Like any Communist-run state, China has a complicated relationship with democratic elections, particularly those at its periphery. Sometimes things go well for Beijing: in Taiwan, the party of pro-independence president Chen Shui-bian was handed a devastating defeat in Jan. 12 parliamentary elections, clearing the way for a more conciliatory relationship with the island China considers a renegade province. But in Hong Kong that same weekend, thousands protested against Beijing's timetable for democratization in the territory, which last month ruled out the possibility of direct elections in 2012 in favor of a vague promise to consider them in 2017 and 2020. Pro-democracy activists, impatient with the pace of reform and skeptical of Beijing's guarantees, carried banners denouncing the Chinese Communist Party and demanding direct elections for both the chief executive and legislative council now largely chosen by a small group of pro-Beijing business leaders in four years. Under cloudy skies, a throng of demonstrators that rally organizers claim swelled to 22,000 (police estimates were closer to 7,000) walked through downtown Hong Kong under banners that read "Democracy Delayed is Democracy Denied" and "Say Yes to 2012 2017 No Way."
In reality, though, 2017 is pretty much the only way. While the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, holds full democracy as its "ultimate aim", the mainland has the last word on its interpretation, leading some observers to see Sunday's march as quixotic at best. Ma Ngok, a political analyst at Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that even if the mainland could be budged by mass popular protests, efforts to get the people out in large enough numbers "won't work because people have been much more pacified in recent years." Some 72% of Hong Kongers find Beijing's timetable perfectly acceptable, according to a Chinese University of Hong Kong survey taken before the rally.
That is one reason why recent marches have come nowhere near the turnout of 2003's July 1 protest, when half a million demonstrators forced Beijing-backed legislators to scrap controversial anti-subversion legislation. Kathline Cheng, a 52-year-old employee of TMP, a greeting card supplier, stood amid the crowds Sunday and recalled even larger demonstrations, beginning with the one million marchers she joined in May 1989 to show support for the student protesters in Tiananmen Square. "When the condition is critical, the people come out," her husband Andy says. "But today they'd rather go shopping."
He isn't kidding. Hong Kong's economy has been on a tear lately: bolstered by a booming mainland and the Hong Kong dollar's peg to a weakening U.S. currency, the Hang Seng Index gained 39% in 2007. A recent survey by TNS and Gallup International showed that Hong Kong people are the most optimistic in the world on the general outlook for 2008, with 71% expecting the coming year to be better than the last. All that prosperity is causing headaches for Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, who are finding it harder to make their cause relevant. In November's district council elections, the Democratic Party was trounced by the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong (DAB), winning only 59 seats to the DAB's 115. "It is a bad time for democracy," admits Raymond Wong, chairman of the League of Social Democrats, standing in front of Hong Kong's government headquarters at the end of the rally. Albert Chan, a legislator from the same party, notes that mainland authorities have become increasingly sophisticated in dealing with the territory's demands for greater freedoms. "Beijing continues to give a lot of goodies to Hong Kong," Chan says, in the form of cross-border infrastructure projects and investment. "But," Chan adds, "no matter how good the master treats the slave, the slave should fight for its rights."
Not everyone is so sure. "Politically you can say that we will continue to fight for 2012," says Professor Ma, "but most HK people know that it is not possible to fight on in this regard against Beijing." Still, organizer Lee Cheuk Yan, a legislator from the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, points out that the rally was also intended to send a clear signal to Beijing that the relatively small number of demonstrators on the streets could drastically swell if the mainland reneged on its timetable promises. The next battle is to make sure that the electoral systems necessary for democratic elections are in place well before 2017. Mainland officials have hinted that they would like the current functional constituencies professional voting blocs appointed by Beijing to remain a feature of Hong Kong's political system, a preference that will be hard to square with full democracy. Wrangling a timetable for direct elections would have been impossible without the public support democrats drummed up, says Ma. But the Democrats must get to work on the details for elections or truly risk losing their relevance.