Pro-democracy lawmakers carrying yellow umbrellas, symbols of the Occupy Central movement, meet journalists after leaving a Legislative Council meeting to boycott the government in Hong Kong, January 7, 2015.
Bobby Yip / Reuters

A century ago, Chinese philosopher Liang Qichao, considered the most influential thinker of his generation, electrified readers with his calls for, as he termed it, “new citizens.” As China’s ossified Qing dynasty stumbled toward collapse, Liang insisted that the outdated political system was not the country’s real malady. Instead, what held China back was the pervasive lack of civic-mindedness and “public virtue” among his compatriots, who passively accepted being imperial subjects rather than demanding the right, and embracing the responsibilities, of acting like modern citizens.

A protester holds a yellow umbrella, symbol of the Occupy Central movement, during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2015. 
Bobby Yip / Reuters
Sadly, Liang’s notion of transforming China into a nation of new citizens remains as revolutionary today as it was when he first proposed it at the dawn of the twentieth century. But the latest twist in China’s saga of deferred democracy is found in Hong Kong—a former British colony still unsure of how Chinese it wants to be. It is there that the frontline has emerged in the battle to make civic-minded citizenship possible within the People’s Republic of China.

Were Liang able to come along on a recent visit to Hong Kong, he would have been deeply stirred to witness the city’s civic passions on display. Civic engagement is not limited only to the students armed with yellow umbrellas who captured the world’s attention late last year during the Occupy Central demonstrations. The same intensity characterizes some of the Umbrella movement’s would-be adversaries: middle-aged professionals, for example, who seek a pragmatic way to balance pride in their city’s distinctiveness with prudence in the face of Beijing’s power. And then there are the animated elders—retired civil servants who held a stiff upper lip for decades under both British and Chinese rule but are now speaking out against Beijing. They are challenged by pro-mainland business tycoons who are frustrated that money cannot purchase the hearts and minds of their city’s youth. Ever since the yellow umbrellas came out, and even after they folded, the city has been engaged in a fascinating civic conversation about what Hong Kong is and what it wants to be.

BEIJING’S LEGISLATIVE DEFEAT

The answers to Hong Kong’s identity questions remain unclear and have been made all the more opaque after recent events that threw the city’s political status up in the air. In June, just six months after the massive yellow umbrella protests finally subsided, Beijing suffered another stunning political setback, not on the streets but rather in the Hong Kong legislature, when pan-democracy members voted down a proposal that would have ensured Beijing’s control over the field of candidates to run for chief executive (the term of the unpopular incumbent, C. Y. Leung, ends in 2017). The vetoed proposal was pitched as a compromise in which Hong Kong voters could directly elect their leader, but only from a slate of candidates vetted by a committee dominated by pro-Beijing members. Pragmatic Hong Kong leaders argued that this imperfect offer at least kept momentum in the direction of self-government; intensive lobbying, however, failed to break pan-democratic solidarity in the legislature. Minutes before voting commenced, the pro-Beijing camp staged a walkout from legislative chambers in order to stall a quorum until a delayed member could arrive—but in the confusion, not all members left, allowing the vote to proceed. In the final tally, only eight out of 70 members voted in Beijing’s favor, with 28 pan-democrats voting against.

Protesters carry Hong Kong colonial flags and anti-China placards during a march in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2015, the day marking the 18th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover from Britain to Chinese sovereignty.
Bobby Yip / Reuters
One opposition leader joked that only divine intervention could have brought about this denouement. But did the gods help the pan-democrats win a Pyrrhic victory? After all, China’s highest legal authority, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, already ruled definitively on election procedures, and the NPC is not known to reverse itself. The pan-democrats want open competition in terms not only of who can vote but also of who can run for office. Beijing, however, wants an invisible hand to ensure the fealty of whoever runs Hong Kong. Now that Hong Kong’s city legislature has rejected the proposal approved by China’s national government, there is no clear way forward in electing Hong Kong’s executive branch.

A PEACEFUL EVOLUTION

Beijing must now determine how it can best manage Hong Kong’s recalcitrance. Unlike China’s handling of other troublesome parts of its sovereign territory, including the nominally autonomous regions of Tibet and Xinjiang, Beijing has to operate within unique constraints when dealing with Hong Kong. Intimidation through the preponderance of force, for example, is off the table: at the height of the Occupy Central drama, the international media flocked to the spectacle of students shutting down city blocks. Observers began to draw parallels to Tiananmen Square in 1989 and worried about a crackdown. But those fears proved misguided. Indeed, it was the Hong Kong police’s use of tear gas against students that triggered mass solidarity demonstrations; given that outrage, Beijing wisely foresaw the irreparable damage that would be done to the “hearts and minds” of Hong Kongers at the sight of People’s Liberation Army forces attempting to quell civic disobedience.

Similarly, the legalistic techniques Beijing uses to silence domestic critics are of limited use in Hong Kong thanks to the city’s emphasis on rule of law and judicial independence, a point of intense pride to Hong Kong’s citizens. When Hong Kong’s first chief executive proposed a national security law in 2002 that threatened to erode civil liberties, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, forcing the government to back down. Earlier this month, China’s legislature passed an expansive national security law, but Hong Kong’s executive was quick to assert that the law did not apply to the city—even though Beijing’s new law did ominously point out Hong Kong’s and Macau’s “responsibilities to safeguard national security.” If Beijing chooses to go down the legalistic route, half a million Hong Kongers might well flood Central once again.

A protester carries a placard as others waving Hong Kong colonial flags during a demonstration in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2015
Bobby Yip / Reuters
So with limited options to forcibly silence opposition, Beijing seems likely to grin and bear the discontent while refusing to compromise with pan-democrats. Instead, China will try to bank on the loyalty of business and political elites, the pragmatism of middle-class professionals, and the economic interests of the working class and poor. In essence, the strategy is “peaceful evolution” in reverse, as Hong Kong is gradually coaxed out of its democratic ambitions and comes to accept the mainland’s social contract—one in which social freedom is exchanged for the Chinese Communist Party’s political monopoly and the economic progress that it has created. Beijing has little option but to hope that Hong Kongers will eventually move past their flirtation with citizenship and learn, like China’s other 1.35 billion people, to be happy as subjects of the People’s Republic.

What remains uncertain, however, is whether time is really on the party’s side. Underlying the procedural question of electing the chief executive is a deeper problem—the identity chasm between Hong Kong and China is widening. At one extreme, Hong Kongers dismiss visiting mainlanders as “locusts” without even a basic sense of manners. The Umbrella movement’s student leaders show almost no interest in spreading their passion for civic engagement and political activism to the mainland. To some extent, this is a tactic dictated by prudence, as proselytizing democracy on the mainland would be a losing battle. But the students’ apathy toward mainlanders, rather than caution, seems to play a bigger role. The feeling is mutual. Mainlanders liken Hong Kong to a city of spoiled children who want to keep their postcolonial playground to themselves. For sophisticated urbanites in booming top-tier cities such as Shanghai and Beijing, Hong Kong no longer carries its former allure as an oasis of First World wealth. With the end of envy over Hong Kong’s affluence comes some resentment at its demands for special treatment.

Hong Kong and the mainland are sinking deeper into a kind of mutual alienation. Eighteen years after the emotional hand-over of the city, Beijing’s ham-handed efforts to address the identity gap—such as its attempts to impose “patriotic education” on Hong Kong students—have only aggravated the condition. It may be Beijing that risks winning a Pyrrhic victory in not having to compromise with the pan-democrats on a more robust electoral process. A real democratic package, after all, could help bring Hong Kong closer to the mainland through the demonstration of trust in the city to select its own leaders. But then there is always the next problem. If Hong Kongers are qualified for real democracy, what about those other 1.35 billion Chinese citizens? Were he alive today, Liang Qichao would probably want to know the answer to that question as well.

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