“China cannot ignore the will of Hong Kongers”

David Pilling in FT on the dangers Beijing faces in openly meddling with Hong Kong’s elections:

Opinion polls show Mr Tang with only 20 per cent of popular support against nearly 50 per cent for his main rival, C.Y. Leung, a self-made man with a strong social platform. Mr Leung has, for example, promised to build more public housing.

That presents Beijing with a real dilemma. Frank Ching, a political commentator, says that if the unpopular Mr Tang is forced on the territory it could become “ungovernable”. But Beijing may have a hard time persuading the tycoons to back Mr Leung, whom some view as a dangerous leftwinger. That may mean Beijing has to come up with a new candidate only a month before the election.

Beijing is right to worry about the sentiments of Hong Kongers. After all, they have shown their willingness to rebel before. In 2003 up to half a million people demonstrated against national security legislation thought by many to threaten freedom of speech and association. Beijing walked away from a confrontation and the legislation remains shelved to this day. In other ways, too, Hong Kong likes to flex its independence. Its courts have defended the rights of Falun Gong, a religious organisation banned on the mainland. Every June 4, Hong Kong holds a moving vigil to the victims of Tiananmen Square, something that would be impossible across the border.

One should not exaggerate. Hong Kong won’t escalate low-level rebellion beyond a certain point. Its business-savvy population knows its bread is buttered in Beijing. Indeed, Hong Kong has been given a new lease of life as a financial centre by China’s decision to make it an offshore renminbi centre. Yet that dependence cuts both ways. Hong Kong remains a vital conduit for money and an interface between communist China and the capitalist world. Beijing needs Hong Kong to work properly. That’s why it cannot afford to ignore the will of the territory’s people – whether they have a vote or not.


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