Hong Kong’s Bad Weekend

The events in Hong Kong this past weekend were as unfortunate as they were unnecessary.

They were unfortunate because some pro-democracy advocates initiated actions for which they had not sought a permit that rally organizers usually secure. In response, the police chose to use tough measures (pepper spray, tear gas, batons), and the initial clashes triggered much larger demonstrations. Also unfortunate were the obvious and severe splits within the pro-democracy camp over goals, strategy, and tactics. Those splits will complicate any future efforts to bring about a political system that fair people would recognize as an effective and stable democracy.

The weekend’s events were unnecessary because there was an alternative outcome. It was clear from the debates since 2012 on how to elect Hong Kong’s chief executive, that a sensible compromise was possible, one that allowed competitive elections (the pro-democracy camp’s hope) without creating too much uncertainty or instability (Beijing’s fear). Moderate democrats had proposed approaches that would have led to such a compromise. In the end, however, the Chinese government set electoral parameters that would allow a one-person-one-vote election, but would give it and its allies in Hong Kong a lot of control over who could run. With those rules of the game, Hong Kong’s radicals were empowered, and the instability that occurred last weekend was almost inevitable. Beijing has been quick to blame the pan-democrats for the disorder, but it had the power and the opportunity to facilitate a good outcome.

None of what we have seen in the last few days needed to happen.