Beijing is willing to pay a high price to limit democracy in Hong Kong.

In August, Beijing announced that, after years of delay, voters in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China may finally, for the first time, elect their chief executive, roughly the equivalent of a mayor, in 2017. However, there was a big catch. Supporters of the Chinese Communists would determine who could run. This sparked some of the largest protests in the city's history.


In 1984, when Great Britain agreed to return the colony to Chinese rule, Beijing promised that the chief executive would be elected by the people of Hong Kong — but never specified the nomination procedure, nor moved to implement a democratic process. Meanwhile, China has grown more powerful and confident over the past few decades, and its leaders are determined to avoid what they define as destabilizing influences from the West — including representative democracy, opposition parties and the development of civil society in competition with the Communist Party. Hong Kong's election law is a small part of an effort by Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping to prevent significant political reform anywhere China.

The "Occupy Central" movement in Hong Kong, modeled in part on the Occupy Wall Street efforts in the United States, combines anger at this policy with long-simmering discontent. The people of Hong Kong have become less enamored with the regime in Beijing and perhaps less favorable toward China in general. Some of this is natural — Hong Kong and Beijing have more disputes between them because the volume of economic, political, and social contacts has increased. Other conflicts come from fears that Hong Kong, a city of 7 million people, will be overwhelmed by large numbers of Chinese visitors or immigrants and concerns over the island's future as a regional economic hub.

Beijing has refused to modify its policy, or to remove C. Y. Leung, the current chief executive who is often portrayed as a voice for the government rather than a representative for local interests. The protests are getting smaller as people return to work or class. Also, some have decided to stay home due to threats of a police crackdown and the recent efforts by pro-Beijing thugs to attack the generally peaceful protesters. The Hong Kong government feels secure enough to cancel talks with the protesters. Even if the protests dwindle and the election rules remain unchanged, however, this is not a triumph for Beijing.

First, it will not solve Beijing's problem. Bao Tong, a Chinese official purged for his advocacy of political reform, commented on the Hong Kong protests: "The seeds have already been sown, and they need time to lie fallow." Occupy Central energized tens of thousands of young people in Hong Kong. Even if they are unsuccessful in this instance, they know they can capture global attention. They will be likely take to the streets again to promote democracy in Hong Kong.

Second, China's efforts at improving its image suffer greatly as media-savvy Hong Kong students send pictures of the protests around the world. Attempts at a violent crackdown will invite comparisons to 1989's Tiananmen Square Massacre, an event that defined the Beijing government in the eyes of many people.

Third, Hong Kong is an important trade and financial center. Perceptions of economic decline and Beijing's interference, coupled with political instability, will push its talented, well-educated people to move elsewhere — and to take their capital with them.

Fourth, while the mainland government is determined to absorb Taiwan, the people of that island are ambivalent about political ties to an authoritarian China. Taiwan's President, Ma Ying-jeou, has championed increased contacts across the strait, but Hong Kong's recent experience has increased opposition to Mr. Ma's policies and made reconciliation less likely.

President Obama faces pressure from human rights groups and Congress to make Hong Kong a topic at his November meeting with China's Secretary Xi. It is unlikely that he will persuade Beijing to change its policies toward Hong Kong. However, the president must raise the issue forcefully and publicly. A weak response will demoralize Hong Kong's activists, raise concerns in Taiwan and make China's efforts at blocking democracy easier. Finally, Mr. Obama should take the long view. Protests in Hong Kong are one part of a struggle whose outcome we do not know.

As Bao Tong, now under house arrest in Beijing, writes, "No great task can be achieved all at once; they all need some time to gestate."

Steven Phillips is a professor of history at Towson University. His email is sphillip@towson.edu.

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