Panoramic aerial view of Hong Kong Central district.  Photo: WikiCommon/ Mstyslav Chernov
Panoramic aerial view of Hong Kong Central district. Photo: WikiCommon/ Mstyslav Chernov

There is no question that President Xi Jinping and his government would have been outraged by protesters storming the Hong Kong legislature on July 1. The 22nd anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese control should have been a day of celebration for China, but instead it was the focus of the world’s media for all the wrong reasons.

Later this year, the Communist Party of China will celebrate its 70th year in power. Over the decades the CPC has proved itself to be remarkably adaptable, a characteristic that has enabled it to avoid the fate of its Leninist counterparts that were toppled in the revolutions following 1989.

Since Xi came to office, he has strengthened the party’s grip over China, and Hong Kong has been no exception.

I agree wholeheartedly with retired Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan that the protests in Hong Kong achieved nothing, and while the protesters were undoubtedly brave and idealistic, their efforts will prove to have been in vain. Don’t be fooled by the latest video of Cantonese pop star Denise Ho, who slammed China in a United Nations Human Rights Council meeting. While it made for good publicity and dented China’s international image, it will bring about no change on the ground.

Thanks to its massive economic and military might, China can easily withstand any pressures from abroad. None of the world’s major powers will risk jeopardizing their relationship with China over Hong Kong, for while the former British colony is a core interest for China, to the rest of the world it is a minor consideration.

While the US and UK have made statements of support for the protesters, they have failed to back their words with actions. Hong Kong is a politically expedient tool picked up once in a while to apply pressure upon China. The US has already toned down its support of protests in the hope of a resumption in trade talks, clearly prioritizing its economic interests ahead of what is happening on the streets of Hong Kong.

Protesters in Hong Kong must discard any illusions that the West will meaningfully embrace their cause.

Although they have succeeded in killing the much-hated extradition bill that was the inspiration for early protests, continuing unrest has done nothing to weaken Beijing’s control over its southern financial capital. On the contrary, in light of what it doubtless perceives to be a huge challenge to its unbreakable authority, Beijing will now be even more determined to tighten its grip on Hong Kong.

Solving the city-state’s deep-rooted and multi-faceted problems will demand compromises and wisdom from all parties involved.

Considering the extent of reform that is required to the Hong Kong system of “one country, two systems,” the irony is that much-derided Beijing is the only party capable of saving Hong Kong and ensuring the continued longevity of that system.

The Hong Kong political system has repeatedly proven not to be up to the task of updating and reforming itself. External intervention is needed to institute reforms to keep it on a sustainable path. Beijing has set precedents in the past, for example in 1999 when the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal ruled that all children born of permanent residents, no matter when they were born, had the right of abode in Hong Kong. The ruling caused anxiety in Hong Kong over the fear of an influx of mainlanders. China reacted issuing a reinterpretation of the Basic Law that in essence overturned the court ruling.

Desperate times call for desperate measures. This goes for Beijing, too.

Long-running protests have put China under a harsh spotlight that almost certainly has hardliners in Beijing advocating stern measures against the protesters.

But instead of using force, Beijing should take the high ground and exercise its sweeping power to institute reform in Hong Kong.

First, China should revise its 2004 interpretation of the Basic Law on the election of the territory’s chief executive. Currently, amendments to election methods must be passed by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council before being approved by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). China should reinterpret this to make amendments to election methods require approval by the NPCSC followed by being implemented by the Hong Kong government. This would mean that the Hong Kong Legislative Council would debate and discuss changes to the way it elects a chief executive as instructed by Beijing.

Giving the people of Hong Kong a chance to vote regardless of the fact that the candidates will still have to be pre-vetted by Beijing will help China douse the growing sense of anger among Hongkongers and avoid fueling the more impassioned fringe elements of the pro-democracy camp.

Hong Kong’s wealth gap is one of the most extreme in the world and has become the single biggest threat to social stability. Hong Kong is a perfect example of unbridled capitalism leading to devastating consequences for those who fall through the cracks.

Beijing should exercise its influence by pushing for reforms to break up the property stranglehold held by a few powerful families in the city. Housing has become out of reach for many Hongkongers and it is this desperation that has driven so many to lose faith in the “one country, two systems” policy.

If China wants to integrate Hong Kong and win the respect and support of the next generation, it must take drastic action to improve the livelihoods of young people, to remove the cloud of economic despair that currently hangs over young Hongkongers.

China should also be prepared to extend the 2047 deadline for the end of “one country, two systems”; this will help curb separatist momentum and dampen calls for independence.

A new social order is needed in Hong Kong, Only Beijing is in a position to make the changes to make that happen.

Maa Zhi Hong

Maa Zhi Hong is a political analyst in Singapore who has written for Today, Asia Times, the South China Morning Post and Nikkei Asian Review. His official Instagram account is @maazhihongofficial.

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