WHAT DO YOU DO WHEN CITIZENS FEEL THEY have a mandate that isn’t respected by the political powers that be? Well, in Hong Kong, inhabitants turned out by the tens of thousands to claim what they feel is rightfully theirs.

Admittedly, the coverage filling the airwaves this week of the massive protests filling the streets of that city reminds us that the issues are complex. But at the bottom of it all lies one basic provocation. Hong Kong belongs to China, but prior to its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, citizens pressured their leaders into negotiating the “Basic Law” – a constitution that would govern the city of some 7.2 million people, guaranteeing freedom of speech, assembly, religion, and freedom of the press. The Basic Law had to be respected if the city was to return to China after 150 years of British rule.

This unique arrangement was dubbed, “One country, two systems.” Sadly, the national Chinese government has opted to respect the former at the expense of the latter. The Basic Law states that the city’s top political leader should be chosen “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Eventually it would morph into one person, one vote.

It has been suspected for some time that the national government would muckrake, and so, for almost a year, a group of democratic activists, including university professors, average citizens, Christian evangelicals, lawmakers from the Legislative Council, and students warned the national government that if the earlier terms were not respected that they would engage in nonviolent protests in the heart of the city’s financial sector. They frequently cite Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. as a model for their actions. The Chinese government ignored them and the result is now obvious on our television screen and in the media. The activists followed through on their word; the national government didn’t.

In real terms, Hong Kong doesn’t yet have a mayor. The first one is to be elected in 2017 and is meant to be the people’s representative, not the national government’s. The city is presently run by a group of people, government appointees, who are supposed to respect the Basic Law but who are instead swearing fealty to the national government. Taken together, they are supposed to function as a mayor as would. Deciding to ignore the will of the people in favour of a senior level of government has resulted in approximately 100,000 demonstrators moving through the city’s core. The moment they decided to endorse China’s plan to control the 2017 election for mayor they were in big trouble – vigilant democracy has been aroused.

Nobody knows how this all will end, but it’s a growing example of how cities and their citizens are rising up to claim their own fate. By failing to side with the people who helped to draft the Basic Law, the managing committee unleashed a democratic spirit revealing that earlier attempts at engagement had empowered citizens rather than having them return to docility.

We would be misinformed if we equated this merely to the complexity of the Chinese situation. In reality, cities around the world are wrestling with the “one country, two systems” approach. Senior levels of government are growing increasingly remote from where average citizens live and yet continue to hold a power over municipalities that hardly reflects the social, economic or intellectual potential they contain. We have covered this subject numerous times in posts over the last two years. Senior levels of government must move more quickly towards granting more power to cities, especially since federal and provincial governments can easily pass on costs without commensurate responsibility.

Anybody running for mayor in a country like Canada should reflect on the present Hong Kong situation, where promises were made that were not kept, and citizens were empowered who refused to go back in the box. It was often the case that bad mayors equaled dysfunctional communities. Today the trend is changing, as citizens themselves demand better and organize themselves in ways that can directly confront their key elected officials. This is democracy we’re talking about, not a business, educational centre, or non-profit, but a living, moving organism that is supposed to reflect and protect the will of average citizens. Deny that reality if you will, but, as Hong Kong reminds us, a citizen judgment is coming and will not rest until it is respected.