Hong Kong is one of the most dynamic, prosperous cities in the world. It is a truly global city that is focused on only one thing, business. Since its inception as a focal point for merchants and traders, to its place in the world today as a major financial hub in the global economy, Hong Kong has always been one of the most receptive places in the world for Western, liberal economic ideas. Yet despite all this Western ideals of democracy have never really flourished within Hong Kong. In an age of social media and instant messaging, however, it is easy to believe that this may soon change as calls for democracy grow, and the freedoms of sharing information allows for more and more people to make their voices heard.

Under British rule, Hong Kong was always a refuge point for thousands of migrants, and as one journalist observed, Hong Kong was “the only Chinese society that, for a brief span of 100 years, lived through an ideal never realized at any time in the history of Chinese society” the ability to live in a time where “no man had to live in fear of the midnight knock on the door”.[1] But despite its place as a haven for migrants the British left Hong Kong having failed to install a stable, inclusive democratic process. Now as part of China’s one country, two-systems, Hong Kong still manages to exist with its own identity, it has also retained an independent legal system and it still issues its own currency. But Hong Kong also still lacks an appropriate process to choose its own Chief Executive.  The Economist referred to the recent election of Leung Chun-Ying as a “bizarre process” in which, in a city of more than seven million people, fewer than 700 people were able to cast a vote.[2]

On the 1st July, 2012, Leung Chun-Ying will become the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong. He was not democratically elected by the popular vote of the citizens of Hong Kong; instead, he was chosen by 1,132 handpicked voters, of whom most are known for their favorability to follow Beijing’s lead. Yet according to the Washington Post, even these 1,132 voters in the Chief Executive election “were outnumbered by demonstrators who were kept away from the assembly with pepper spray”.[3] Beijing originally favored another candidate, Henry Tang. However Tang’s chances were diminished after a very public uproar when it was revealed he had built a 2,200 square mile wine cellar, gym, and office beneath his wife’s home without legal permits.[4] Although Beijing changed their support from Tang to Leung Chun-Ying after this public embarrassment, it is hard to see how long Hong Kong’s Chief Executive can continue to be chosen in this way. Whilst public sentiment managed to create a minor influence on the outcome of this decision, there were still over 7 million people who had no control over who would be the new Chief Executive.

There is definitely a desire within Hong Kong for democratic change, and the people of Hong Kong are still as willing as ever to make their voices heard. The biggest protests of recent times managed to draw over 400,000 protestors who marched in the streets against a planned change in security laws in 2004.[5] Beijing is known for its fear of instability and discontent, but unlike the mainland, Hong Kong has greater freedoms to allow for popular protest. Whilst in mainland China references to the Tiananmen Square atrocities are still censored, in Hong Kong tens of thousands of people still managed to gather recently as an act of remembrance to commemorate the twenty-third anniversary of the crackdown on democratic protestors.[6] The recent death of a Chinese dissident who spent twenty years in jail after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 has also again encouraged people to take to the streets to make their voices heard in protest against the suspicious circumstances of his death.[7]

There are clear signs in Hong Kong that the desire for democracy is still there and China itself has admitted to an extent that the way Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is chosen needs to be changed and has even talked of allowing greater elections in 2017.[8] China will no doubt have noticed how social media influenced mass movements in the call for democracy during the Arab Spring. In a world of instant messaging and social networks, it is hard to see for how long democratic reforms can be suppressed when people are able to express their views so freely. Whilst mainland China may be under strict censorship, there is a greater level of freedom of speech in Hong Kong and social networking only increases the ability of democracy supporters to make their voices heard. The people of Hong Kong were able to influence the election of the new Chief Executive only be registering their disgust at an elitist self-serving candidate. In future, the demand for greater democratic elections is only likely to grow.


[1] Chris Patten, East and West, (Oxford: Macmillan, 1998) p21

[2] The Economist, ‘Enter the Manchurian candidate’, The Economist, [online] available at: http://www.economist.com/node/21551505, 31 May 2012

[3] Washington Post Editorial, ‘In Hong Kong, citizens are again denied democracy’, The Washington Post, [online] available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/in-hong-kong-citizens-are-again-denied-democracy/2012/03/26/gIQAvxyvcS_story.html, 27 March 2012

[4] Robert Keatley, ‘One Chief, Two Systems’, The National Interest, [online] available at: http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/the-truth-about-hong-kong-6637?page=show, 14 March 2012

[5] Daniel Bardsley, ‘In Hong Kong, flagging fortunes of freedom of speech’, The National, [online] available at: http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/asia-pacific/in-hong-kong-flagging-fortunes-of-freedom-of-speech, 29 March 2012

[6] Crystal Chui and Patrick Boehler, ‘Tiananmen protesters gather in Hong Kong in rememberance’, Bloomberg, [online] available at: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-06-04/tiananmen-security-normal-as-anniversary-held-amid-party-turmoil.html, 4 June 2012

[7] BBC News, ‘Li Wangyang: Hong Kong official questions ‘suicide’, BBC, [online] available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-18418946, 13 June 2012

[8] James Pomfret and Sisi Tang, ‘Beijing loyalist to lead Hong Kong after fraught election’, Reuters, [online] available at: http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/26/us-hongkong-election-idUSBRE82O0F220120326, 25 March 2012