U.W.: Mr. Ewing, Beijing has signalled a new, hard line on Hong Kong. Was this to be expected, or was it a surprise?
It was not unexpected. Hong Kong is not living up to expectations as Beijing sees things. It has been 15 years since the handover, and feelings between the mainland leaders and the people in Hong Kong have never been worse. What really seemed to upset mainland officials was seeing protestors in a recent demonstration unfurl the Union Jack and the Hong Kong colonial flag, showing nostalgia for what they perceive as better times. So a hard line was not unexpected. But, that said, that kind of response will just exacerbate those feelings and lead to further protests. So it's not a smart move.
U.W.: A mainland Chinese official has accused unnamed "external powers" of interfering in Hong Kong's affairs…
Yes, Zhang Xiaoming, a deputy director of the State Council's Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, made those charges in a 6,000-word article published in a local pro-Beijing newspaper. He was undoubtedly referring to the US and the UK, although he did not name these countries. He also failed to provide a single shred of evidence to support his claim. It's well known that the US and UK have supported efforts to broaden democracy in Hong Kong. There is no great secret about that. But Zhang accused them of interfering in local elections. And there is zero proof of that.
U.W.: Was Hong Kong's current electoral system primarily designed to ensure Beijing has ultimate control?
Yes, Beijing has a firm hand on Hong Kong's political machinery. The city's leader — currently Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying — is chosen by an election committee controlled by Beijing, and only 35 members of Hong Kong's mini-parliament, the Legislative Council, are directly elected by the people. The next chief executive election is supposed to be by popular vote, but a Beijing-dominated committee will still most likely choose the candidates people can vote for. But the pan-democrats control 27 seats in the Legislative Council, giving them veto power. So Hong Kong has a sort of a quasi-democracy.
U.W.: Is what's good for Beijing often at odds with the demands of the people in Hong Kong?
Beijing is almost always at odds with the majority of the people of Hong Kong on issues concerning freedom of expression and human rights, but Hong Kong has benefitted economically from its relationship with the central government. The city is now a trading hub for the Chinese currency, the yuan, and mainland tourists have provided a big lift to the local economy. But their presence here is seen as driving up prices and adding more congestion to an already-crowded city, so it is also sometimes resented.
U.W.: What are Hong Kong's main problems today?
Economically, Hong Kong has done very well compared to Western cities that are still suffering from the fallout of the 2008 financial crisis and now the crisis in the Eurozone. But Hong Kong's political system — half democracy, half not — simply doesn't work, and that has led to 15 years of virtual political paralysis and consequent division and rancour, both in the Legislative Council and in the streets. Frankly, Hong Kong's political system does not work.
U.W.: What does the future hold for Hong Kong?
Economically, there is talk that Hong Kong will become marginalized by booming mainland cities like Shanghai, but I don't see that happening any time soon as Hong Kong still runs and works far better than any city on the mainland; plus, it has minimal corruption and it has the rule of law. It will remain a very attractive place to do business. Politically, Hong Kong's future looks like more of the same, and that's why Chinese officials are getting nervous and making threats which in fact only make matters worse.
Mr. Kent Ewing is an international politics expert, a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School and a regular correspondent for the Asia Times. He has lived and worked in the city for 23 years.