News / Asia

Diplomatic Tension Over Hong Kong Exposes Fragile Democracy Hopes

From China warning Western nations to stop meddling in Hong Kong to Communist Party-backed newspapers describing “plots” by foreign spies to seize the city, a growing row over electoral reform has exposed the fragility of hopes for full democracy.

Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 with wide-ranging autonomy, an independent judiciary and relatively free press under the formula of “one country, two systems” - along with an undated promise of full democracy, a subject never raised by the British during 150 years of colonial rule.

The implications stretch beyond the shores of Hong Kong, a glamorous, free-wheeling global financial hub. The Hong Kong model has been held up by Beijing as a possible solution for self-ruled Taiwan, which China considers a breakaway province which must return to the fold, by force if necessary.

Hong Kong elects its next leader in 2017 in what will be the most far-reaching version of democracy on Chinese soil. But Beijing's top representative in Hong Kong has ruled out open nominations for candidates, meaning he or she will be chosen by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

Call for choice

British Foreign Office minister Hugo Swire this week called for universal suffrage in the 2017 polls, saying Hong Kong people should get a genuine choice. China said it would not tolerate outside interference.

Michael Davis, a constitutional law specialist at the University of Hong Kong, said foreign states had a legitimate interest in Hong Kong, noting how China had once courted international support for “one country, two systems”.

But Beijing, he said, was now suspicious of their motives.

“At its heart it is a kind of insecurity,” said Davis. “China is at that stage of development where it constantly attempts to edit inbound criticism, and that is what we are seeing here.”

The United States and its large Hong Kong consulate are also being targeted by Beijing and its allies - something Washington's new top envoy, Clifford Hart, is expected to address when he delivers his first Hong Kong speech next week.

Diplomats from both Western and Asian nations fear their routine work to reach out to political and business contacts in the city is growing difficult as Beijing rails at “foreign interference.”

Beijing's suspicions

Party-backed newspapers in the city have long questioned the activities of foreign diplomats, this week upping the ante with claims that British spies are highly active, subverting politics with leaks from colonial-era files.

“The diplomatic community is a core part of Hong Kong's international edge,” said one Asian diplomat. “But we feel a bit squeezed and unwelcome... we are entering a very sensitive time.”

Hong Kong remains by far the freest city in greater China but tensions are rising. Every year, on the anniversary of the 1997 handover, thousands take to the streets demanding fully democratic elections, some openly declaring their support for the British.

Pro-democracy groups have threatened to seal off the central business district next year as part of a campaign of civil disobedience. The most prominent Catholic in greater China, Cardinal Joseph Zen, warned last month that the government and pro-Beijing supporters might try to incite violence.

“We're at a point where the significance of the issues on the table are such that the [leaders] responsible for Hong Kong are paying very close attention,” said a Western diplomat.

The diplomat added the hardening of China's stance towards Hong Kong was a decision made by senior Beijing leaders.

“It's being directed at the [Politburo] Standing Committee level,” a Western diplomat said, referring to the Chinese Communist Party's highest decision-making body. “We have solid indications of this.”

Diplomatic endeavors

U.S., British and other multinationals maintain a strong presence in the city while foreign warships stop frequently in its dynamic and strategic port.

British officials have yet to respond to the Chinese criticism of Swire's comments. China's Hong Kong-based Foreign Ministry representative, Song Zhe, also issued an explicit warning to U.S. Consul-General Hart against interfering in local affairs.

Consulate spokesman Scott Robinson defended Hart's work, saying the envoy had met with a range of leaders across government, business, politics and academia.

“Such meetings are the standard practice of diplomatic representatives of nations around the world at the outset of their tenures, and they are important for building relationships, exchanging views and opening lines of communications,” he said.

Long-standing U.S. policy towards Hong Kong was unchanged, he said - including support for progress towards “genuine universal suffrage.”

You May Like

Multimedia Brussels Schools, Metro Reopen Under Heavy Guard

City remains under the highest threat alert level due to what authorities have described as a 'serious and imminent' threat of attack

Video Debt-ridden Refugees Await Onslaught of Lebanese Winter

Aid agencies are attempting to reduce potentially devastating consequences of freezing conditions and snowstorms that killed eight last year, including three Syrian refugees

Americans Think About Strange Stuff at Thanksgiving

Millions of Americans are celebrating Thanksgiving, but they’re not necessarily thinking about turkey and stuffing

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against ISi
November 24, 2015 3:04 AM
The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video After Paris Attacks, France Steps Up Fight Against IS

The November 13 Paris attacks have drawn increased attention to Syria, where many of the suspected perpetrators are said to have received training. French President Francois Hollande is working to build a broad international coalition to defeat Islamic State in Syria and in Iraq. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video US, Cambodian Navies Pair Up in Gulf of Thailand

The U.S. Navy has deployed one of its newest and most advanced ships to Cambodia to conduct joint training drills in the Gulf of Thailand. Riding hull-to-hull with Cambodian ships, the seamen of the USS Fort Worth are executing joint-training drills that will help build relations in Southeast Asia. David Boyle reports for VOA from Preah Sihanouk province.

Video Americans Sharpen Focus on Terrorism

Washington will be quieter than usual this week due to the Thanksgiving holiday, even as Americans across the nation register heightened concerns over possible terrorist threats. VOA’s Michael Bowman reports new polling data from ABC News and the Washington Post newspaper show an electorate increasingly focused on security issues after the deadly Islamic State attacks in Paris.

Video World Leaders Head to Paris for Climate Deal

Heads of state from nearly 80 countries are heading to Paris (November 30-December 11) to craft a global climate change agreement. The new accord will replace the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change that expired in 2012.

Video Uncertain Future for Syrian Refugee Resettlement in Illinois

For the trickle of Syrian refugees finding new homes in the Midwest city of Chicago, the call to end resettlement in many U.S. states is adding another dimension to their long journey fleeing war. Organizations working to help them integrate say the backlash since the Paris attacks is both harming and helping their efforts to provide refugees sanctuary. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.

Video Creating Physical Virtual Reality With Tiny Drones

As many computer gamers know, virtual reality is a three-dimensional picture, projected inside special googles. It can fool your brain into thinking the computer world is the real world. But If you try to touch it, it’s not there. Now Canadian researchers say it may be possible to create a physical virtual reality using tiny drones. VOA’s George Putic reports.

Video New American Indian Village Takes Visitors Back in Time

There is precious little opportunity to experience what life was like in the United States before its colonization by European settlers. Now, an American Indian village built in a park outside Washington is taking visitors back in time to experience the way of life of America's indigenous people. Carol Pearson narrates this report from VOA's June Soh.

Video Even With Hometown Liberated, Yazidi Refugees Fear Return

While the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar has been liberated from Islamic State forces, it's not clear whether Yazidi residents who fled the militants will now return home. VOA’s Mahmut Bozarslan talked with Yazidis, a religious and ethnic minority, at a Turkish refugee camp in Diyarbakır. Robert Raffaele narrates his report.

Video Nairobi Tailors Make Pope Francis’ Vestments

To ensure the pope is properly attired during his visit, the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops asked the Dolly Craft Sewing Project in the Nairobi slum of Kangemi to make the pope's vestments, the garments he will wear during the various ceremonies. Jill Craig reports.

Video Cross-Border Terrorism Puts Europe’s Passport-Free Travel in Doubt

The fallout from the Islamic State terror attacks in Paris has put the future of Europe’s passport-free travel area, known as the "Schengen Zone," in doubt. Several of the perpetrators were known to intelligence agencies, but were not intercepted. Henry Ridgwell reports from London European ministers are to hold an emergency meeting Friday in Brussels to look at ways of improving security.

Video El Niño Brings Unexpected Fish From Mexico to California

Fish in an unexpected spectrum of sizes, shapes and colors are moving north, through El Niño's warm currents from Mexican waters to the Pacific Ocean off California’s coast. El Nino is the periodic warming of the eastern and central Pacific Ocean. As Faiza Elmasry tells us, this phenomenon thrills scientists and gives anglers the chance of a once-in-a-lifetime big catch. Faith Lapidus narrates.

Video Terrorism in Many Forms Continues to Plague Africa

While the world's attention is on Paris in the wake of Friday night's deadly attacks, terrorism from various sides remains a looming threat in many African countries. Nigerian cities have been targeted this week by attacks many believe were staged by the violent Islamist group Boko Haram. In addition, residents in many regions are forced to flee their homes as they are terrorized by armed militias. Zlatica Hoke reports.

Video Study: Underage Marriage Rate Higher for Females in Pakistan

While attitudes about the societal role of females in Pakistan are evolving, research by child advocacy group Plan International suggests that underage marriage of girls remains a particularly big issue in the country. VOA’s Ayesha Tanzeem reports how such marriages leads to further social problems.

VOA Blogs