China’s Hong Kong Follies

HONG KONG – The massive public demonstrations by students and young members of the middle-class that have roiled Hong Kong in recent weeks are ostensibly demands for democracy. But they actually reflect frustration among a population that has been poorly governed by a succession of leaders picked by China’s central government more for their loyalty than their competence.

In fact, the current near-uprising is the culmination of a long series of demonstrations since Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, after Chris Patten, the last British governor failed to persuade China to allow Hong Kong to establish a genuine democratic government.

In China’s view, Patten’s position was hypocritical, even offensive, given that the British had ruled Hong Kong autocratically. China believed that it could easily manage the same kind of “executive-led” government that had served Hong Kong well for 150 years under the British.

In order to placate Hong Kong’s restive population – which included many refugees from China – a “one country, two systems” policy was embedded in the region’s constitution, promising Hong Kong “a high degree of autonomy,” except in foreign and defense affairs for 50 years. Indeed, Hong Kong enjoys many freedoms that the rest of China lacks, including a judiciary system that is guided by British common law and independent from the executive branch.