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Activists risk 'the end of Hong Kong' if they respond the wrong way to Beijing, experts say

  • President Xi Jinping is in Hong Kong to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the handover from British rule
  • Pro-democracy demonstrators have renewed protests against perceived erosion of their civil liberties
  • Experts caution activists to restrain themselves to prevent further crackdowns from Beijing

Chinese President Xi Jinping reaffirmed on Thursday Beijing's commitment to "one country, two systems," even as Hong Kong democracy advocates grow increasingly skeptical of the mainland's intentions.

Xi's visit, tied to the 20th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British rule, has renewed protests from those who claim Beijing has no interest in maintaining the policy, and instead wants to see the semi-autonomous "special administrative region " brought into the fold.

'Two systems' is a sticking point

On Wednesday, local police arrested 26 demonstrators who clambered up the Golden Bauhinia, a commemorative handover statue, to demand universal suffrage. Most of the protesters were detained for more than 24 hours before being released.

Pro-democracy party Demosisto said in a Monday statement, "Our confidence in 'one country, two systems' has waned and is replaced by the fear of it becoming 'one country, 1.5 systems.'"

(From L to R) Student protest leader Joshua Wong, Hong Kong pro-democracy party League of Social Democrats (LSD) chairman Avery Ng, pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung and pro-democracy lawmaker Nathan Law hold a protest against their recent arrests in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.
Jayne Russell | AFP | Getty Images
(From L to R) Student protest leader Joshua Wong, Hong Kong pro-democracy party League of Social Democrats (LSD) chairman Avery Ng, pro-democracy lawmaker Leung Kwok-hung and pro-democracy lawmaker Nathan Law hold a protest against their recent arrests in Hong Kong on June 30, 2017.

The principle of "one country, two systems" has allowed the special administrative region to preserve civil liberties that mainland China does not uphold.

For his part, from the tarmac of the Hong Kong airport, Xi said Beijing wants to make sure the structure has a "far-reaching future."

But democracy advocates like Claudia Mo, who holds a seat on Hong Kong's Legislative Council, are critical of the policy's implementation to date.

"The 'one country, two systems' promise has been a sham, a fraud, a cheat because Beijing simply doesn't trust Hong Kong," she told CNBC.

Geopolitics experts also expressed doubt about the sanctity of the two separate systems.

"The 'one country, two systems' promise has been a sham, a fraud, a cheat because Beijing simply doesn't trust Hong Kong." -Claudia Mo, Hong Kong lawmaker

Recently, it seems Beijing "barely recognizes the two systems" part of the structure, said Rodger Baker, vice president of strategic analysis at geopolitical intelligence firm Stratfor. He explained that the Chinese Communist Party can stomach two systems only "so long as those systems are 100 percent compatible with Beijing's interests."

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.
Bobby Yip | Reuters
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan arrive at the airport in Hong Kong, China, ahead of celebrations marking the city's handover from British to Chinese rule, June 29, 2017.

But there are elements of Hong Kong society and life that Beijing finds fundamentally disquieting. Under Xi's administration, pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong have responded to recent political unrest with swift crackdowns, which have subsequently elicited greater sympathy for protesters.

In 2014's "Umbrella Movement," police fired tear gas into a crowd that had gathered on the streets of one of the world's safest cities. When images of the chaos went viral, thousands poured into the streets to support the pro-democracy activists, many of whom were students.

China's reactions to Hong Kong's recent political developments seem to indicate paranoia, said Richard Bush, director for the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution.

Lawmaker Mo explained that the Chinese central government has a "profound" distrust of any push for broader democracy in Hong Kong because it equates those movements with demands for independence.

Umbrellas are opened as tens of thousands come to the main protest site one month after the Hong Kong police used tear gas to disperse protesters October 28, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Getty Images
Umbrellas are opened as tens of thousands come to the main protest site one month after the Hong Kong police used tear gas to disperse protesters October 28, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.

But the idea that many Hong Kong residents want to become independent is perhaps overblown.

A recent survey conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong found that just 11.4 percent of respondents supported independence and that only 2.9 percent thought it was possible.

On a practical level, independence would involve many logistical complications for Hong Kong, which is dependent on China for basic necessities. For instance, the city has typically imported at least 70 percent of its water from southern China since the 90's.

Rather than independence, most protesters in Hong Kong are simply looking for better adherence to the democratic values enshrined in the documents that incorporated the city as a special administrative region of China.

'True' universal suffrage

One of the largest flashpoints between Beijing and activists is a single sentence in Article 45 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution:

"The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

In 2014, thousands took to the streets to demand "true" universal suffrage, when China revealed that Hong Kong people could only vote for chief executive candidates that had been nominated by a small committee filled with Beijing loyalists.

The Chinese central government argues that this process achieves the goal laid out in the Basic Law, since all eligible voters would be able to cast a ballot. But pro-democracy advocates disagree, claiming that pre-screening candidates undermines the democratic process.

Mo said activists want a "true democracy" where all qualified candidates would be able to run.

"If the elected chief executive turns out to be a bad choice, we suffer the consequences and we'll try again the next time around. That's what we mean by true democracy," she said.

Although protesters are legally allowed to express their frustration with the central government's interpretation of the Basic Law, experts said that the anti-establishment camp must walk a fine line.

The politically disenfranchised, Stratfor's Baker said, have to be careful and not slip toward more radical protests.

"It really just does come down to these fringe elements who have the potential to make this a more violent protest. That, in the long run, could trigger China just to decide that two systems is no longer viable at all," he said.

Mo agreed, saying activists need to be aware of Beijing's tendency to perceive democratic advocacy as a demand for independence.

"With that, they can use legal means to shut you down if you're not careful, and that's the end of Hong Kong if they want to reign with fear in this town," she said.

A new leader

On Saturday, Xi will observe the swearing in of Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam on July 1, the same day as the handover anniversary.

Lam assumes office amid a fragmented political landscape, in which her detractors allege she has no mandate because of the chief executive electoral process.

Between the mounting pressures from both the Hong Kong public and Beijing, Brookings' Bush said that Lam "is caught in an impossible position."

The chief executive-elect has pledged to uphold "one country, two systems" and maintain Hong Kong's high degree of autonomy. But Beijing's anxieties about agitation in Hong Kong will likely compel Lam to exercise control over local unrest.

"One consequence of that, for example, is that she may calculate that goals like preserving the rule of law and preserving civil and political rights, from attrition by Beijing, is best done quietly," Bush said. "If she does this in a public way that makes it very clear to everybody that she's making demands, then Beijing is going to respond in the worst possible way."

When stuck between the wishes of the Hong Kong people and those of Beijing, pro-democracy lawmaker Mo said that she suspects Lam will err on the side of the central government.

In an interview with BBC this month, Lam commented on the claims she is a puppet of Beijing and allegations she won her election because of pro-Beijing forces: "[That] is a failure to acknowledge what I have done in Hong Kong over the last 36 years for the people of Hong Kong."

Mo said, however, that she does hope Lam makes things better.

"As a career bureaucrat, she should know the root problems of Hong Kong and try her best," the democracy advocate said.

"We still have five years to go. Let's hope for the best."