© 2024 Hawaiʻi Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
HPR's spring membership campaign is underway! Support the reporting, storytelling and music you depend on. Donate now

Hong Kong's Democracy Dilemma: Settle For Some, Or Keep Fighting?


Last August, Beijing declared that it reserved the right to choose the candidates for Hong Kong's highest office. And tens of thousands of people poured into Hong Kong's streets to protest. For months, until the movement was snuffed out, protesters demanded freedom from interference by Chinese authorities. But not all citizens were behind them. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports that this dilemma, whether to have partial democracy or none at all, is dividing Hong Kong's society.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Under Beijing's plan, a committee of pro-Beijing elites would've nominated candidates for the top job. Opposition Democratic Party chairwoman Emily Lau explains why pro-democratic lawmakers like herself voted down that plan.

EMILY LAU: It's a fake because it's one person, one vote, but the choice of candidate is confined to those acceptable to Beijing.

KUHN: Lau says that some folks in Hong Kong say, let's take this imperfect democracy as a first step and then improve on it.

LAU: Others say, no this is not universal suffrage. How can I accept it as such? So that's where the division is. It's not that Hong Kong people genuinely do not want democracy.

KUHN: Since Beijing's proposal was voted down, Hong Kong residents will not get to vote for their leader in the 2017 election. Instead, a 1,200 member electoral college will do the job for them. Hong Kong's dilemma has opened up rifts within the pro-democracy camp. Ronny Tong is a former lawmaker who founded a party within that camp, but he says his party has strayed from its original purpose. In an interview, he explains his decision to quit his party and resign as a legislator in June.

RONNY TONG: I feel very sad because the reason why I enter into politics and become a legislator is to fight for democracy, and the dream for democracy has failed. I felt that I am responsible, and so the only proper thing to do is to resign, to bear the political responsibility of failing in my task.

KUHN: Since quitting, he's founded new civic group that he hopes will win over the political middle. He says he wants to engage Beijing and not confront it.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Speaking Cantonese).

KUHN: The so-called Umbrella Movement protests of last year did try to confront Beijing, and they were a stark illustration of the divisions plaguing Hong Kong. Wilson Wong, a scholar at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, has conducted surveys that show that about a third of Hong Kong residents support Beijing's plan for partial democracy. About one third oppose it, and the rest are undecided.

WILSON WONG: (Through interpreter) These two groups are about equal in number, so no matter what issue comes up, both camps have sufficient power to stalemate or deadlock each other.

KUHN: The divisions make Hong Kong increasingly tough to govern. Its legislature is paralyzed by filibusters. Academics squabble over the appointment of university administrators, and residents of public housing projects blame the government over a tainted drinking water scandal. Wilson Wong notes that these divisions come at a time when income disparity is growing and the territory is being eclipsed by big cities in mainland China.

WONG: (Through interpreter) Hong Kong remains a very peaceful and stable society. What is worrisome is that policy that would make Hong Kong more economically prosperous and help it maintain its leading regional role has stagnated because the government lacks a popular mandate.

KUHN: Hong Kong residents will have their say about all this later this year and next when they go to the polls to directly elect local council members and legislators. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Hong Kong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
More from Hawai‘i Public Radio