It is not wholly true to say that the eyes of the world are on Hong Kong. They would be, of course, if people in mainland China were allowed to know what is happening in Hong Kong. But China has tried to block any news about the demonstrations from reaching the rest of the country — not exactly a sign of confidence on the part of the rulers in their system of authoritarian government.
Before suggesting a way forward for Hong Kong’s ham-fisted authorities, three things need to be made clear. First, it is a slur on the integrity and principles of Hong Kong’s citizens to assert, as China’s propaganda machine does, that they are being manipulated by outside forces. What motivates Hong Kong’s demonstrators is a belief that they should be able to run their affairs as they were promised, choosing those who govern them in free and fair elections.
Second, others outside of Hong Kong have a legitimate interest in what happens in the city because it is an international centre, whose freedoms and autonomy were guaranteed in a treaty registered at the United Nations. In particular, Britain, the other party to the Sino-British Joint Declaration, sought and received guarantees that the survival of Hong Kong’s autonomy and liberties would be guaranteed for 50 years. So it is ridiculous to suggest that British politicians should keep their noses out of Hong Kong’s affairs. In fact, they have a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain.
But, third, the biggest problems have arisen because of a dispute about where Hong Kong’s promised path to democracy should take it, and when. No one told Hong Kongers when they were assured of universal suffrage that it would not mean being able to choose for whom they could vote.
In fact, that is not what China had in mind. As early as 1993, China’s chief negotiator on Hong Kong, Lu Ping, said, “The [method of universal suffrage] should be reported to [China’s Parliament] for the record, whereas the central government’s agreement is not necessary. How Hong Kong develops its democracy in the future is completely within the sphere of the autonomy of Hong Kong. The central government will not interfere.” The following year, China’s foreign ministry confirmed this.
The Hong Kong authorities have miscalculated the views of their citizens. Like the bad courtiers against whom Confucius warned, they went to Beijing and told the emperor what they thought he wanted to hear, not what the situation was in the city. They must think again.
Under the existing plans, there is supposed to be a second phase of consultations on democratic development to follow what turned out to be a counterfeit start to the process. Hong Kong’s government should now offer its people a proper second round of consultation, one that is open and honest. Dialogue is the only sensible way forward. Hong Kong’s citizens are not irresponsible or unreasonable. A decent compromise that allows for elections that people can recognise as fair, not fixed, is surely available.
The demonstrators in Hong Kong, young and old, represent the city’s future. Their hopes are for a peaceful and prosperous life in which they can enjoy the freedoms and rule of law that they were promised. That is not only in the interest of their city; it is in China’s interest, too. Hong Kong’s future is the main issue; but so, too, is China’s honour and its standing in the world.
Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2014.