERS

Comparisons between the protests in Hong Kong and Tiananmen Square are unfounded. Meanwhile, solutions are possible if pan-democrats and pro-Beijing leaders can seek a compromise.

The current street protests in Hong Kong have taken on a darker tone as violence erupted late last week in Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, and Hong Kong leaders gave an ultimatum for the streets to be cleared so government workers can resume work in their offices today.

The protests that began on Sept 28 have spread beyond Central to other parts of the city.

Protesters estimated to number in the high tens of thousands are congregated at the Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok areas.

Protesters took to the streets to demand that China revoke a decision that candidates who want to contest the Hong Kong Chief Executive post in 2017 have to be endorsed by a nominating committee. The demands are unlikely to be met and the occupation of key areas in the city will likely continue for some time.

Hong Kong's mini-Constitution, the Basic Law, states that universal suffrage for electing the Chief Executive may not be held before 2017, and universal suffrage for Legislative Council elections may not be held before 2020. The central government in Beijing has agreed that universal suffrage for the Chief Executive can be held in 2017 - provided that all potential candidates are to be reviewed and selected by the nominating committee.

However, pan-democratic supporters demand free nomination of candidates. This would permit a pan-democratic candidate to contest and possibly win.

But the truth is that if the elected Chief Executive cannot work with the central government, it will be disastrous for Hong Kong.

For this reason, Beijing will never appoint a Chief Executive who is confrontational with the central government. There is, therefore, a stalemate with no easy solution.

Beijing's emphasis is placed on "one country", while the Hong Kong people's focus is on "two systems" in the "one country, two systems" arrangement agreed between Britain and China after the former handed Hong Kong back to the latter in 1997.

Beijing needs a Chief Executive who acknowledges his appointment by the central government and upholds the principle of "one country".

He should not claim that he has the mandate of the Hong Kong electorate and entertain any idea of separatism or independence, such as in Crimea and Scotland.

Hong Kong democrats, on the other hand, would like to elect a Chief Executive who can represent the electorate and confront the central government when necessary. The gap between the two sides has given rise to disagreements and protests.

Beijing will watch the situation closely, but it is unlikely to use force to deal with protesters or engage them in negotiations.

China views this as purely a local incident and Beijing has repeatedly said that it has confidence in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region government to handle the situation.

Not another Tiananmen

THERE is speculation among some observers that the current incident may develop into a new Tiananmen incident in Hong Kong. This is unlikely to happen and the comparison itself is unfounded.

The Tiananmen incident of 1989 happened in Beijing in the midst of a major policy disagreement within the top Chinese leadership.

Students had occupied the Tiananmen Square since April 15 and they mourned the death of pro-reform former party chief Hu Yaobang. Party general secretary Zhao Ziyang advocated a soft approach to deal with the students but Premier Li Peng adopted a hardline stance.

Tiananmen Square was the nerve centre of the Chinese communist regime. It fronted the Forbidden City where the former Ming and Qing palaces were located. Chairman Mao Zedong had proclaimed the birth of a New China in 1949 at the balcony of the entrance gate of the Forbidden City.

The buildings where the Chinese leaders lived and worked are situated at Zhongnanhai, next to the Forbidden City.

Tiananmen Square was deemed the power centre of China.

Students and protesters had occupied the square for more than six weeks, and the protest had spread to other major cities.

The whole country was simmering, with talk of an imminent collapse of the communist regime.

It was against this backdrop that the military crackdown was launched.

In the late evening of June 3, the situation had worsened as military trucks were burned and soldiers killed. Then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ordered a military crackdown from June 3 into June 4, 1989.

An unknown number of students and protesters were injured and killed. The Chinese government condemned the protests as a "counter-revolutionary riot".

The situation in Hong Kong today is vastly different. The current protests are confined to a tiny territory of 1,100 sq km at the southern tip of China.

The protest is unlikely to spread to other cities in China.

The mainland Chinese do not share the protesters' cause and have scant sympathy for them.

They feel that the central government has diverted many resources to help the Hong Kong people during crises, despite Hong Kong's higher standard of living. They also feel discriminated when they visit Hong Kong.

Beijing would in all likelihood view the current protests as a local incident which does not warrant a military crackdown.

Hence, the likelihood of the protests turning into another Tiananmen incident is very low.

Possible solutions

BEIJING has tried to make the "one country, two systems" principle work for Hong Kong and it will likely continue along this line.

There are steps that China can take to appease the Hong Kong people's unhappiness over the need for candidates to be vetted by the nominating committee.

One is to broaden the composition of the nominating committee by appointing more democrats to the committee and to increase the number of committee members, for instance, from 1,200 to 2,000.

Another possibility is to defer universal suffrage to a later date after 2017, until a compromise can be worked out with the democrats in the second round of constitutional consultation.

Hot-headed protesters may paint the move in a negative light but, in fact, the requirement to screen potential candidates to avoid a confrontation between an elected Chief Executive and the central government is to help ensure a smooth working relationship between them. This is understandable and probably necessary.

But Beijing should also be prepared to change its mindset at some point in the future, to face a Chief Executive freely nominated and elected by the electorate.

The central government may then want to insist on the right to replace the Chief Executive should the latter become confrontational.

Another possibility, admittedly more extreme, is to do away with direct elections for the post of Chief Executive.

The Chief Executive can be selected from among legislators by the party which wins the majority of seats in the Legislative Council elections. This would be somewhat equivalent to the Westminster system, where the leader of the majority party in power becomes prime minister and voters do not directly elect him or her.

But this will be a major change in Hong Kong's current system of elections and government.

It would require an overhaul of the Constitution and is complex and difficult.

Solutions are available, at least in theory. But it requires pan-democrats and pro-Beijing leaders to sit down to seek a compromise.

What is at stake is not just the duration of the protests, but the future direction and stability of Hong Kong.

The writer was consul-general at the Singapore consulate in Hong Kong from 2008 to 2012. He is now adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.

stopinion@sph.com.sg