A pro-democracy protester holding a yellow umbrella (C) gestures as she stands in front of a line of police during their clearance of a major protest site in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on November 26, 2014. Hong Kong authorities are contining their clearing out of a major pro-democracy protest site, the morning after scuffles broke out as police used pepper spray and arrested 116 people.  AFP PHOTO / Philippe LopezPHILIPPE LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images

The re-emergence of student demonstrations on the streets of Hong Kong testifies to the continuing tension over the territory’s political arrangements.

Until a few days ago, the authorities in Beijing might have consoled themselves with the thought that the unrest was subsiding. But such illusions will have been dispelled by Sunday night’s running clashes, which saw student activists blocking streets and trying to storm government buildings. The situation in Hong Kong remains febrile with plenty at stake for the territory’s people and the Chinese government.

At the heart of the stand-off is a dispute over China’s plans for the future political system of Hong Kong, which was handed over by the British in 1997. In August, Beijing agreed to introduce universal suffrage, one person one vote, for the 2017 election of chief executive – the top political job in the territory. However, the plan includes restrictions that effectively bar critics of the Chinese regime from running.

The subsequent wave of demonstrations has not only disrupted daily life in the territory. It has raised questions about Hong Kong’s future as a financial centre and the territory’s special status within China.

Beijing bears much of the blame for things reaching this pass. True, China has stuck to the letter of the Basic Law, the mini-constitution adopted in 1990 that governs Hong Kong and conceded the principle of universal suffrage, one never accepted in colonial times.

But its proposed franchise is too narrowly based. Candidates for the leadership must be nominated by committee, dominated by Beijing’s placemen. There is no provision for public nomination as the students and many liberal Hongkongers desire.

Beijing seems in no mood to compromise. Its steely approach was highlighted at the weekend when it emerged that China had banned a delegation of British MPs from visiting Hong Kong to assess whether the “one country two systems” deal between the UK and China was being honoured. Given that Hong Kong is supposedly an open city with special status, this sends an unfortunate signal. It also rams home the impression that Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” exists only at the pleasure of its masters in Beijing.

The critical question is what can be done to avert further confrontation. Ideally, China would compromise on its approach to the 2017 poll, allowing Hongkongers something closer to genuine democracy. True this would involve taking something of a gamble. But the territory’s citizens are practical people and unlikely to elect someone openly hostile to Beijing.

In reality, however, a volte face is not going to happen. Some compromise at the margin is the best that could be hoped for. One possible way forward could involve the composition of the nomination committee for the chief executive candidates, now limited to 1,200 mainly pro-Beijing businessmen. This could be made more representative. The Chinese government could also offer to extend discussions on future democracy beyond 2017.

Some sort of solution is urgently needed. Throughout the stand-off, the risk has always been that acts of violence might occur that take the conflict between students and the authorities beyond the point of no return.

This would be a tragedy for the future of Hong Kong. The territory’s success as a financial centre depends on its freedoms including an independent judiciary and an unmuzzled press. But it would also hurt China. Resorting to naked coercion or an escalation into violence in the name of preserving stability would have serious consequences for its good name.


Letters in response to this editorial:

China ensures Hong Kong people can vote for head / From Miao Deyu

Finger-wagging MPs will achieve nothing but antagonise China / From Paul Maxwell

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