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September 21, 2017

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Reform in name only is far worse than no reform at all

Hong Kong was supposed to be mainland China's showcase to the world (Taiwan in particular) of the benefits of its "one country, two systems" policy. Instead, it has quickly become the Communist government's constant headache.

The city boiled with discontent as its new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was sworn in yesterday. Being the Beijing-reporting mayor of a fierce freedom-oriented city such as Hong Kong has not been an easy job, and Leung certainly came onboard in a much worse position than his two predecessors. Unpopular as Tsang Yam-kuen and Tung Chee-hwa might have been at the end of their terms, they started as pretty much the people's favorites, given the undemocratic nature of the selection process. Now a substantial number of Hong Kongers are already questioning Leung's fitness to run their city.

News broke on June 20 that Leung, who defeated the original Beijing favorite Henry Tang in no small part due to the controversy over an illegal basement extension in Tang's home, has unapproved structural extensions in his own home including an illegal cellar. Leung's claim that the extensions existed before he bought the place and his apologies for not realizing the unapproved improvements did little to qualm the criticisms of his apparent untrustworthiness. Even the international press is punching hard. The cover of the latest issue of the Asian edition of Time Magazine has the words "Can Hong Kong Trust This Man?" beside Leung's smiling face.

The sight of tens of thousands of people on the street protesting the new chief crashing against a file of pepper spray-wielding police officers is probably the worst welcome for the visiting Chinese President Hu Jintao and certainly not a positive reflection of the "one country, two systems" Beijing leaders have in mind.

By continuing pseudo-elections and delaying promised universal suffrage for the chief executive, Beijing succeeded in radicalizing Hong Kong's once largely politically indifferent society. That was no small feat considering that people in the former British colony still mostly have fond memories of their London-assigned former Governor Chris Patten.

If Hong Kong is a showcase for Beijing, it is a showcase of the damage half-hearted democracy does to social stability. The Chinese government should learn the lesson that its constant calls for democratic reform must be followed by concrete action, that a democratic reform in name only is worse than no reform at all.

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