The immediate cause of the protest was opposition to proposed national security legislation that would have given the Hong Kong government broad powers to suppress dissent. More generally, the populace is dissatisfied with Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa's mismanagement of the territory since he took power in 1997. Facing a hailstorm of criticism, Tung delayed passage of the repressive legislation and opened the door to further discussion of the security issue.
But the turmoil also has bigger implications. It raises yet more questions about Hong Kong's autonomy from China, since Beijing may have to play a visibly stronger role if it perceives that Hong Kong lacks political stability. Moreover, the protests are a major challenge to the Chinese leadership, including President Hu Jintao. Hu's worry is that the Hong Kong protesters -- especially if they appear to win -- could become a model and inspiration for much larger numbers of mainlanders.
Both Tung and the Beijing government need to move carefully. First, as long as Tung remains in office, he should press forward on electoral reform. The Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini-constitution, makes clear that universal suffrage is Hong Kong's goal. Tung so far has ruled out serious discussion of the issue. He should reverse course and promise to push through full, fair, direct elections as soon as possible.
For its part, Beijing needs to get the ineffective Tung out of office. The question is how. The best option may be for China to quietly ask Tung to resign and then replace him with someone who will defend Hong Kong's interests more effectively. Allowing Hong Kong to become just another Chinese metropolis is not in the best interest of either Hong Kong or China.
At all costs, Beijing should refrain from undermining the protests. Hong Kong's free press played an important role in blasting away the SARS coverup, for the good of China and the world. Any such repression could badly damage China's international standing.
The world has a significant stake in the stability of Hong Kong. It is a crucial trade and financial bridge between the West and Asia. More important, a strong market economy that coexists with democratization in Hong Kong will be a good omen for China's future.