The West’s efforts to export democracy around the world have so far obtained only mixed results, with the Middle East proving a particularly slow learner. But there is one corner of a foreign land where the ideas of Locke, Paine and the rest have found extremely fertile soil: Hong Kong.
This month, more than half a million Hong Kongers have voted in a referendum on how they should choose the former British colony’s chief executive. That’s 15 per cent of those registered to vote, and around 10 per cent of the population. And the website that accepts the votes of Hong Kong ID cardholders – despite having been targeted by a denial-of-service attack which the referendum organisers believe originated in Beijing – will remain open for another week.
Democracy was late in coming to Hong Kong, grafted on to the city state’s solidly commercial stem by the last Governor, Chris Patten. And although, in the Deng-Thatcher agreement, the mainland signed up for “One Country, Two Systems”, Beijing has sought relentlessly to circumscribe, undermine and emasculate Hong Kong’s attempts at genuine self-governance practically ever since the Union Flag was run down for the last time. For example, Hong Kong already has the right to choose its chief executive. Excellent – except that the right is limited to a committee of 1,200, rigidly controlled by Beijing.
The mainland government has agreed to demands that in 2017 the next chief executive will be chosen by universal suffrage – but without allowing Hong Kongers to decide on who will stand. That is the Orwellian absurdity challenged by the present referendum, which asks voters to choose between three ways of selecting the next leader put forward by civil groups.
Hong Kong’s essential difference from Big Brother on the mainland is inscribed not only in the territory’s constitution but in its people’s hearts. Witness the huge gathering this month in Victoria Park to mark 25 years since the suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests – the only such commemoration on Chinese territory. In this highly asymmetric struggle for their rights, Hong Kongers deserve the world’s solidarity.