The slogan “One country, two systems,” which is supposed to describe the relationship between the Chinese mainland and the capitalist enclave of Hong Kong, has been the repository of hopes, dreams and more than a little confusion since it was first articulated in 1997.

The idea that the former colony would retain its essence after being returned to China invited scrutiny on two counts: defining that “essence” and clarifying what would happen if it ever clashed with China’s own perceived imperatives.

The prospect of a clash has become more real in recent weeks as Hong Kong residents have participated in a poll on how to select their top leader, a ballot that, while not legally binding, is nonetheless angrily denounced by the mainland.

Since the 1997 handover, the post of chief executive of Hong Kong, the top official in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) as the former colony is officially known, has been selected by a small committee dominated by Beijing loyalists.

The Basic Law, the legal framework for the SAR, stipulates that the chief executive will be elected by universal suffrage in 2017.

To maintain control of the process, however, the Chinese government had decided that candidates for the job would first be vetted by another committee, this time comprising 1,200 local pro-Beijing power brokers.

The most important criteria for their selection is that they must “love China.” For democrats in Hong Kong, this nullifies the promise of universal suffrage.

To register their dismay, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, a protest group, organized an unofficial 10-day referendum to canvass opinion on how to select the next chief executive.

After the third day of the referendum, which began June 20, nearly 800,000 voters, or about 19 percent of registered voters and more than twice the organizers’ highest forecasts of 300,000, cast ballots.

Chinese officials and commentators have been outraged. The official Xinhua news agency called the referendum “a political farce” that was not consistent with the Basic Law.

Global Times, a newspaper that gives free rein to nationalist sentiment, dismissed the vote as “an illegal farce” and accused the organizers of sowing “hatred.” The official government position was explained by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which declared the referendum to be “unlawful.”

For its part, the Hong Kong government noted that a civil referendum “does not exist in the Basic Law or in Hong Kong’s domestic legislation, and has no legal effect.” Referendum organizers concede that the results do not have the force of law, but counter that the Beijing government should pay attention to the sentiment of the Hong Kong people.

The Chinese government made its position abundantly clear in a white paper on Hong Kong issued earlier this month. That document explained that the autonomy enjoyed by the Hong Kong SAR is categorized as “neither full autonomy nor a decentralized power.”

Ominously the paper continued, “It is the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”

The white paper said that anyone in Hong Kong who thought otherwise and thought that they might have actual control over their own lives is “confused or lopsided.”

It also blamed “outside forces” for “stirring up trouble” in the SAR.

That chilling pronouncement may well have spurred the stunning turnout in the Occupy referendum.

For democrats, the ballot is one of the few ways that residents can let Beijing know their true feelings and their anger at having their options so drastically circumscribed.

There were more active attempts to undercut the referendum. The website that hosted the poll experienced cyberattacks including those aimed at denying service in an attempt to shut them down. Newspapers that supported the ballot were similarly assaulted.

Occupy Central has promised civil disobedience designed to shut down the city’s central business district if Beijing fails to honor the voters’ call for more democracy.

Genuinely mass protests that would hurt the economy would transform the debate and would likely provide the government with the pretext it needs to take action against the demonstrators.

Beijing has shown time and time again that it is prepared to suffer the public relations consequences of tough action if the alternative is undermining the government’s ruling authority.

If Beijing is indifferent to the broader international consequences of a crackdown, it may be concerned about the signal it sends to Taiwan.

“One country, two systems” was always intended to assuage concerns on that island about the impact of unification. Autonomy for the SAR was a demonstration of the treatment and respect Taipei would receive if the province returned to the motherland.

A crackdown on Hong Kong would transform the debate in Taiwan about relations with China. That may not be enough to stay Beijing’s hand, but it should strengthen the position of those who counsel caution.

There is room for a compromise that does not look like retreat. Both sides must be alert to the dangers they court with extreme positions that ignore a search for middle ground.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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