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A mock tank, covered with photocopies of a controversial white paper released by Beijing on Hong Kong’s future, is displayed by local artists to symbolize China’s threat to the city’s autonomy. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
A mock tank, covered with photocopies of a controversial white paper released by Beijing on Hong Kong’s future, is displayed by local artists to symbolize China’s threat to the city’s autonomy. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Hong Kong’s democracy movement is testing Beijing’s resolve Add to ...

Mr. Chow is particular to one argument: In 155 years of British rule, London never gave Hong Kong the right to choose its own leadership. But Beijing has promised some form of universal suffrage. Can you imagine the triumph in Mr. Xi’s voice when he sits down with Barack Obama and says Hong Kong “can vote, and choose their own chief executive, as we promised?” Mr. Chow asks. “You think China doesn’t want that?”

For Mr. Chow, the possibility that Beijing wants to use democracy as more window-dressing than avenue for political expression is less of a concern than what Occupy proposes to do to his city.

He worries about what will happen to the two-million people living in the downtown Central region if Occupy shuts it down. If access roads are closed, he says, Central will run out of food in about a week.

That, not an encroaching China, is cause for fear, he says. Besides, he argues, Hong Kong’s discomfort with the mainland is rooted in little more than wounded pride. For decades, Hong Kong’s wealthy were China’s benefactors. “Now suddenly China is booming. China is making all the money,” he says. Today, “if you want to be an entrepreneur, I would suggest you go to China. Don’t come here.”

A Mandarin invasion

In one way, at least, Mr. Chow holds common ground with his opponents: Both sides agree that Hong Kong is changing, its complexion bearing an ever greater resemblance to its new master.

Part of that change has been financial. Last year, 45.6 per cent of Hong Kong exports went to the mainland; the U.S. was second-highest, at 9.9 per cent. Only 10 years ago, the U.S. took top spot, with 32 per cent of exports; mainland China then stood at 30.

Where Mr. Chow and his opponents differ is that the Occupy crowd sees the changes as almost universally bad. Top jobs in the city’s financial community are increasingly occupied by people with mainland ties. The People’s Liberation Army is pressing forward with plans to build a naval port in the city’s harbour, raising the prospect of Chinese warships at anchor in the city’s heart.

Even Hong Kong’s language is changing.

When former president Hu Jintao swore in current chief executive Leung Chun-ying, Mandarin echoed through the room, elbowing out the city’s traditional Cantonese. Companies and embassies post job ads looking for Mandarin-speaking staff, as mainland China occupies an increasing space in Hong Kong’s civic and economic affairs.

At the same time, since becoming part of China, the city’s chief executives have all suffered problems – either being ejected early by streets protests or leaving office under suspicion of corruption. Mr. Leung, the current chief executive, has seen his tenure plagued by weak public support and suspicions of illegal activity among cabinet members.

It has all led some to an unpleasant conclusion: “When China has too much control over who actually becomes the leader, you get failed leaders,” says Simon Young, director of research at the University of Hong Kong department of law. There is broad hope that universal suffrage could bring “someone who is more in touch and is accountable to the public.”

Such a system might have advantages for Beijing, such as buying political peace in Hong Kong. But there is, as always, a rub. “They would like to have a democratic system, but also one that could produce someone who can work with them,” Mr. Young says.

Still, the alternative might be worse. Deny Hong Kong the vote, Mr. Young warns, and the frustration will come roaring into the open.

“We will see even more protests. And I think people will start thinking about leaving Hong Kong. Already, there’s been talk about migration if it looks like China is taking over,” he said.

Something more pernicious might arise, too: the kind of cynicism that is already widespread in mainland China.

“It will just be same-old same-old, and there’s no reason to trust the government.”

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