By: Michael C. Davis

As the world looks on in horror at China locking up hundreds of human rights lawyers, tightening censorship over its internet, and scolding academics for use of Western materials, Hong Kong lingers in a struggle with Beijing over democratic development.

The Chinese Communist Party’s passion for repressive control and interference has clearly intruded into Hong Kong, along with the rest of the country. With the CCP increasingly paranoid over its power there appears little hope of resolution. Can Hong Kong find a way to relax Beijing’s tightening grip?

Beijing’s decisions over the past year reflect a profound change in the “one country, two systems” model upon which Hong Kong and its international investors have long relied. The extreme liberties Beijing has taken in interpreting the human-rights and democratic commitments in the Hong Kong Basic Law signal a profound attitudinal change. Hong Kong may not survive as one of the world’s leading financial centers in the tightening restrictions in light of one of the world’s most hardline regimes.

Much more than elections is at stake in Hong Kong’s battle over democracy. Protesters’ calls for democracy have aimed to relax Beijing’s controls. Democracy has been seen as crucial to defending the autonomy and rule of law so instrumental to the integrity of the Hong Kong system.

Relations were not always so tense. In the can-do spirit of the early reform era Deng Xiaoping called for Hong Kong investors in 1979 to “put their hearts at ease.” To ensure such confidence, the Sino-British treaty promised Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy,” Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong under democratic principles, liberal human-rights protections, and independence and finality of the courts to maintain Hong Kong’s existing rule of law.

Commitment to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was included, and all such commitments were stipulated for inclusion in a basic law. The 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law generally fulfilled such promises. For selecting Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, it expressed an “ultimate aim” of “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.”

The same liberal list of human rights was guaranteed. While the independence and finality of the local courts were put at risk by providing China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee the ultimate power of interpretation, the committee early on showed restraint and rarely exercised such power.

These documents were taken to the capitals of the world to gain international support for treating Hong Kong distinctly from the mainland for purposes of trade and investment and a variety of social and cultural relations.

This restraint began to break down in the middle of the last decade. Beijing began to tighten its grip, as Hong Kong protestors increasingly demanded compliance with Beijing’s promises. Beijing’s foot-dragging over democratic reforms, demands for national security laws and efforts to institute patriotic education met with massive protests. That the local Hong Kong government has shown no inclination to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy and is often seen to represent Beijing’s interest over Hong Kong concerns has ratcheted up the calls for democracy.

In this distrustful atmosphere, as the debate over going forward on the promised universal suffrage took shape in 2014, Hong Kong activists launched a civil disobedience campaign. The Occupy Central campaign, now called the umbrella movement after protestors used umbrellas to deflect tear gas, only hardened Beijing’s resolve to block genuine democratic reform.

The June 2014 Beijing White Paper on “One Country, Two Systems” revealed Beijing passion for control. Accusing Hong Kongers of a “confused and lopsided view,” Beijing attacked core Hong Kong values and institutions. Portraying Beijing’s NPC Standing Committee as the guardian of the rule of law, Hong Kong judges were characterized as administrators and told of their responsibility to guard national security. A “high degree of autonomy” was “not full autonomy.” The Sino-British treaty was effectively abandoned.

In the wake of the white paper, a June civil referendum organized by the Occupy Central founders overshot the expected 100,000 voters to attract 800,000 for an electoral model involving civil nominations as a device to bypass Beijing’s control. Voters were angered both by the white paper and a Hong Kong government consultation report that appeared to misrepresent Hong Kong views as effectively supporting Beijing’s pronouncements.