China has the Great Hall of the People. Hong Kong has the “Great Hall of the Tycoons.”
That phrase was uttered by Briton David Webb on Saturday night as he addressed a crowd of demonstrators in Hong Kong. Webb, a shareholder-rights activist who’s earned the enmity of Hong Kong’s powerful oligarchs, cut right to the heart of things in his rousing speech.
“Don’t worry about the small economic impact of these protests,” he added. “Think about the large economic benefits of a more dynamic economy, ending collusion between the government and the tycoons who currently elect the chief executive.”
If Beijing learns anything from the biggest frontal assault on its authority since the British returned the keys to Hong Kong in 1997, it should be this: Hong Kongers want competent leaders, not cronies. As the Umbrella Revolution begins to fold up – at least for now – here are three things President Xi Jinping can do to keep the former British colony from succumbing to an endless cycle of protests and crackdowns:
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Dump the current chief executive: No one seriously expects Xi to fire Leung Chun-ying this week, no matter how much of a lightning rod he’s become. Forcing Leung out now would be an open admission that the current system of choosing leaders is flawed. It might also inspire copycat protests across China calling for mayors, party secretaries and even Xi to step down. But China must at least begin telegraphing Leung’s departure in the weeks ahead.
Find a decent replacement: Each of the three chief executives chosen since the handover has been worse than the other.
China has one more shot at this. A smart, creative leader who serves Hong Kongers, not the tycoons, and addresses the causes of inequality would greatly ease public discontent. At the least, any new chief executive should exhibit a competence to match Hong Kong’s institutions, which have by and large handled this crisis with patience and skill. Yes, Hong Kong’s police erred when they fired tear gas at demonstrators on Sept. 28, and again on Tuesday night, when TV cameras caught them apparently beating and kicking one defenseless protester. But until that point, they had displayed an impressive degree of professionalism.
Learn from Hong Kong’s youth: Xi’s generation of Chinese leaders would be wrong to view the architects of this standoff as some ideological fringe. Even the shopowners and triad gangs complaining about lost business have a stake in what protesters are demanding. While anger has coalesced around Leung, those lining the streets cite everything from Beijing’s meddling to inequality to pollution to inflation as driving forces behind this revolution. Addressing any of these grievances requires greater openness, transparency and accountability.
“There is no large economy in the world with high levels of prosperity that does not have democracy,” Webb told protesters on Saturday night. “So if China wants world-class prosperity, and not the current 20 percent of world-class, then it must have democracy and the civic freedoms that go with it. Freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the media.”
It’s this ability to speak, gather and write freely that made Hong Kong the vibrant place it is today. If they were honest, even the tycoons would admit that China should be emulating Hong Kong’s success, not strangling it with incompetent courtiers.