Why Hong Kong's Political Crisis Wasn't Inevitable

Richard Bush describes how the failure of electoral reforms in Hong Kong is a "double tragedy" — an opportunity is missed for further democratization, as well as making it harder to address issues concerning Hong Kong's competitiveness and governance. (1 hr., 16 min.)

On Sunday, with thousands of police on hand, a committee of about 1,200 business and political officials elected Carrie Lam to Hong Kong’s top leadership post.

The process by which Lam was elected chief executive has been the subject of intense controversy in recent years, as mainland Chinese authorities have sought to maintain tight control over the semi-autonomous territory’s leadership. The voting committee was stacked with Beijing loyalists and the Chinese Communist Party had made no secret that Lam was its preferred candidate.

In 2014, following the Chinese government’s decision not to allow public nominations for the 2017 chief executive election, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers hit the streets for what became known as the “Umbrella Movement” protesting for true universal suffrage. The episode, which at times became violent, left a legacy of widespread distrust of the Chinese government and spawned localist movements calling for greater autonomy and even outright Hong Kong independence.

Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of book Hong Kong in the Shadow of China, said that in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement, there were two competing narratives of what had happened: one that portrayed radical obstructionist activists sowing chaos, and another that portrayed courageous freedom fighters facing down a repressive Goliath. “I think these two narratives are really more morality plays than a good account of reality,” Bush said while speaking at Asia Society in Hong Kong last October.

Bush said that Hong Kong’s current situation — in which activists are becoming more radical and the Chinese government more strong-fisted in an increasingly irreconcilable conflict — is a "tragedy," but it wasn’t inevitable. He argues that Beijing’s proposed electoral reforms, which would have given the public the right to vote on candidates pre-selected by Beijing, were flawed, but they did offer a “narrow” pathway to competitive elections. “[Beijing] should have offered more concessions early in the game,” Bush said. “But at the end of the day, the central government did support a mechanism that could have produced a moderate democrat as chief executive.”

In the above video, Bush discusses the "double tragedy" of failed democratization and increasingly difficult governance, and what challenges lie ahead for the city in light of this situation.

About the Author

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Eric Fish was a Content Producer at Asia Society New York and is author of the book China's Millennials: The Want Generation.