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The impending change of Hong Kong's ownership

India Infoline News Service | Mumbai |

The poll attracted a surprisingly high turnout, despite a hack attack on the website and warnings from Beijing that it was illegal

In the lead up to the 1997 handover of Hong Kong to China a local friend of mine quite seriously asked how he could pass custody of his child to me in the hope his son would be able to get an Australian passport, such was the suspicion that most Hong Kongers had about the impending change of the territory's ownership.

Those fears proved unfounded. In fact China has on more than one occasion acted as the white knight for Hong Kong, pulling it out of economic difficulties during the Asian financial crisis and then again during SARS in 2003.

One former finance secretary based his entire growth strategy on China allowing more people to cross into Hong Kong to fill the territory's shopping malls and hotels.

But the relationship is coming under new strain and with a relatively new and assertive leadership in Beijing, this time the outcome could be a lot different.

The issue is an informal referendum organized by Occupy Central, a pressure group pushing for more democracy. In 2017 Hong Kong will elect a new leader. Currently the candidates are chosen by a committee hand-picked by Beijing. Occupy Central wants the change nomination process to allow the electorate to choose the candidates and then vote. In other words, full universal suffrage.

The poll attracted a surprisingly high turnout, despite a hack attack on the website and warnings from Beijing that it was illegal. More than 700,000 people aired their view - a significant number in a city of perhaps 3 million voters.

Occupy Central says it is only raising the issue to remind Beijing of its commitment to following Hong Kong's basic law, a "mini-constitution" which underpins the one country, two-systems principle and allows Hong Kong political and personal freedoms like a free judiciary, freedom of the press and a rule of law that is a bedrock of Hong Kong's commercial success.

 But Beijing has in recent weeks made it crystal clear that all this is allowed at the discretion of the national government.

A White Paper issued by the Chinese leadership is designed to show exactly who is in control. It says: "High autonomy is not full autonomy. Hong Kong and Macau do not inherit their autonomy. Its roots are in the authorization of the central government." It's an unprecedented step to issue such a warning and the result has been, say Occupy Central, to drive Hong Kongers even further from the embrace of Beijing. Hence the high poll turnout.

The next few weeks and months are critical for Hong Kong. Occupy Central says that if Beijing ignores the requests to reform the nomination process it will march on the central business district which could choke business. They make the threat openly, saying that they are laying their cards on the table so Beijing understands the depth of feeling.

But there is a risk it could backfire. And backfire spectacularly. One newspaper columnist says Xi Jinping sees Hong Kong as a political timebomb. He is a new breed of politician in China who does not see Hong Kong as a special case. Hong Kong is losing its relevance as a role model for how China integrates its former colonies. It has been a collective mantra in Hong Kong that it is China's trial run in the lead up to the big prize, the return of Taiwan. Perceived wisdom was that if Hong Kong was managed well under the gaze of international public opinion then Taiwan could be enticed back too.

But a growing school of thought suggests President Xi is giving up on the dream of reuniting Taiwan. And that leaves Hong Kong horribly exposed. It's been clear from the posturing in the South China Sea and China's willingness to confront regional neighbors that a new assertive leadership has arrived.

If Hong Kong doesn't tread carefully now it could force a fundamental showdown in which it's likely there will only be one result. And that is not a result that Hong Kong would like to see.

The author is CNN anchor/correspondent based in Hong Kong**

 

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