Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement and Beijing’s Fear of Foreign Influence

Under “one country, two systems,” the legal framework under Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, for managing Hong Kong’s reversion to Chinese sovereignty, the city was to maintain “a high level of autonomy” and its own institutions for 50 years. However, during that period, Hong Kong's political system was expected to evolve.

One key change was the introduction of “universal suffrage,” whereby all Hong Kong residents would have the right to vote for both Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE), the city’s top politician, and its Legislative Council (Legco). But according to the Basic Law, only candidates who gained support of an undetermined number of members of a Nomination Committee were to be allowed to run.

On August 31, 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s official body that legislates Hong Kong affairs, while affirming the introduction of universal suffrage, stipulated that all candidates for the post of CE must garner the support of 50 per cent of the members of the Nomination Committee. As 80 per cent of the members of this committee are pro-government and pro-Beijing, that threshold insured that no one from the Pan-democratic camp, Hong Kong’s main pro-democratic political bloc, could run for CE unless Beijing approved of them.

So on June 16, 2015, three months ago, the pan-Democratic members of Legco voted down the Beijing-proposed political reform package that was to have taken effect in 2017. Some Pan-Democrats who might have taken the deal feared the wrath of the student activists who had occupied Central, while others believe that leaders in Beijing will put forward a better proposal for the CE election in 2022.

China’s leaders feel that many of its neighbours, as well as forces on China’s internal periphery, are stepping up their challenge to China’s sovereignty and national securityBut before Beijing can do so, it must set aside its belief that recent political activism in Hong Kong is due largely to foreign instigation, particularly from the United States and Great Britain. In fact, China’s leaders feel that many of its neighbours, as well as forces on China’s internal periphery, are stepping up their challenge to China’s sovereignty and national security, emboldened by the belief that the U.S., with its “rebalancing” and renewed commitment to East Asia, will back them. China views not only the situation in Hong Kong in this light, but also its confrontation with Vietnam and the Philippines over the South China Sea.

But in the case of Hong Kong, such a view ignores serious discontent within Hong Kong society. Socio-economic problems, such as unaffordable housing and growing inequality, have increased significantly since sovereignty over Hong Kong shifted from Great Britain to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. In addition, many Hong Kongers believe given the formula for electing the Chief Executive (CE) in 2017, the victor would not only be unlikely to address socio-economic issues, but would also take his or her directions from Beijing, and therefore could obstruct further democratic reforms.

For its part, Beijing fears that allowing universal suffrage, with no restrictions on the selection of candidates, could create an opportunity for foreign forces to exploit the CE election in order to undermine China’s sovereignty and national security. That may be one reason they proposed a very constrained system for nominating CE candidates. These fears probably also made them more hesitant to negotiate with the Pan-Democrats or offer any political compromise. Thus, while the Pan-Democrats have been partly responsible for the current freeze on political reform, Beijing shares equal responsibility for the failure to make progress.

Foreign forces and Hong Kong’s CE election: The view from Beijing

Hong Kong has a long history as a centre of anti-government activity. In the early 20th, Sun Yat-sen used Hong Kong as the original base for his revolution against the Qing Dynasty. Many years later, during the student protests of May 1989, Hong Kongers raised funds to buy tents for the hunger strikers in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. After June 4, 1989, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China smuggled many activists out of China, and on June 5 of that year, one in six Hong Kongers marched in protest against the crackdown in Beijing.

Since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, government officials have often portrayed political activism in Hong Kong as the result of external, particularly American, meddling. Indeed, several recent statements by high-ranking officials and Beijing-friendly media hint at the nature and extent of their concern. For example, in February 2014, Zhang Dejiang, who is number three in China’s political hierarchy, the head of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) Leadership Small Group on Hong Kong and Macau, and the Chair of the National People’s Congress (whose Standing Committee introduced the limited form of universal suffrage), reportedly told government and CCP officials responsible for Hong Kong that they had to fight “foreign interests” that try to use Hong Kong to weaken China:

International political forces and anti-CCP international organizations are deeply involved, at the political, organizational, societal, and community levels, in transforming Hong Kong into an anti-CCP and anti-China region and making Hong Kong a battlefield of international political power. [1]

Soon after Zhang’s speech, Mainland officials responsible for monitoring events in Hong Kong were under great pressure to find evidence of this external interference, which may explain why a U.S. military attaché’s apartment in Hong Kong was searched by unknown sources. [2]

Similarly, in June 2014, Zhou Nan, a former hardline director of the Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, said that “local and overseas forces, who are anti-China, have joined together to seize power in Hong Kong,” so that now “the central issue in Hong Kong is no longer ‘true’ or ‘fake’ democracy or technical details about electoral systems. Instead, it is a political contest between China and Western powers, who pose a direct threat to China’s sovereign rule over Hong Kong and its national security.”

And as the Occupy Central movement, also known as the Umbrella Movement, moved into its second month in October 2014, CY Leung, the current CE and a potential candidate for 2017, stated publicly on Hong Kong television that foreign forces had been involved in Occupy Central: “There are external forces getting involved. This is not entirely a domestic movement . . .  external forces from different countries from different parts of the world are participating in the campaign.”

For the Chinese government, as soon as issues of sovereignty and national security are raised, particularly within the context of a strategic American rebalancing, negotiations become very difficultFor the Chinese government, as soon as issues of sovereignty and national security are raised, particularly within the context of a strategic American rebalancing, negotiations become very difficult. The China Daily (HK) captured this sentiment well in a June 2014 op-ed, which stated: “Because political wrangling over universal suffrage in Hong Kong is so intense, Beijing has reportedly categorized Hong Kong’s discussions over constitutional reform as a battle over the governance of the territory instead of a political debate. The upcoming 2017 election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage will be a campaign for the Central Government to defend its sovereign rule over Hong Kong” (italics added).

Why Do Hong Kong Politicians Encourage Foreign Interference?

Beijing’s worries about foreign interference are not baseless. Pan-Democratic politicians, such as Martin Lee and Anson Chan, travel frequently to the U.S., expressing concerns to the U.S. Congress about Mainland interference in Hong Kong. Given Beijing’s intense insecurity about foreign interference, why would Hong Kong politicians provoke things further by encouraging foreign governments to speak out on Hong Kong affairs?

One reason is that the pan-Democrats feel that China has dragged its feet on fulfilling its commitment under the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to introduce universal suffrage. It was not until 2007, 10 years after the transfer of sovereignty, that Beijing agreed to an election date, and even then postponed the electoral reform for another 10 years, to 2017. Another reason is that since 1997, Beijing has tightened controls over Hong Kong’s press and encouraged the Hong Kong government, albeit unsuccessfully, to institute both a new national security law for Hong Kong and a program on “national education”  in high schools. It cancelled plans to institute the national security law after 500,000 Hong Kongers took to the street in 2003, and cancelled the national education plan after high-school students in 2012 protested vociferously against what they saw as communist-style “brainwashing.” In addition, the Chinese government’s White Paper of June 2014 expressed views on the role of the judiciary that could potentially undermine the “rule of law” in Hong Kong.

Pan-Democrats see outside support as leverage against apparent efforts by the government in Beijing to weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy and political and legal characterFinally, by law, political parties in Hong Kong cannot receive any overseas funding, which handcuffs the Pan-Democrats, as few wealthy Hong Kongers (other than Jimmy Lai of Apple Daily) would give them large donations. Pro-Beijing parties, however, face little financial difficulty, as Hong Kong’s tycoons give generously, probably with Beijing’s encouragement. Thus, the Pan-Democrats see outside support as leverage against apparent efforts by the government in Beijing to weaken Hong Kong’s autonomy and political and legal character.

What is the real extent of foreign interference?

What evidence do officials in Beijing and Hong Kong point to in their assertions that the U.S. is trying to undermine China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong and provoke its citizens to oppose Beijing?

The U.S. government, including the consul general in Hong Kong, Vice President Joe Biden, and members of Congress, all loudly support full democracy in Hong Kong, which, if instituted, could result in the election of a CE who could be pro-West. In a meeting with Martin Lee and Anson Chan, Vice-President Biden “underscored our long-standing support for democracy in Hong Kong and for the city’s high degree of autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.” Members of Congress have been far more critical of Beijing’s policy towards Hong Kong, accusing it of “backtracking” on its promise to allow Hong Kong to freely elect its leader. Some of those comments are as shrill as those of Mainland officials who see foreign conspiracies in Hong Kong.

Also of concern to Beijing are statements from U.S. Consul General in Hong Kong Clifford Hart, who noted in a September 2013 speech that:

The United States Government has repeatedly made clear that it supports Hong Kong’s progress toward genuine universal suffrage as laid out in the Basic Law and the National People’s Congress’s 2007 decision. This U.S. policy is unchanged. We believe that an open society, with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law, is essential to maintaining Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity… Let me also be clear that the United States will always stand for our core democratic values.

But such statements need to be balanced against other more assuring statements, such as, for example, the American government’s perspective on Occupy Central:

Protests should be done within the confines of the law, and we are not advocating any type of violent protest. As for democratic reform, we don’t take any position on any of the proposals or formulae that have been put forward. . .  these are for the Hong Kong people, the Hong Kong Government and the Central Government to resolve. We just believe that Hong Kong people should be given a genuine choice in terms of candidates, an open and transparent process, one man one vote; this is part of our democratic agenda for the whole world. We are not telling them what kind of Nomination Committee they should set up with what rules. That would be totally inappropriate. [3]

Some allegations of U.S. interference are targeted at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), an organization which according to its website, is funded by several U.S. government institutions, individuals and governments around the world, as well as the Taipei Cultural Affairs Office. But the validity of the allegations is not so straightforward: while the NDI has organized workshops in Hong Kong to teach youth and women about how to build political organizations to promote their interests, youth from the largest pro-Beijing party, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong (DAB), have also participated in NDI programs.

Nonetheless, denials of U.S. involvement became more difficult after someone hacked into the computer of Jimmy Lai, the owner of Apple Daily. Lai’s hacked files showed that Mark Simon, an American who had once headed the organization Republicans Abroad in Hong Kong, dispersed funds on behalf of  Lai to Pan-Democrats, who failed to report such donations, and to bolster Occupy Central. But Jimmy Lai is a Hong Konger, who has the same right to support political activities as the tycoons who regularly donate millions to pro-Beijing parties, who also failed to report their sources of support.

Finally, one has to ask what the U.S. government would gain by destabilizing Hong Kong. The U.S. has enormous investment in and trade relations with Hong Kong, and 60,000 Americans are living in Hong Kong, running hundreds of businesses. The American Chambers of Commerce in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai make an annual “door knock” to the U.S. Congress and Administration to encourage continued open trade with Hong Kong and the Mainland. In fact, despite strong disappointment at the NPC-SC ruling on August 31, 2014, the British and American consulates, as well as many other consular officials from democratic countries in Hong Kong, all encouraged the Pan-Democrats to take the deal.

Hong Kong’s Democratic Movement: The Result of Social and Political Problems

The more likely explanation for growing political tensions in Hong Kong is not U.S. interference, but the widening gap between the views the Central Government would like Hong Kongers to hold, on one hand, and the identity they actually do hold, on the otherThe more likely explanation for growing political tensions in Hong Kong is not U.S. interference, but the widening gap between the views the Central Government would like Hong Kongers to hold, on one hand, and the identity they actually do hold, on the other. In a survey taken at the end of 2013 by the Hong Kong Transition Project, Hong Kong people expressed their core identity as global citizens, rather than as citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Respondents were asked to identify which of three identities they felt was most important to them personally to protect and promote: (1) China's historical and cultural identity; (2) Hong Kong’s identity as pluralistic and international; and (3) China’s identity as ruled by the CCP. The results were 31 per cent, 66 per cent and four per cent respectively.[4] What is more striking is that when broken down by age, 83 per cent of people under 39 favoured an international and pluralistic identity. (Figure 1)


These same young people in Hong Kong worry about their futures. The continuing rise in housing prices means that few of them will be able to buy a home in the foreseeable future, and without a home it is hard to get married. In addition, since 1997, one million people have moved into Hong Kong from the Mainland, driving down salaries. Meanwhile, inequality has risen dramatically, creating strong support among young Hong Kongers for political activism.

Opposition to the local and central governments intensified after the mishandling of the National Education effort in 2012, when one proposed educational module stated that the CCP was composed of selfless leaders; this statement brought 90,000 people out onto the streets and led to a hunger strike by some students and elderly citizens. These students who cut their teeth on the opposition to national education later became the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, which took over downtown Hong Kong in September 2014 and held it for 79 days. Those under 30 showed an especially strong proclivity to support the movement (table 1).

One source of grievance behind this movement is that Hong Kong’s political system reinforces the power of the wealthy, in particular, the influence of property developers and vested interests in Hong Kong, at the expense of common citizens. Not only has the CE been elected since 1997 by a small number of pro-business citizens, but the functional constituency system, whereby business groupings, such as people in the tourism sector, or in the fisheries business, elect their own representatives to the legislature. Comments from Chinese leaders that Hong Kong is a capitalist system and therefore should be run by the capitalist class did not resonate well with people in Hong Kong, especially since its tycoons largely oppose democratic development in Hong Kong.

As a result, Hong Kongers now attribute the city’s problems to both the Hong Kong government and the central government in Bejing. According to the Hong Kong Transition Project’s January 2014 report, for the first time in many years, Hong Kong people were quite dissatisfied with how the central government was handling Hong Kong affairs.


Before the June 16, 2015 vote, Denis Kwok, a leading Pan-Democrat politician, expressed optimism that the Chinese leadership would become pro-reform in the near future and, therefore, would offer Hong Kong a better deal. Such optimism seems misplaced and perhaps reflects the fact that some in the Pan-Democratic camp know very little about Mainland politics. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s current policies suggest, at best, that he is tightening control over freedoms on the Mainland because he worries that the extensive nature of the economic and legal reforms that he laid out for China in 2013 does not allow room for any political reform program. Upon becoming leader, he quickly announced that he would not be China’s Gorbachev. Thus, even if he further consolidates power at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, he is unlikely to endorse political reform on the Mainland. And without plans to enhance democracy in China, Xi will not risk introducing a nomination system for the CE in Hong Kong that would allow a Pan-Democrat who is quite critical of the CCP to come to power.

So, if China's leaders are unlikely to change the nomination procedures for the CE election in 2022, how can they placate some democrats? Reforming the makeup of the nomination committee or expanding the voting base for the seats in the Functional Constituencies might encourage some democrats to accept a restricted nomination process. And there now are members of the Pan-Democratic camp who are looking for a middle path. But approximately 40 per cent of Hong Kongers opposed the August 31 proposal—which was one reason the Pan-Democrats felt they could reject the plan—and unless those views change over the next few years, Pan-Democrats will not be under pressure to accept what they see as a bad deal. Moreover, even after this cohort of activist college students joins the work force, a new generation of students will take over that is unlikely to be more moderate.

Implications for Canada

Canada’s government and media must recognize the dilemma facing the government in Beijing. “One country, two systems” may work as an economic or legal framework, but politically it is hard to institutionalize. Perhaps no electoral system can placate the needs of both the people of Hong Kong and the government in Beijing. Beijing wants to make it almost impossible for a CE opposed to the CCP’s right to govern to be elected; yet, without a relatively free nomination process, no CE would be legitimate in the eyes of Hong Kong’s citizens.

Canadians understand the difficulties of “one country, two systems,” especially when the region maintaining the second system, relative to the rest of the country, has a different political culture, its people have different political and ethnic identities, its media teaches different views of the “one country,” and its people still have the freedom to elect leaders who do not necessarily accept the legitimacy of the leadership of the “one country.”

That is not to say that Hong Kongers seek separatism. The people of Hong Kong know that they are part of the People’s Republic of China long into the future. They simply want to maintain their own political, social and economic system within the broader nation, as promised in the Basic Law. However, excessive “localist” anti-Mainland activity strengthens those in Beijing who want to paint Hong Kong with the same brushstrokes used for advocates of the independence of Tibet, Xinjiang or Taiwan.

Canadians must understand China’s dilemma, all the while encouraging its leaders to understand Hong Kong and Hong Kongers better, to meet with Pan-Democrats, and patiently uphold the “two systems” in Hong Kong. Real unrest will follow if the government in Beijing, impatient with Hong Kong’s resistance to “one country,” presses for a faster transition to “one system,” including tighter rules on national security, greater control over the content in the classroom, and judges that serve the state rather than the rule of law. Pressure from Beijing will trigger counter pressure in Hong Kong, including more civil disobedience and even violence, an outcome deleterious to people in Hong Kong and the Mainland.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada.



[1] Lin Handan, “Four major Central Committee Decisions about the situation in Hong Kong” (Zhongyang dui Xianggang jushi si dian jueyi), 争鸣, (Cheng Ming), No. 438 (April 2014): 6-7. This is the author’s own translation of the Chinese text.

[2] Personal communication with the author.

[3] Interview with head of the Political Section, US Consulate, HK, 1 May 2014.

[4] Michael DeGolyer, Constitutional Reform: Confrontation looms as Hong Kong consults (April 2014), p. 11.

[5] Michael DeGolyer, Constitutional Reform: Confrontation looms as Hong Kong consults (April 2014).