China has the Great Hall of the People. Hong Kong has the “Great Hall of the Tycoons.”
This phrase was uttered by Briton David Webb on Saturday night as he addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Hong Kong. Webb, a shareholder-rights activist who’s earned the enmity of Hong Kong’s powerful oligarchs, cut right to the heart of things in his rousing speech.
“The government claims to believe in free markets and competition, but where is the free market in leadership?” Webb asked, perched atop a ladder. “Don’t worry about the small economic impact of these protests,” he added. “Think about the large economic benefits of a more dynamic economy, ending collusion between the government and the tycoons who currently elect the chief executive.”
If Beijing learns anything from the biggest frontal assault on its authority since the British returned the keys to Hong Kong in 1997, it should be this: Hong Kongers want competent leaders, not cronies. As the Umbrella Revolution begins to fold up — at least for now — here are three things President Xi Jinping can do to keep the former British colony from succumbing to an endless cycle of protests and crackdowns:
▪ Dump the current chief executive: No one seriously expects Xi to fire Leung Chun-ying this week, no matter how much of a lightning rod he’s become. Forcing Leung out now would be an open admission that the current system of choosing leaders is flawed. It might also inspire copycat protests across China calling for mayors, party secretaries and even Xi to step down. But China must at least begin telegraphing Leung’s departure in the weeks ahead.
Xi could spin the sacking as part of his anti-corruption drive. Leung faces a fast-growing number of questions about the more than $6.1 million he reportedly received from an Australian engineering company before taking office in 2012. Leung’s toxic presence hasn’t been helped by his daughter’s Facebook updates mocking the city’s urban poor. Really, where does Beijing find these people?
Some in the Communist Party may see Leung as a useful patsy to enact unpopular laws. The chief executive couldn’t be any more disliked or compromised, so why not use him to impose new limits on press freedom and political assembly? Doing so, however, would court even bigger protests and risk turning Hong Kong into the next Bangkok. Better to dump Leung at the earliest opportunity and start afresh.
▪ Find a decent replacement: Each of the three chief executives chosen since the handover has been worse than the other. And Beijing’s proposed system for electing the next one in 2017 promises to produce yet another dud: A rule change that requires any candidate to win 50 percent support from a tightly controlled election committee will ensure that loyalty to Beijing is the main criterion for victory.
China has one more shot at this. A smart, creative leader who serves Hong Kongers, not the tycoons, and addresses the causes of inequality would greatly ease public discontent. At the least, any new chief executive should exhibit a competence to match Hong Kong’s institutions, which have by and large handled this crisis with patience and skill. Yes, Hong Kong’s police erred when they fired tear gas at demonstrators on Sept. 28, and again on Tuesday night, when TV cameras caught them apparently beating and kicking one defenseless protester. But until that point, they had displayed an impressive degree of professionalism.
Learn from Hong Kong’s youth: Xi’s generation of Chinese leaders would be wrong to view the architects of this standoff as some ideological fringe. Even the shopowners and triad gangs complaining about lost business have a stake in what protesters are demanding. While anger has coalesced around Leung, those lining the streets cite everything from Beijing’s meddling to inequality to pollution to inflation as driving forces behind this revolution. Addressing any of these grievances requires greater openness, transparency and accountability. That’s as true in China as it is in Hong Kong.
“There is no large economy in the world with high levels of prosperity that does not have democracy,” Webb told protesters on Saturday night. “So if China wants world-class prosperity, and not the current 20 percent of world-class, then it must have democracy and the civic freedoms that go with it. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the media.”
It’s this ability to speak, gather and write freely that made Hong Kong the vibrant place it is today. If they were honest, even the tycoons would admit that China should be emulating Hong Kong’s success, not strangling it with incompetent courtiers.