The Hong Kong Protests and their Implications for China

The ongoing democracy protests in Hong Kong have evolved considerably since their start in late September. What started out as student sit-in protest with an unusually high degree of disciplined behaviour (e.g. students left thank-you notes to the police, collected trash and marked out walkway spaces in case of medical emergencies) escalated into a tense stand-off with violence between protesters and security forces, followed by a de-escalation after the parties agreed to talks and then the resumption of widespread civil disobedience after the planned talks were cancelled. Most recently, protesters and the Hong Kong government have held talks but, with neither side yet showing willingness to compromise, these engagements have remained inconclusive.

Fundamentally, the protests in Hong Kong are not a surprise. The protests are the inevitable outcome of the “one country, two systems” policy. They express the gap in understanding and values between the two systems co-existing in one country. Theoretically, if policies had allowed the two systems to evolve at their own pace, the need for protests, “all other things being equal”, may not have arisen. However, policies have fallen short of the expectations of one community within one of the systems and this has exposed the gap in a manner which poses a challenge to the policy makers. If the gap grows – and currently the lack of means with which to bridge the gap suggests it may well grow - China may well yet come to regret the handover by the British of its colony. The basis for China’s reaction, according to its media, is that the protests are illegitimate. If this is the accepted wisdom in Beijing, then the prevailing strategy will be (disguised as it may well appear) to deny the demands of Hong Kong’s protesters and bring the colony back into line. That approach is a risky one. There is an alternative which is far less risky; namely to accept that “One Country, Two Systems” implies that true differences between the systems are perfectly legitimate and that the denial of one system’s need to take a different path is illegitimate. The perversity is that the latter appears more risky but is in fact far less risky. It is far less risky because it takes away the protesters reason for protesting.

The real surprise of the protests is the fact that these inevitable events appear to have come as a near complete surprise to China’s leaders or so it seems given the lack of an effective strategy to deal with the protests. There is also no evidence that there is a plan for dealing with the longer term scenarios that come out of various potential outcomes from the protests. All cards seem to have been bet on the protesters losing this round and the issue disappearing or becoming irrelevant. However, given China’s leaders have spent a decade engineering a peaceful economic revolution for approximately 800 million people in mainland China, it is not unsurprising that they have been too busy to focus on this. The next step is undoubtedly to think through what these protests mean for China as a whole. Even if for now, the protests disappear, the big question remains, namely, what is the path ahead for China where its various communities are travelling at multiple speeds? Doing so will require laying out a vision for the country that charts the journey not just for Hong Kong but also for the mainland’s increasingly educated rich and assertive populations who inevitably will one day follow suite and demand personal and a societal freedoms beyond whatever is the average. Undoubtedly, if a long term solution is not clear that is thoroughly logical, culturally appropriate for Hong Kong, and aspirational for the next wave of Chinese cities, more protests will follow, with savvier protesters learning from each wave of previous protesters and making more rigorous demands which China may not be able to deliver against. It is not the protests but the lack of a game plan that charts the course of peaceful change that is the real risk to China.


At stake is the question of how Hong Kong’s Chief Executive will be picked from 2017. Currently the territory’s leader is picked by a Beijing-trusted election committee composed of 800-1,200 people, a system that was put in place in 1997 at the time of the handover from the United Kingdom. In 2012, China’s central government announced that Hong Kong would elect its Chief Executive through “universal suffrage” starting from 2017.

However, this summer the Standing Committee of the NPC in Beijing announced that candidates for the Chief Executive position would not be directly elected by the population but hand-picked by a nominating committee “modeled on the old election committee”, implying that it would be composed mainly of people who are sympathetic to and have been vetted by the mainland government. Hong Kong’s student protesters on the other hand are demanding direct and universal suffrage of the territory’s Chief Executive without any government vetting and took to the streets to protest against the process announced by Beijing.

At least in public, the gap between the two parties appears to be a wide one based on a seemingly fundamental lack of acceptance by each party of the other’s position. From China’s government’s perspective, the protesters are asking for rights that they had never enjoyed in the past. The Hong Kong people during the 150 years of British colonial rule never elected their government and most of the democratic institutions in Hong Kong today were instituted in a rush during the run-up to the 1997 hand-over. Seen through the eyes of China’s leaders, the student protesters are asking for more than they have ever had and far more than they were ever explicitly promised.

The students on the other hand see the current proposal as a betrayal of the government’s promise made in 2012. The Hong Kong people, particularly the new generation who have grown up in the past twenty years, have come to take for granted the freedoms their society enjoys today. The Hong Kong people have developed over time a distinct identity and have in recent years effectively used protests on a number of occasions to protect this identity and their freedoms. A decade ago, its citizens took to the streets to successfully prevent the introduction of Article 23, a set of post 9-11 style security measures that would have curtailed civil liberties. And more recently, protests prevented the introduction of mainland style patriotic education classes into the Hong Kong school curriculum. These protests are different though in that the students are not protesting to preserve civil liberties they already enjoy but are demanding to receive further rights that they feel entitled to. Hong Kong’s student protesters clearly interpret democratisation to be a one-way street along which rights and liberties of citizens can only increase over time.


The stakes for both parties are high and go far beyond Hong Kong. Clearly, for China, the issue is a much broader one than a question of governance for one of its special administrative regions. Regardless of local election mechanics or outcomes, Hong Kong under the terms of the hand-over will revert fully to China in the next 30 years, and China has proven to be nothing if not patient with regards to the fate of the former colony. After all, China tolerated Hong Kong’s existence as a colony for nearly 50 years after the founding of the People’s Republic, during which it had the ability to reclaim the city by force with little or no opposition at virtually any time. Loss of control of Hong Kong cannot therefore be Beijing’s main concern. The key issues for China’s central government are as follows:

1. Concerns Over Spreading Protests.The biggest issue for Beijing is the risk that the demands for democracy being voiced in Hong Kong will spread to the mainland, where the communist party has held a tight rein on power for the past 65 years by actively opposing any opposition to its rule, popular or otherwise. Accordingly, the events “Much has been talked about the perniciousness of the tyranny of the minority in politics. But no other event in the world has ever demonstrated such obvious harm as the "Occupy Central" campaign in Hong Kong does now People’s Daily, Oct 8th 2014“ The biggest issue for Beijing is the risk that the demands for democracy being voiced in Hong Kong will spread to the mainland, where the communist party has held a tight rein on power for the past 65 years by actively opposing any opposition to its rule, popular or otherwise. Accordingly, the events in Hong Kong were the subject of a full media black-out on the mainland and Beijing suspended issuance of tourist visas for mainland citizens to limit the flow of people exposed to the protests. It was only when these measures proved to be ineffective that the central government began to allow vigorous comment publicly on the events through the communist party’s semi-official mouthpiece, the People’s Daily. The events in Hong Kong, which has its own distinct history and shares a regional language with adjacent province of Guangdong, highlight some of the challenges that “localism” poses to Beijing’s centralised rule. With regions such as Tibet and Xinjiang having strong independence movements and witnessing increasing civil-government conflict, Beijing no doubt fears that backing down, or even negotiating with the protesters, risks signaling that the central government is open to talks, something it has assiduously avoided in the past. The last time a senior member of China’s government engaged with protesters was in 1989 at Tiananmen, where Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang spoke to the crowds only days before the crackdown and was subsequently placed under house arrest by the party’s ruling faction for the last 15 years of his life.

2. Concerns Over Social Stability and Unrest. The rationale underlying so much of China’s public stance whether in foreign affairs or domestic is the need to maintain the stability of China. In this case too, China’s think tanks,"These acts will undoubtedly end up with the rule of law violated, severely disrupted social orders, huge economic losses and possible casualties,” policy makers and analysts would have run the scenarios and come to the conclusion that their current reaction needs to be cognizant of the need to prevent unrest and maintain social stability for future generations. The act of protest itself is therefore most likely seen as directly fostering the former and endangering the latter. It helps to recognize that the maintenance of social stability has always been a key "Stability is bliss, and turmoil brings havoc” concern for non-democratically elected regimes given that they lack the self-regulating mechanisms that help address the root causes of social unrest in more pluralistic societies. The mainland’s state media has continuously emphasized the importance of social order and stability, painting the protests as a negative force.

3. Concerns Over Political Credibility.The protests draw attention to questions about the future of and the credibility of the “one country, two systems” policy, both within Hong Kong and beyond, in places such as Taiwan, where the policy is seen as a potential step to longer term reconciliation and unification. Since coming to power in 2012, the Xi Jinping regime has been largely conciliatory to Taiwan and the Taiwanese people, increasing popular support and sympathy, as evidenced by a decreasing proportion of Taiwanese in favour of permanent independence from the mainland. The events underway in Hong Kong and Beijing’s response over the issue risks making the Taiwanese nervous and threatens to undermine the credibility of the “One Country Two Systems” as a potential option for closer contact and longer term reconciliation with the mainland.

4. Concerns Over Allegiance to China and Foreign Interference in China.As China continues to develop and exert growing regional and international power, its domestic affairs are increasingly impacting and being impacted by international relations, economic and political issues, making the clear delineation between internal and external matters more and more difficult. China has reacted by increasing its grip on the media, in particular the internet and social media. This coupled with the highly open, more diverse, more international and partially westward facing nature of Hong Kong’s society, the protests lead to concerns that the U.S. and Britain are playing a covert but active role in events, manipulating the pan-democrats (as the Chinese media call them) to further their own goals. These concerns touch a raw nerve; China has studiously sought to train the international community not to “interfere in its internal affairs” , and if other nations do interfere, China will exact a tough price in terms of trade and relations.

For the Hong Kong people, the protests are naturally about freedom, but also more deeply around economic inequality in Hong Kong and the changing economic equation between the territory and the mainland.

1. Progression of Freedom. Hong Kong is an open and first world society that is networked and globalised with a high quality of life, access to information and a high degree of personal liberty. These types of societies are overwhelmingly democratic in nature. Even in countries that have traditionally not been fully democratic such as Singapore and Taiwan, the trend has been to an ever-increasing opening up and rise in democratic rights over time. Beijing’s offer in the minds of Hong Kong’s students represents a step backwards rather than forwards to more democracy and the reaction has been accordingly fierce. The change of the protest’s name from” Occupy Central”, with its anti-corporate connotations to the “Umbrella Revolution”, with its associations with other countries democratic “color” movements is a clear sign of the higher aims of the protests.

2. Economic Inequality. Hong Kong’s political systems was developed by China’s central government with the support of and collaboration with Hong Kong’s business community, which observers have seen as giving a continued free-hand economically in return for their support. After two decades this has led to an increase in income inequality in Hong Kong (with the GINI coefficient up to 0.54, higher than any OECD country ) as wealth If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month,” Hong Kong Chief Executive, C Y Leung Oct 20th 2014 and resources have become further concentrated with the city’s elite. Hong Kong today has forty-four billionaires, the highest per capita density in the world. The current system of government facilitates rather than checks this wealth concentration by giving the business community a large chunk of the 1,200 person ruling legislative council. The entrenched position of the business elite in Hong Kong’s power structure today was evidenced by the public warning by Hong Kong’s Chief Executive C Y Leung that open elections would lead to a domination of state by the working class and the poor, who form the majority of the population of the territory. In this regard, it is natural that the majority of protesters are students: the average starting salaries for university graduates have risen a mere 1% annually over the past 17 years, well below inflation and the city’s young people face increasingly uncertain economic prospects. Given Beijing’s proposed election rules effectively limit the say of the students through their vote, the students have taken to the streets.

3. Shifting Economics with China. The protests are also a reflection of the shifting economics between China and Hong Kong. The city’s wealth has always been closely tied to and fuelled by its relationship with the mainland. Following three decades of rapid development China has begun to close the gap in development and Hong Kong is feeling increasing pressure accordingly. Many lower level jobs have already moved to mainland China as companies increase operations there, while in Hong Kong itself there is also increasing competition from mainland Chinese immigrants for a constant or shrinking absolute number of economic opportunities. The backlash against the mainland (and mainlanders) has in recent years been sporadic but increasing in frequency, and have included legal limitations on birth tourism, the rationing of retail commodities such as milk powder to mainland buyers, and popular backlash against the public behaviour of mainland visitors. The baseline of public resentment in Hong Kong toward China in general is growing, and what is being perceived as heavy-handedness on Beijing’s side by Hong Kong citizens is only adding oil to the fire.

Popular hysteria over being overwhelmed by “unsophisticated mainland tourists” aside, the concerns raised by Hong Kong citizens appear reasonable when seen through the eyes of a modern and developed first world society and to a certain degree mirror those being increasingly expressed in China’s more developed mainland cities. This at first glance validates Beijing’s own concerns about the long-term and wider implications of the protests. If one accepts the first glance, it leads to a fundamental imperative for China’s rulers: accept the inevitability of the demand for freedom in Hong Kong and the consequences for the mainland or reject and destroy those making the demand. The latter no longer appears like a viable path; China’s leadership team is not Assad’s Syria and today’s China is not the China of Tiananmen Square. China is a progressive economy trying to figure out how to chart the path ahead for 1.3 billion people.


For China there is an acute sensitivity to mass protests; the country has experienced three revolutions in the 20th century alone. However, the protests in Hong Kong are both an expression of China-specific issues rooted in history, economics and politics and its shift from a closed society to an international merchant as well as part of a broader global theme of democratisation recently seen in the Arab Spring, and in a wider range of demands for equality and equity “China believes that the demand for democracy by the Arab people must be respected and truly responded to” China Premier Wen Jiabao 2012 which include the Wall Street Protests and anti-posterity protest and riots across Europe. Accordingly, there are a series of potentially valuable lessons from other countries and recent protests for both parties. For China, learning from other recent protests provides an opportunity to avoid some of the outcomes that have destabilised the Middle East and other regions. Given that China’s situation remains genuinely different to that of these countries, a repeat of the events that took place in Tunisia or Egypt in 2011 remains highly unlikely.

However, if its protests are mishandled, China risks creating an instability that need not materialise and in addition draw the world that is the trading partner of China to draw the parallels between Hong Kong and various “colour revolutions” that have shaken the legitimacy of the governments of the countries in which they have occurred.

I. Triggers and their Unintended Consequences. The events of the Arab Spring, particularly its initiation through the self-immolation of a street peddler in protest to heavy handed treatment by local government, shows that with the right conditions the triggers to widespread actions can (appear to) be quite minor. With slowing economic growth domestically, the fundamental promise and implied pact offered by China’s leaders to its people of material prosperity in exchange for political silence appears to becoming strained and popular unrest, officially defined as “mass incidents” has grown according to official statistics . In a centrally controlled system, the expectation is that the country’s leaders are responsible for addressing the underlying issues and if they fail they risk protest. Sporadic protests, sometimes against unconnected and seemingly irrelevant issues, flare up and each time they do they create the risk of uncontrollable consequences. The events of Tiananmen Square in 1989 themselves started as a funeral procession in honour of a recently deceased member of the politburo, further pointing to the uncontrollability of mass movements once they gain momentum.

II. Managing Escalation and De-escalation. In any conflict, escalation occurs when parties have mutual demands that provide no opportunity for compromise and offer no alternatives to the status quo. The initial evidence suggests that a win-lose has been set up. On the one side, the students have been labelled as “thugs” and the public stance is of no possible compromise and on the other side unfulfillable demands have been made of government. However, surely in history it is often thus between youth and statesmen. As the league table of student protests and toppled regimes shows, the result is a stalemate from which there is no return. Negotiated settlements are typically a function of pragmatism trumping ideology. The Communist Party has shown itself capable of this in the past on other issues, such as the settlement of the Sino-Russian border dispute in 1994 or its accession to the WTO in 2001, but these negotiated victories are some time ago and China’s view of itself has changed in the past decades as the country has risen. It is currently unclear whether the leadership can muster the same level of pragmatism politically that Deng Xiaoping expressed economically when he famously stated "It doesn't matter whether a cat is white or black, as long as it catches mice."

III. Government Clamp-Down Risk and the Economic Penalty. China’s inward investment and ability to attract foreign talent to develop China has been an essential ingredient in its economic success. The cornerstone of this has been the admiration that the world has held for China’s ability to maintain stability. In countries such as Syria and Egypt, attempts by the government to physically clamp down on protest quickly led to an escalation of violence and the scale of conflict, resulting in a civil war in the former and an ongoing revolution in the latter. This theme of escalating violence has been a general feature of the wave of governance protests in recent years and there are few examples of governments emerging from them relatively unscathed. China today is still living in the shadow of the Tiananmen protests and the government’s use of force to put them down, and the events of June 1989 still seem to colour (and stifle) any fundamental political debate in the country. At the time, the government’s crackdown came at a heavy cost to the country economically, too, with FDI decreasing over 20% in the following year and foreign lending down 40%, following a series of sanctions by the US and EU and a suspension of lending by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank. Although it is unlikely that developed countries and multi-lateral institutions would be able to muster the same level of sanctions and economic impact in today’s globalized and interconnected world, the cost of a violent clampdown on protests in China would be significant, both in legitimacy and economic terms.


Despite a first round of talks between student leaders and the government, one month into the protests, there is no resolution of the issue in sight, with the government refusing to countenance a revision of the proposed electoral plan. Thousands of protesters continue to paralyze key streets in Hong Kong’s financial and shopping districts, following a series of partially successful attempt by police using tear gas to disperse demonstrators, and police have stepped up efforts to open up some blocked roads. Accordingly, at this point in time, a number of outcomes to the protests remain possible:

      1. Students Tire and Fizzle Out.The Chinese government appears to be trying to essentially sit out the crisis and wait for the protesters to tire and fizzle out, the calculation being that the inconvenience of the protests to the majority of (non-political) Hong Kong people will build popular resentment against the students and mount pressure against them. The chances of success of this strategy are currently low though, given that (i) the Chief Executive’s own popularity, rather than that of the protestors has suffered as a result of events in a number of recent polls, and that (ii) the sporadically arising “popular” counter-protests are widely believed within Hong Kong to be funded and organized by Beijing or the Hong Kong government itself rather than real grassroots movements . In some ways the staying power of the students rests not on their ability to gain the support of Hong Kong’s lower and middle classes but on whether they can cause enough economic impact to business such that the city’s ruling tycoons decide that more democracy will actually improve stability rather than undermine it.
      2. Armed Intervention.Hong Kong will clearly not be another Tiananmen with tanks and guns. The events of 1989 are a blemish on the communist party’s legacy as custodian of the national interest and one that it will not see repeated. However, this does not preclude a concentrated armed intervention with non-lethal means, including pepper spray, tear gas and truncheons. To date the security forces in Hong Kong have used force on a number of occasions to clear areas for traffic and for “security reasons” but have attacked to break up rather than attacked with a force that would break the protests. Thus far, the smaller scale use of force has galvanized and strengthened rather than broken opposition. For, example, a recent camera-phone video of police beating a tied up protester quickly went viral and revitalised the protests, forcing the government to place all of the officers involved on leave and starting an official inquiry into the events to appease popular sentiment. In Hong Kong’s networked and open society a widespread crackdown therefore remains highly unlikely.
      3. Negotiated SettlementFinally, there is a chance for a negotiated settlement step towards greater representation, one that allowed competitive elections (the student’s demand) without creating too much uncertainty or instability (the government’s fear). The composition of the election committee, which has not yet been officially decided, could provide some basis for such a settlement. While this in many ways would be the best outcome for all parties the current status of the parties’ positions is not encouraging. Chief Executive C Y Leung has publically said there’s “zero chance” that Beijing will agree to change the electoral method and that the Hong Kong’s Basic Law allows for no such change either. As has been the case in the protest movements of the Arab Spring, the Hong Kong student protesters lack clear the leadership to form a concrete proposal. Further, China’s government has a history of non-engagement with protesters and has generally jailed them rather than negotiate for fear of compromising the power of the communist party. China has seen the impact of both the admission of mistakes and popular engagement in authoritarian regimes. Nikita Khruschev’s secret speech of 1956 denouncing Stalin’s mistakes is widely seen as exposing the first cracks in the unity of the Soviet communist party that grew in subsequent decades. Further, Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of glasnost (opening up and engagement) in the USSR is rightly recognized by China’s leaders as having brought down the USSR and is reviled accordingly. China’s leaders are accordingly wary of open engagement and its potential unintended consequences. However, there are increasing signs that this is being challenged and new measures are being carefully considered; the willingness to change the constitution to label China an “ecological civilisation” and what is now being talked about as encouragement to establishment of institutions and judicial power to enable the people to sue corporations and the government for infringement of environmental laws is a massive leapfrogging of most modern economies worldwide.

Longer term, the demand for freedom will only grow in Hong Kong and China and protesters will become increasingly vociferous and better organized over time. A military crackdown option is no longer viable therefore as it will only delay and exacerbate the “problem” of democracy. Given that the long term transition to personal freedom, if not full democracy, is virtually inevitable, the best strategy for China must be to proactively manage this transition.


Regardless of the success of this round of Hong Kong’s student protests, the event offers China an opportunity to think deeply on the course it is on. For China, the events in Hong Kong make clear that China’s current social contract, the bargain of wealth and prosperity in exchange for forfeiting political freedom is not generally and indefinitely sustainable, particularly once the citizenry has secured the benefits of the bargain. If this is the case in Hong Kong, it is also unsustainable in mainland China where there are growing and widespread populations across the southern coast and in the major cities that have prosperity and are ready for more freedom to enjoy it. Shanghai’s and Beijing’s students are as educated, intelligent and driven as Hong Kong’s and enjoy a quality of life that is gradually approaching that of the territory’s. With their long term economic prospects more uncertain than the last two decades and with public focus shifting from prosperity to prosperity plus lifestyle issues such as environmental quality, pollution and corruption, Beijing will need to re-examine the bargain. This implies reformulating the vision of where it will take China as a whole as well as develop a repeatable engagement strategy tested and honed with the Hong Kong protesters that it can apply domestically too. Hong Kong will by necessity be a trailblazer on this path, but it will not be the only one to undertake the journey.

      1. The Vision. The end goal must be one of a prosperous, transparent, open and stable China, in which the government is reasonably accountable to its citizens. China's own citizens will demand and deserve no less. The communist party’s main raison d’etre is maintaining control of China and its government, an objective it will need to square with its required future long term vision. To this end, there are many kinds of democracy in the world today and Beijing will can look to other single party models (as practiced in countries such as Taiwan and Singapore as recently as the 1990s) as providing elements of the blueprint for its model recognizing that, for these countries too, further ongoing liberalization, however slow, is inevitable, making the end goal a moving target.
      2. The Transition Path. The transition path will need to be a multi-speed and gradual one, too. The lessons from other countries show that the rate of transition is a function of the maturity of the society and of the country’s institutions. Mature and economically developed societies manage the transition more quickly and better than others do. Given that China already has multiple development levels within the country, Beijing may need to consider a regional and phased approach to national development, a political version of special economic zones that can be rolled out in a gradual way only in places where the right conditions have been met. This would imply a phased approach starting with China’s tier 1 cities before spreading to smaller coastal cities and moving inland in step with economic and social development.
      3. Clear Execution Roadmap. Even in such regions where the conditions for reform have been met, the process will need to be closely managed, with many existing policies discarded and new ones to be implemented. Policies that have been the cornerstone of this phase of China’s development would become redundant including media censorship, the one-child policy, household registration reform, emigration and visa reform and others. The criteria for allowing a transition to a “special political zone” with the associated rights also needs to be well established. Clearly, this changes the role of central government and its relationship with local governments and herein lies one of the biggest changes to manage.

Hong Kong is already far down the road and takes for granted many of the freedoms that China’s mainland citizens lack so it cannot provide the blueprint for the whole transition. But the situation in Hong Kong is immediate and urgent and so will set the precedent. Most importantly, it will be the test-bed in which China’s leaders can dry-run and potentially fine-tune the “end state” of its vision for the country. For the rest of the world, the question will be what role they should play in the unfolding events. There are many options open to countries, although none of those open to democratic countries are particularly good ones. These include:

      1. Watching and waiting on the assumption that the long term trend is inevitably heading towards more freedom. However, this does not position the waiting country well for the future though, where it will lack the track record of constructive engagement with the parties and credibility as a “friend”.
      2. Providing covert support to protests and insurrection through intelligence agencies. This is an old cold war stratagem that has often backfired with unintended consequences, particularly on the US, where CIA supported revolutions put into power the likes of the Taliban and Mobuto Sese Seko in the Congo.
      3. Speaking up and being damned. China has always given a strong economic and political slap to those that it perceives as speaking out about its ‘internal affairs’, such as Tibet.

The US appears to have chosen the third option and has elevated Hong Kong democracy as key issue on which to engage"The US may enjoy the sweet taste of interfering in other countries' internal affairs, but on the issue of Hong Kong it stands little chance of overcoming the determination of the Chinese government to maintain stability and prosperity." People’s Daily, Oct 11th 2014 China aggressively in a human rights report recently issued by the government. This will undoubtedly fuel the fears in China that that US is also employing the first option too, and may end up hurting rather than helping the protests, with Beijing less likely to provide concessions if it feels that these are being demanded as a result of “foreign meddling”. China’s future lies in an alternative to “One Country, Two Systems” and that is a journey on one river leading to one place where its citizens travel at different paces along the river; “One Country, Many Paces, One Vision”, so to speak. This would require something that appears to be very difficult given the seemingly solidified positions: flexibility. This flexibility of mind and position would see the Hong Kong protest as an event to embrace and to make one’s own. It would recognise that “One Country, Two Systems” implied true differences and that it is perfectly legitimate to demand China can choose to recognize that it is on a journey on one river to one place and its citizens are already travelling at difference paces along the river: “One Country, Many Paces, One Vision”China can choose to recognize that it is on a journey on one river to one place and its citizens are already travelling at difference paces along the river: “One Country, Many Paces, One Vision” these differences. The question, given China’s existing model, is more appropriately whether people are ready to be given the right to live differently; what criteria and when, not if. The negotiation with the Hong Kong students is at once broadened and changed to a dialogue with the Hong Kong people about the timing of change. This needs to be seen in the context of the fact that resisting the force of the change to come in China requires acts of brutality that are no longer consistent with what China has become in our times. The danger to China is that it tries to resist change in ways that are not brutal but are ineffective and loses its credibility in the process. Planning for the inevitable and executing it superbly is more characteristic of the China that launched a liberalisation programme that took hundreds of millions out of poverty. Well executed, “One Country, Many Paces, One Vision” may well be the catalyst for unlocking the potential of China.


  1. A flexible accusation which in the past has been levelled at countries such as Norway following the non-government affiliated Nobel Foundation awarding its peace prize to a political activist in China, and the US following the release of a Department of Defence report on its assessment of China’s military.
  2. The leading role of it business leaders in the governance of Hong Kong has been reported on by a number of international observers including  Foreign Policy , the  Financial Times  and the  Wall Street Journal.
  3. Chinese Academy of Sciences
  4. The Atlantic reported a police announcement that of 18 counter protesters arrested in an incident in mid-Oct, eight had connections to triads, organized crime syndicates in Hong Kong
  5. As of Oct 8th the economic cost of the protests was est. at $350bn HKD (Xinhua)
  6. Even Deng Xiaoping, who opposed Chairman Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and was purged by twice famously called Mao “70% right and 30% wrong.”
  7. Cf “Progress in China’s Human Rights”white paper by the Information Office of the State Council released on May 14, 2012, or the subsequent amendment of the CPC Constitution by the 18th Party Congress to enshrine the “ecological civilization”.