March 30, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: Hong Kong's new chief must address anxieties about political future

Carrie Lam must provide reassurance on 'one country, two systems' policy

The election committee tasked with choosing Hong Kong's chief executive picked Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who has the backing of the Chinese leadership in Beijing, for the top government job on March 26. John Tsang Chun-wah, one of her contenders and a former financial secretary of Hong Kong was more popular with the public, according to opinion polls. The decision, nevertheless, to go with Lam underscores the yawning gap between the 1,200-strong election body, dominated by pro-Beijing establishment figures, and the will of Hong Kongers.

The biggest challenge for the new chief executive is to heal the serious divisions in Hong Kong society and reassure citizens, especially those of the younger generation, who are worried about the future of the "one country, two systems" principle, an arrangement that gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy.

When the former British colony was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, the Chinese leadership pledged to eventually introduce universal suffrage for chief executive elections. Three years ago, Beijing proposed an election reform that would have provided pro forma universal suffrage but which was, in fact, designed to bar critics of Beijing from running for the post.

Pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, responded by occupying the main streets in central Hong Kong for several months in what became known as the Umbrella Movement. Lam gained fame as a hard-line representative of the Hong Kong government, not budging an inch against the protesters. In the end, the proposed electoral reform foundered, so this year's election was held under the existing system, without universal suffrage.

ERODING FREEDOMS Following the Umbrella Movement, a string of bizarre incidents took place in Hong Kong. Booksellers who sold works criticizing Beijing were spirited out of the territory, and a mainland-born billionaire was apparently snatched by Chinese operatives by force. These incidents are a sign that the "one country, two systems" arrangement and the autonomy Hong Kong residents have enjoyed are being threatened at their foundations.

Hong Kong has prospered as a gateway to the mainland, but this economic advantage is fading. It is possible that the city may be eclipsed by its mainland neighbor Shenzhen, a special economic zone, in a few years. Losing the freedoms it has enjoyed would further diminish Hong Kong's attractiveness. Its citizens are rightly worried about the future of the special administrative region.

At the forefront of the Umbrella Movement were so-called localists, young people who view Hong Kong as their homeland and feel a strong sense of patriotism toward it. Though a number of those youths gained seats in Hong Kong's Legislative Council, a couple of them were almost immediately stripped of their status as lawmakers. The day following Lam's election as chief executive, Hong Kong authorities notified former Umbrella Movement leaders and other activists that they are being indicted over their involvement in the protests, a development that is likely to deepen Hong Kong's social schism still further.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, during his opening address at the National People's Congress in early March, said that "the notion of Hong Kong independence will lead nowhere." His explicit reference to the issue was seen as a sign of just how alarmed the Chinese leadership has become over the matter. Such an adamant stance has, in turn, further stoked anxiety among Hong Kong's youth.

July 1 -- the day Lam takes office as chief executive -- marks the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong's handover of sovereignty to China, with a ceremony scheduled to take place that day. Taking this opportunity, the new chief and China's leaders in Beijing should find ways to acknowledge and address the concerns of Hong Kong citizens. A possible solution would be to submit a new proposal for universal suffrage.

Though discussions on political reform have all but ceased on the mainland, it is clear a system incorporating democratic elections is needed if China is to manage society's increasingly diversified interests. The future development of democracy in Hong Kong is crucially important as a touchstone for such reforms.

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