Pro-democracy protesters attend a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil disobedience event in Hong Kong August 31, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters attend a campaign to kick off the Occupy Central civil disobedience event in Hong Kong August 31, 2014.

Beijing last week announced it will strictly vet candidates vying to become Hong Kong's first directly elected chief. Chinese leaders explained the move partly as a way of countering what they see as growing radicalism by the autonomous city's pro-democracy groups.

But some observers say the new election rules also stem from the Chinese Communist leadership's own domestic insecurities.

The guidelines set by China's top legislative body would apply to the 2017 election, which is the earliest opportunity that Beijing will allow Hong Kongers to directly elect their chief executive under a system of universal suffrage. The measures also must win approval from the territory's lawmakers.

Since 1997, when Britain returned Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, the city's leader has been selected by small election committees whose membership is determined by only a fraction of the electorate. These committees have been dominated by social and business elites loyal to the government and its superiors in Beijing.

On August 31, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress restricted the number of candidates who can run for Hong Kong chief executive under universal suffrage to two or three. The candidates also must qualify for election by securing at least 50 percent approval from a 1,200-member nominating committee modeled on the existing election committee.

Fear of populism

Hong Kong Baptist University professor Michael DeGolyer said a major factor behind those decisions is the Chinese leadership's desire to prevent a populist from coming to power in the country.

"It's been a little more than a year since Xi Jinping took office as president, and he's been tasked with cleaning up the mess of the Bo Xilai case," DeGolyer said.

Bo was a charismatic Communist official who amassed wide public support and ascended to China's top leadership body, the Politburo Standing Committee. But party chiefs stripped him of his posts after learning of allegations that his wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in the murder of a British businessman. Last year, a Chinese court sentenced him to life in prison for bribery, corruption and abuse of power.

"Bo had used his position to implement populist measures and create a nationwide network of influence and corruption," DeGolyer said. "He was literally weeks away from a promotion that would make him untouchable in the Chinese system, before he was stopped. It was the closest a populist has come to power since Mao Zedong died in 1976, and it scared the Communist Party."

DeGolyer said Beijing rejected Hong Kong pro-democracy groups' demands for public nominations of chief executive candidates because it worried that such a system would enable a populist to be elected as leader of China's richest city.

Simon Young, a law professor at Hong Kong University, said the Chinese government also feared the election of a Hong Kong pro-democracy politician who would oppose its policies.

Senior Chinese official Li Fei visited Hong Kong last week to explain the election rules, saying a directly-elected chief executive "must subordinate himself to the central government and safeguard the sovereignty and national interests of the country." The South China Morning Post reported that Li also told local officials that "some Hong Kong people can never be chief executive - now or in future - if they remain confrontational."

Distaste for compromise

Beijing's aversion to making concessions to domestic critics is another reason behind its tough stance on Hong Kong reforms, some analysts say. The critics include Hong Kong's "Occupy Central" movement, a coalition of pro-democracy activists who have threatened a mass civil disobedience campaign to demand what they call a genuine choice of candidates in the 2017 election.

"The Chinese government obviously did not want to show that it would succumb to Occupy Central's threat," said Young.

The prominent role of Hong Kong youths in the Occupy Central movement also stirs up bad memories for China's Communist rulers, said DeGolyer.

"China's Cultural Revolution (of the 1960s and 70s) was spearheaded by high school and university students who boycotted classes, something Hong Kong students now are talking about doing here," he said.

"Chinese officials whom came of age during the Cultural Revolution were traumatized by it. So they do not see youth unrest in Hong Kong as a legitimate demand for democracy."

Li Fei, speaking in Hong Kong on Monday, accused "some small groups of people" of demanding reforms that would turn the city into a "chaotic society."

DeGolyer said Beijing is particularly alarmed by some Hong Kong youths calling for the overthrow of Communist Party and even independence from China - a taboo subject for leaders of a country with a history of being occupied and divided in the past century.

"China's new election rules for Hong Kong are a message to moderates," DeGolyer said. "Beijing is telling them that if they want to make progress on democratic reform, they have to separate themselves from this quite small but very vocal faction of people who effectively want to split China."