Big Trouble in Little China

The Widening Rift Between Hong Kong and Beijing

A pro-democracy protester rests in Hong Kong, August 31, 2014. Bobby Yip / Courtesy Reuters

When China announced last week that it would not permit open nominations for the post of Hong Kong chief executive in 2017, it marked a turning point in one of the most serious crises to affect the city since it was handed over by the United Kingdom in 1997 with a promise that it could retain its own way of life for 50 years. According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong, by which the city was returned to China, Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong to retain its basic capitalist economic system and social institutions until 2047. That promise was not only enshrined in an international treaty between China and the United Kingdom, but also written into the Hong Kong constitution, known as the Basic Law, and reflected in China’s public commitment to the policy of “one country, two systems.” But many Hong Kongers have long suspected that China aspires to accelerate the existing timeline. Thus, while the immediate question roiling Hong Kong today is how the city will be governed after 2017, on another level, Hong Kong is wrestling with much more fundamental questions concerning what convergence and eventual integration into the mainland will mean, when it should begin, how it should proceed, and what rights Hong Kongers have in shaping how (or even if) that process unfolds.

Politically, Hong Kongers have already had plenty of opportunity to experience the sorts of chief executives that take office when Beijing selects the city’s leaders, and it has not been a happy experience. Hong Kong's current chief executive, C. Y. Leung, was chosen by a pro-Beijing selection committee in 2012, as were his predecessors Donald Tsang (2005–12) and C. H. Tung (1997–2005). Both Tsang and Tung left their posts deeply unpopular and having lost the trust of the city’s residents; since taking office, Leung has repeatedly given the impression that he prioritizes Beijing’s concerns over those of Hong Kong. Two incidents in particular have contributed to this impression.

First, upon taking office, Leung immediately

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