Hong Kong and the Big Lie: Promises, Promises

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Monday July 10, by Jerome F. Keating Ph.D.

Like the fabled warning to beware the Ides of March, so July 1, 2017 has rolled round and the fabled promise of the People's Republic of China (PRC) that it would grant Hong Kong free elections of its Chief Executive in twenty years has come and gone. In short, China's leadership appears to have never really taken that promise seriously.

Chinese President Xi Jinping was in Hong Kong to mark the celebration of the 1997 handover and be present at the induction of Hong Kong's new Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. Yet for this city of some 7 million plus people, she got the job because she received 777 votes out of a mere 1200 eligible, sanctioned citizens.

Of course, it goes without saying that political banners and/or any expressions of free speech are banned. This would only be surprising if one still believed or hoped in the promise of free elections twenty years after 1997; otherwise such is simply par for the course in Xi's China.

So, how do those in the Umbrella movement and other Hong Kongers feel about the fact that the ruling fate of their many millions is determined by the ballots of a mere 1200? It is not difficult to guess.

Call it a hoax, call it a wishful dream or call it a bogus campaign promise; call it what you will. However, the reality at the end of the day is that, after twenty years, the promise made to the millions of Hong Kongers never materialized.

And for that reason from this day on, it joins a growing list of other promises never honored like that of one country two systems. It will be what most Hong Kongers will call the Big Lie and as such it will prove to be a rallying cry for future generations whether they have umbrellas or not.

So, why didn't those free elections happen?

For those that were there at the handover, it all seemed so doable even for a one-party state. We are not talking about nation wide elections for hundreds of millions of people here but one simple election in one small special administrative region.

Was it then a matter of lack of effort, will, or money on the part of Beijing? Was their some nefarious counter plot? Did some catastrophe intervene? Was more time needed?

None of the above reasons satisfy.

Ironically, four years after 1997, Beijing won the bid to host the 2008 Olympics and as a show of its ability, Beijing mounted a tremendous effort to pull the Olympics off and do it well. New stadiums were built, people and villages were moved, numerous obstacles overcome etc. and even at a cost of some 40 billion US dollars. All that was done so that the games could be held on time in various venues across the country.

Therefore, this one simple, basic question returns. Why could a nation that organized and pulled off the Olympics in seven years, not organize free elections for one municipality in twenty?

As said, we are not talking about hundreds of millions of uneducated people voting nationwide; no, we are simply talking about a city full of educated, world-wise citizens. And even if the elections were flawed, few would have complained, as long as the effort was there and they happened. Yet, after twenty years, no effort was made. Why?

Is it a Chinese thing? That certainly comes as a loaded question. Nonetheless this loaded question serves to highlight new and growing differences between Chinese and Taiwanese.

Look across the Taiwan Strait at the nation of Taiwan. There is a nation, which had been a one-party state under martial law from 1949 until 1987. True the final crack in the surface came in 1986 when the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) officially organized and was tolerated. Nonetheless, martial law officially ended in 1987 and by 1992, some five years later, the nationwide elections for Taiwan's Legislative Yuan were held. The DPP took several seats and the sky did not fall.

By 1996, less than ten years after the lifting of martial law, nationwide elections were held for the presidency and Lee Teng-hui of the ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) won. Millions of people voted in those nationwide elections, much more than double the number of voters in Hong Kong, so what happened to make this possible?

If anything, 1996 Taiwan should have proved to be a good model for a post 1997 Hong Kong, a city that was never under martial law. What happened?

This comparison raises additional double-edged questions. Does it mean that this only happened because Taiwanese are not Chinese or that there is a big difference between the two? Does it mean that Taiwanese can do things that Chinese cannot? Chinese would not want to go there. Yet even if that were true, it does not say that Chinese cannot achieve their democracy, right?

No, in the final analysis, the more logical answer remains that the PRC government lied; it had no intention of granting Hong Kongers their promised democracy. So then, why the lie?

This raises other questions and they keep on coming. Is it because democracy demands transparency? Is rule of law necessary and China does not have it or want it? If free elections were held, would China have to own up to what really happened in the Tiananmen massacre in 1989? Is China's one-party state held together by such lies and fabrications?

In this there is even a Hong Kong irony. How has Hong Kong fared under the choice of the Beijing approved candidates?

Of the previous three pro-Beijing Chief Executives of Hong Kong, the first two had to resign in the middle of their second term and the third decided not to run for re-election. That is not the best track record in support of Beijing's choices.

Democracy is not perfect of course. The matter of broken promises and bad choices goes beyond China; it can happen in nations even if they are democratic.

In the United Kingdom (UK), that other party in the handover, voters recently suffered a different experience called "buyer's remorse" after their Brexit vote. They suddenly became aware that they may have been listening to Lorelei songs of the wrong leaders and started to reverse course.

Prime Minister Theresa May is no doubt wondering what happened; her party just lost its Parliamentary majority in post Brexit elections. And she and voters may even wonder about other Brexit pied pipers like Nigel Farage who disappeared when it came time to provide support or forging responsible service for the choices they advocated.

And for UK voters, regardless of their remorse, they do know they made the choice; therefore they must work their way out. But they have the satisfaction that it is their responsibility and choice.

For Hong Kong, on the other hand, the Big Lie will always be there and a tribute to the falsity of the one-party state dictatorship they are under. It will be there to inspire every new generation that was not even born when 1997 happened.

All of the above both in China and the UK continues to be grist for the mill of Taiwanese voters. They have been making choices and being responsible for their choice of legislators since 1992 and president since 1996. They continue to observe, learn and act. For them, China's big lie takes on additional future meaning; it stands for promises with Chinese characteristics.