High stakes in Hong Kong

The Hong Kong protests to force change on the way the territory chooses its Chief Executive appear to be heading for a stalemate. Beijing will likely not be moved on its rendering of universal suffrage for the 2017 election: Five million Hong Kongers will get to vote but the slate of candidates has to be cleared by a nominating committee that answers to the central government.

It indisputably is not ideal as far as a democratic set-up goes, and may need to be amended over time, in line with how the city and the rest of China change in the years to come. But student protesters who have taken over city streets to demand immediate adoption of an overly romanticised notion of "real" democracy risk being their own worst enemies. These demands betray a poor understanding of what is possible in a complex political bargain that has elements of a bitter history and the neuroses of an adjusting civilisation embracing modern normative values. And worse, demanding change and seeking to impose their views by street protests are not exactly very democratic.

Amid the heat of the past weeks, few people seem to recall that there is no reference to universal suffrage in the Joint Declaration agreed by China and Britain in preparation for the 1997 handover. Nor did many liberal-minded advocates, in Hong Kong or beyond, push for it before the handover. So those berating Beijing for not living up to an international agreement are showing themselves to be as befuddled as the students. They are confusing this with the Basic Law, a Chinese national law enacted by China's Parliament for Hong Kong's constitutional governance. It is this law which says the goal eventually is to have the leader elected by universal suffrage, with the timetable up to China. The city will be better off accepting the reform offered and push for improvements in the Legislative Council, followed by negotiations with Beijing. The student groups which are threatening a siege of government buildings may end up losing even that concession. The unhappy result could be that Hong Kongers may not even get the vote if the protests get out of hand and provoke a strong response. If Beijing's proposal does not pass the Legislative Council, the current system of the Chief Executive being picked by an election committee stands. Also foregone will be the chance to elect all members of the legislature in 2020 by universal suffrage.

Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying posed a sensible question: "Do we want to take one step forward or two steps back?" Long known for its hard-headed pragmatism and business savvy, perhaps it is time for Hong Kong society to ponder the high stakes if the protests escalate and provoke a reaction no one wants.