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Why Does China Get To Renege on Its Promise of Democracy in Hong Kong?

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I was in Hong Kong in July 1997 when Britain transferred its sovereignty to China in return for promises to slowly democratize the former colony. There was excitement in the air, and gigantic fireworks displays for two evenings. But the anxiety was palpable the day after celebrations when we all woke up to Chinese tanks and troops positioned along several main thoroughfares.

The show of force sent a message and launched speculation as to whether China would keep its grand promises.

Now we know.

In 1997, Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage by 2017 including full democratic elections for the city's leader, or Chief Executive. On Aug. 31, China reneged its pledge and reversed course by ruling that only three candidates could run for Hong Kong's leadership in 2017 and each would be vetted, then chosen by Beijing, not by universal suffrage.

This not only violated the spirit and letter of the agreement with Britain but foreshadowed a more dramatic grab for power. By controlling Hong Kong's CEO, China controls the appointments of its judiciary, thus undermining the rule of law that has underpinned Hong Kong's economic prosperity.

The reason for this is that China (Canada please note) takes no prisoners and reserves the right to break agreements, trade or political, when it suits national or vested interests. Despite this reality, Canada just inked a 31-year trade deal with Beijing that opens up our economy and resources to their corporations and, allegedly, opens up their closed shop to ours.

China's recent ruthlessness has shocked many including Emily Lau, a long-standing Member of Hong Kong's Legislative Council. In a recent interview, she said: "These demands are modest and reasonable and protesters are peaceful. There is no compromise. The ball is now in China's court. Promises were made."

China's breach has led to mass protests in the city as well as sympathy demonstrations involving thousands of members of China's large diaspora in Canada, Australia, the U.S. and elsewhere. Tremors were felt in Taiwan, next on the Mainland's Hit List, and in Tokyo, another sworn enemy.

The fact is that the whole world is watching -- except for Mainland China where a government news blackout has been imposed to halt pro-democracy contagion. But, unlike the Tiananmen Square protester massacre in 1989, Beijing cannot prevent leakage via cell phones, visitors and internal pirate websites. This is, paradoxically, not good news for Hong Kong.

It places even more pressure on Beijing's central committee to crack down on Hong Kong rather than simply ignore the dissent. But no one knows what will happen next. In 1989, Beijing played a waiting game for weeks and ignored the Tiananmen demonstration before clearing the square with troops and killing hundreds, possibly thousands.

Many commentators maintain that China wouldn't dare to go that far again. But it depends on its national interest. China's biggest risk is widespread social unrest and if Hong Kong's democratization would spark that, then no means to avert such a possibility can be eliminated.

Already, Beijing, through its Hong Kong CEO, has unleashed police, tear gas and batons on the crowds. There will be more of this, along with arrests made based on bogus allegations of pushing, shoving, vandalism, illegal assembly or traffic violations.

Gratuitous violence has already begun. So-called pro-Beijing demonstrators have caused conflicts. Protected by the police, these agitators are about as apolitical as are Russia's so-called Ukrainian separatists.

What's most perplexing, however, is why China would rock the boat and break its promises when the arrangement appears to work fairly well.

Contagion is a big worry, but perhaps Hong Kong is designed to divert attention and resources away from the massive corruption scandal and clean out at home. Perhaps this part of a subtext behind the fact that the IPO of China's online giant, Alibaba, went to New York instead of Hong Kong. Perhaps Beijing's elite believes that Hong Kong should no longer enjoy privileges that the rest of the country lacks. Perhaps Shanghai wants its archrival's wings clipped.

Whatever the reasons, the threat of violence hangs over Hong Kong as happened 25 years ago and the similarities should give anyone pause. Both began as peaceful protests then swelled to hundreds of thousands camping in public in front of television cameras. Then Beijing violently ended the democracy movement.

The reason was that China's stability was at stake, according to Singapore's statesman Lee Kuan Yew. He once said: "He [Deng Xiaoping] took over and said, "If I have to shoot 200,000 students to save China from another 100 years of disorder, so be it."

Today, the world worries about these events because of China's geo-economic importance. That's why markets have been roiling worldwide. And, frankly, they should.


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