Beijing’s Fight Against Democracy Activism in Hong Kong

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 4

Unlike mainland China, protest is a common sight in Hong Kong

Nearly seventeen years after handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control, tensions with Beijing are higher than ever. Resentment toward Beijing is rising in Hong Kong due to Beijing’s persistent efforts to impose mainland-style policy aimed at limiting democratic rights for Hong Kong residents, silencing critics and assimilating Hong Kong into China. Given the unwillingness of many Hong Kongers to submit to “mainlandization,” these tensions seem destined to continue rising absent significant concessions from Beijing.

This state of affairs has not only pitted Hong Kongers against Beijing, but also the pro-democracy majority in Hong Kong against a vocal and influential pro-Beijing minority, including pro-Beijing leaders in the Hong Kong government and business community. The United States has also given vocal support to Hong Kong democracy, sparking accusations from Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong of U.S. interference in China’s internal affairs, and conspiracy theories alleging U.S. plots to divide and weaken China.

‘Mainlandization’ and the Democracy Movement in Hong Kong

Following the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was politically re-established as a Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). As such, Hong Kong was guaranteed “a high degree of autonomy” in its internal political, economic, social, and legal affairs under the “one country, two systems” formulation (Basic Law of Hong Kong, Articles 1 and 12). Nonetheless, Beijing has undertaken a subtle program of “mainlandization,” designed to make Hong Kong politically and economically more dependent on the PRC, socially more patriotic toward the PRC and legally more reliant on PRC interpretations of the Basic Law of Hong Kong (China Post, September 9, 2011; The Independent, October 8, 2012). [1]

Beijing’s program of mainlandization includes persistent efforts to limit voting and nomination rights in Hong Kong elections; restrict civil liberties and press freedom; and culturally assimilate Hong Kong into China. These efforts have met with stiff resistance from Hong Kongers. Polls by the University of Hong Kong (UHK) in 2012 and 2013 found that more than 60 percent of Hong Kong residents—including almost 90 percent in the 18-29 age group—identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” rather than as “Chinese,” angering Beijing (Hong Kong University [HKU] < >). Trust in the Beijing government has fallen from a high of 59 percent in 2007 to 36.8 percent in December 2013, while trust in the pro-Beijing HKSAR government has dropped from a high of 68.8 percent in 2006 to 43.9 percent (HKU < >). Like self-identification as “Hong Konger” rather than “Chinese,” distrust of Beijing has been highest in the 18-29 age group, indicating that Beijing’s message of Chinese national unity is not getting through to Hong Kong’s youth (HKU, < >).

2012 saw protests in Hong Kong as Beijing sought to impose mainland-style “patriotic education” on Hong Kong schoolchildren, viewed as “brainwashing” by many in Hong Kong. Pro-Beijing local officials backed down from this effort, demonstrating for Hong Kongers that Beijing can be beaten (South China Morning Post [SCMP], September 8, 2012). In 2013 attacks by pro-Beijing thugs on news organizations and activists raised fears that Beijing is willing to resort to violence to bring Hong Kong under firmer control (See Epoch Times, June 21, 2013; SCMP, July 1, 2013). Pro-democracy protests have continued, often featuring Hong Kong’s former British colonial flag as a symbol of resistance to mainlandization, further angering Beijing (See SCMP, March 7, 2013).

Currently at issue are nomination and voting rights ahead of a planned HKSAR Legislative Council (LegCo) election in 2016 and executive election in 2017. At present, Hong Kong’s chief executive is elected by a 1,200-member Election Committee dominated by Beijing loyalists and highly unrepresentative of the general Hong Kong public. While Beijing has agreed in theory to universal suffrage for the 2017 election, it has rejected calls for open public nomination of candidates, insisting that candidates can be nominated only by a pro-Beijing nominating committee, and that no candidate Beijing considers disloyal can be nominated. A five-month public consultation on voting and nomination rights was launched in December and is currently underway. Future LegCo composition and participation in LegCo elections, as described below, are also under consultation. After public consultation closes in May, its results will be included in a formal proposal which must then be passed by LegCo and approved by Beijing. Beijing’s current attitude is not encouraging (See Global Times, November 28, 2013; HKSAR Government < >; SCMP, December 4, 2013; Xinhua, December 4, 2013; see also  < >).

Division and Factionalism in Hong Kong

The “pro-democracy camp” in Hong Kong includes “pan-democratic” parties such as the Hong Kong Democratic Party and Civic Party, popular pro-democracy media such as Next Media and its newspaper Apple Daily, and grassroots pro-democracy groups such as Occupy Central, now also known as “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.”

The “pro-Beijing camp” includes current chief executive C.Y. Leung and the pro-Beijing majority in LegCo—including the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB) party, which holds the largest number of seats and has close ties to the Chinese Communist Party. Leung’s ties to Beijing are so close as to have drawn criticism even from DAB leadership (SCMP, October 15, 2012). This camp also includes a number of pro-Beijing newspapers (see below) and grassroots or “astroturf” pro-Beijing groups, which appear to have strong mainland ties. Among the latter are the Hong Kong Youth Care Association and Caring Hong Kong Power, which are noted for inflammatory rhetoric and have been accused of “Cultural Revolution tactics” including violent attacks on their political opponents (See Apple Daily, August 12, 2013; Epoch Times, December 19, 2012; SCMP, April 27 and June 13, 2013; Taipei Times, September 9, 2013).

Pro-Beijing parties currently hold a sizeable majority in LegCo. This legislature has limited powers vis-à-vis the chief executive. Seats are split between geographical constituencies directly elected through universal suffrage, and functional constituencies elected by designated members of Hong Kong’s business community. Functional constituencies enable pro-Beijing parties to hold a majority of seats without winning the majority of popular votes in LegCo elections. As in mainland China, Beijing’s pro-business but anti-democratic policies seem popular among the rich and powerful in Hong Kong, many of whom also have mainland interests. An aim of pan-democrats, along with public nomination and universal suffrage in chief executive elections, is to abolish functional constituencies in favor of universal suffrage for all LegCo seats (See Civic Party, February 19, 2010; Congressional Research Service, September 14, 2012; SCMP, August 3, 2013 and February 6). [2]

Beijing’s shared interest with the Hong Kong elite in maintaining the present system was recently expressed in starkly anti-majoritarian statements by the dean of Beijing’s Qinghua University law school, Wang Zhenmin, at a seminar on constitutional reform in Hong Kong. Wang said that the present system of nominating the chief executive and functional constituencies in LegCo were necessary to “maintain the political elite” and to “protect the interests of the business community” from “populism” and “welfarism” (Apple Daily, January 20; Sing Pao, January 19; Wen Wei Po, January 19; World Journal, January 19).

In the 2012 LegCo Election, pan-democratic parties won 56 percent of the popular vote while pro-Beijing parties won 44 percent. This would have given pan-democrats a majority of seats without functional constituencies, but was still less than expected given the level of dissatisfaction with Beijing following the protests over “patriotic education.” The pan-democrats’ poorer-than-expected showing in the popular vote was blamed on division, infighting and lack of coordination among the various pan-democratic parties, which were up against a well-funded and coordinated pro-Beijing electoral machine (East Asia Forum, October 7, 2012); SCMP, September 11, 2012).

With the support of the Democratic Party and Next Media, Occupy Central has taken the lead in grassroots organizing for Hong Kong democracy. Occupy Central is a mass civil disobedience campaign planned for July 2014 in the city’s Central district if democratic demands are not met following the current consultation. The campaign was launched in January 2013 by University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai Yiu-Ting with his article, “Civil Disobedience as a Weapon of Mass Destruction” (Hong Kong Economic Journal, January 16, 2013; see also DW News Hong Kong-Macao, March 15, 2013). In the article Tai called for a critical mass of demonstrators to descend on Central and force Beijing to change its position on Hong Kong democracy by paralyzing the city’s political and economic center through sustained non-violent civil disobedience. Occupy Central’s activities thus far have concentrated on building public support for the movement and backing from pan-democratic parties in LegCo. Much of Occupy Central’s popular support will likely come from Hong Kong’s youth (See Apple Daily, December 5 and 24, 2013; January 14, 20, 26, and 28; see also < >).

Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong have worked overtime to discredit the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, taking special aim at Occupy Central. PRC representative have warned that the movement threatens to become an “enemy of the state,” accusing its leaders of collaboration with “separatists” in Taiwan. In response, Beijing has threatened “to impose tough measures to maintain Hong Kong’s stability.” The latter statement suggests a mainland-style crackdown on democracy activists in Hong Kong under the guise of a “state of emergency” (Global Times, October 24, 2013; see also July 18 and November 4, 2013; January 2; Apple Daily, January 20). Wang Zhimin, deputy director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, blamed the city’s youth for the threat to social order posed by Occupy Central, warning young Hong Kongers instead “to treasure and safeguard Hong Kong’s stability and to reject and prevent chaos” (SCMP, September 5, 2013)

Pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong have likewise accused Occupy Central of being in league with U.S., British, and Taiwanese “anti-China forces” and of inciting a violent “color revolution” or “jasmine revolution” in Hong Kong to divide and weaken China. These attacks rely heavily on fear of chaos in the streets, Chinese nationalism, links to “Taiwan independence” forces, and xenophobic references to hostile foreign powers—particularly the United States—supposedly anxious for any opportunity to inflict harm on China (See Sing Pao, January 8, 2014; Ta Kung Pao, May 20 and December 30, 2013; Wen Wei Po, July 12 and November 4, 2013).

The U.S. Role

The United States has vocally supported Hong Kong democracy, enraging Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong. Shortly after taking up his post in July 2013, U.S. Consul General Clifford Hart remarked that he looked forward to “genuine democratic suffrage” in Hong Kong. Beijing immediately reacted through its foreign ministry commissioner in Hong Kong, who warned Hart against any further “interference in Hong Kong’s affairs.” This was only the latest of many such warnings to U.S. representatives since the territory’s handover from British to Chinese control (Global Times, August 30, 2013; Special Commissioner of the PRC Foreign Ministry in the HKSAR, August 27, 2013; SCMP, August 28 and September 11, 2013).

Despite Beijing’s displeasure, Hart re-iterated his previous statement in a September 2013 speech: “The United States Government has repeatedly made clear that it supports Hong Kong’s progress toward genuine universal suffrage as laid out in the Basic Law and the National People’s Congress’s 2007 decision. This U.S. policy is unchanged. We believe that an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential to maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity…. Let me also be clear that the United States will always stand for our core democratic values” (U.S. Consulate, Hong Kong, September 24, 2013).

Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong reacted to these remarks by Hart with predictable fury. China’s foreign ministry lashed out at Hart: “The development of political system [sic] is the internal affair of Hong Kong and China. The Chinese government is firmly opposed to any country’s interference in Hong Kong’s internal affairs by making irresponsible remarks in this regard” (PRC Foreign Ministry, September 25, 2013).

The pro-Beijing press in Hong Kong reacted with even more vitriol to Hart’s remarks. Hart was accused of “sinister” and “malevolent” intentions by one commentator, who called on “all levels of society across Hong Kong [to] stay on their guard while resisting U.S. interference and sabotage of Hong Kong’s general elections.” This author further accused the United States and Hart of promoting independence from China for both Hong Kong and Taiwan as a means of splitting China in the interests of U.S. imperialism. (Wen Wei Po, September 26, 2013).

Pro-democracy media reacted very differently to Hart’s remarks. Apple Daily ran several articles enthusiastically reporting his remarks and characterizing Beijing’s reaction as little but impotent rage. In Apple Daily, Hart’s pro-democracy statements were extensively quoted and presented as balanced and reasonable, while Beijing’s reaction was characterized as overheated, showing a lack of confidence in its ability to manage Hong Kong’s political affairs (Apple Daily, September 25, 26, 27, 2013).

2014 and Beyond for Hong Kong Democracy

Events to watch in Hong Kong in 2014 include the outcome of the current consultation on voting and nomination rights, actions by Occupy Central and Beijing’s response. In the likely event that pro-democracy demands are not met, actions by Occupy Central and its allies will be key to the future of Hong Kong democracy. Given sufficient numbers and sustained strength, Occupy Central may well succeed in forcing concessions from Beijing, just as protesters against “patriotic education” succeeded in 2012. If the movement falters, Beijing will have the upper hand.

In the longer term, further “mainlandization” efforts by Beijing can be expected, and continued vigilance by the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong will be necessary. In 2014 and in the longer term, U.S. and international attention and support may also be an important factor. The more global attention and support Hong Kong’s democracy movement can raise, the more difficult it may be for Beijing to impose its will on Hong Kong. 


  1. See also Lo, Sonny, “The Mainlandization and Recolonization of Hong Kong: a Triumph of Convergence over Divergence with Mainland China.” Joseph Y.S. Cheng (ed.), The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in its First Decade, pp. 179-231. City University of Hong Kong Press, 2007.
  2. See also Loh, Christine (ed.), Functional Constituencies: A Unique Feature of the Hong Kong Legislative Council. Hong Kong University Press, 2006.