THE BLOG
10/04/2014 12:52 am ET Updated Dec 03, 2014

Hong Kong's Protesters: Pragmatism or Passion?

For the past week, the commercial arteries of Hong Kong have been clogged with (mostly) student demonstrators clamoring for "democracy." I wove through crowds that ranged from sparse and listless to dense and energized. The advertising guy in me couldn't help conducting mini-focus groups into motivations and mood. The protesters were polite and clear on objectives: a step down by the Communist Party from its proclamation that "universal suffrage" will have Chinese characteristics. Will "one man, one vote" will be stage-managed? Will Beijing and the oligarchic elite of Hong Kong always dictate the terms of political debate?

What is the end game here? I predict resolution, albeit one unsatisfying to most Westerners as well as a minority of Hong Kong citizens who aspire an American brand of democracy. Hong Kong will remain open for business.

Whether or not chaos erupts depends on two questions: What type of democracy do Hong Kong people crave? (In a million parallel universes, the central government will never permit Western-style democracy. Territorial disintegration, political or military, is a matter of national security, the third rail of Chinese anxiety.) And will the Community Party, constructed for engagement with various societal factions, deem protestors worthy of two-way dialog?

First, Hong Kong is not becoming Western, and neither are the political aspirations of its people, despite decades of tutelage under British administration. The Chinese, including Hong Kongers who have never taken stability for granted, are supreme pragmatists.

The protests are as much about economic despair -- an inability to control material destiny -- as they are political grievances. The cozy relationship between leadership and tycoons is even more co-dependent today as it was during the colonial era. Land rights are jealously guarded and real estate is more expensive than ever. Home ownership is inextricably linked to both self-respect and marital prospects, but young people can't afford to buy an apartment. More broadly, I suspect Hong Kong's new generation is unsettled by diffused anxiety, a fear of limited potential and increased competition. Ten or fifteen years ago, young professionals trumped mainland counterparts. This is no longer the case.

The Chinese dream of "democracy" has traditionally been functional, even utilitarian. Confucian societies have historically been patriarchic, at peace with top-down compliance. The son/subject does not exist independent of his obligations to father/ruler. That relationship is respected as long as order is maintained and economic platforms of individual progress or solidly constructed. This explains why Britain's Chinese subjects in Hong Kong never revolted against their colonial overlords. Democracy in China has been tantamount to responsive, not representative, government. Culture -- the relationship between individuals and society -- is deeply entrenched. Hong Kong is commercially and economically Westernized, but it will never be Western. In a morphing, unpredictable world, mainlanders and Hong Kongers agree chaos should be avoided at all costs. Political philosophy that fails to yield bread-and-butter benefits still quickly floats away.

Yes, societies evolve. Hong Kong is now modern and international, "developed" in the fullest sense. Its people expect government to evolve as well. They are right -- and it is natural -- to demand increased transparency, institutionalized checks and balances against corruption, and a political structure that reflects broad interests. Hong Kong certainly lacks that today.

But given the territory's underlying realism, a middle ground between Hong Kong's "democracy" seekers and Beijing's current hardliners should be achievable. There remains opportunity to adjust levers of governance to produce a broader slate of Chief Executive candidates than currently exists. Anson Chan, the territory's former Chief Secretary, suggests adjusting the make-up of the existing nominating "committee." An example: the number of votes cast by different industry sectors could be tweaked to more accurately reflect the city's economical and social structure. Another: the composition of voting blocks within industry-specific sectors could be altered to achieve a more popular voice.

Second, resolution requires dialog, a mutual desire for compromise. True, the path towards constructive engagement is not readily apparent and the risk of bloodshed is real. Protests are hydra-headed, a shape shifting beast without clear leadership. And Leung Chun-ying, Hong Kong's current Chief Executive, is hapless. Finally, China's government, obsessed with control, will not sacrifice "face" by caving into "rabble rousers."

Still, I believe pragmatism will prevail. The government's greatest fear, an anxiety that militates against rational discourse, is instability spreading to the mainland. This will not happen. The government has, quite effectively, cracked down on news coverage and online discussions regarding anything Hong Kong.

More fundamentally, most Chinese do not support the students. They do empathize with resentment over incestuous ties between cadres and tycoons -- after all, President Xi Jinping's sky-high popularity is rooted in an on-going anti-corruption drive. However, a sense of Hong Kong "exceptionalism" -- a belief of its existence on higher cultural plane -- has not helped protesters' cause. (Locals have called Mainland tourists "locusts.") As one sophisticated Shanghai-based financier said to me, "In the end, they must accept they are, first and foremost, Chinese. They are part of China. And their government is our government. Their systems may be more advanced. But they are Chinese." Strength springs from unity.

Will the central government summon the self-possession to engage with protesters? I guess so. (See UPDATE below.) The Party, pragmatic when the threat of instability is at bay, knows today's students will become tomorrow's economic producers. Protracted estrangement serves no interest. Dialog need not humiliate, assuming central government bigwigs maintain their dignity, planted safely behind the scenes. I also predict the city-state's tragi-comic and supremely ineffectual Chief Executive will resign once end games are played, further calming tensions.

In the end, the Hong Kong protests reflect the territory's increasing political and economic maturity. But they do not spell revolution. China's leaders are smart. Hong Kong pragmatic people demand greater transparency and effectiveness, not independence. Both sides have more to gain through a technocratic minuet than violence at the barricades.

UPDATE: As of late Saturday evening, crowds are swelling with resistance in response to the Hong Kong government's ultimatum to disperse by Monday or else. This provocation is unnecessary, unskilled and deeply unfortunate. May calm heads prevail, or all bets are off.