Posted:  July 7, 2009

Although July First is now a public holiday, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 still has no name.  The official “Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Establishment Day” has yet to catch on, probably because it so accurately reflects the difficulty of finding some neutral non-provocative term for use in a community that still cannot decide whether it would rather celebrate or protest.  So Hong Kong does both, and in ways that have intensified during the 12 years since 1997.

7/1 march

Everything remains peaceful and almost everyone remains on their best behavior throughout.  But the one-country, two-systems formula that was somehow supposed to leave Hong Kong’s way of life unchanged for 50 years and finesse its merger with the mainland system by 2047, is producing an increasingly polarized community.  As a result, partisans with two very different visions of Hong Kong’s political  future are vying for preeminence and the July First agenda has evolved accordingly into competitive dawn-to-dusk rituals.  These include something for everyone but the two sides remain by choice as far apart as possible.  Only a few hecklers can be seen in attendance throughout, each on the fringes of the other side’s events.

It was not always so.  The two separate political aspirations are rooted in opposing pro- and anti-communist local identities that extend far back in Cold War time.  But during the years since 1997, July First was initially just another holiday distinguished only by a flag raising ceremony in the morning and small groups of marchers demonstrating for various causes in the afternoon.  All that came to an abrupt end in 2003 and July First has been marked by competitive tensions ever since.


The national security issue has been hanging over Hong Kong’s head “like the sword of Damocles,” some say, ever since 1990 when its Basic Law constitution was promulgated.  Article 23 requires Hong Kong to pass mainland-type laws criminalizing treason, subversion, theft of state secrets, and so on.  The unpopular administration of Hong Kong’s first post-1997 chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa, drafted and promoted the proposed legislation in typical bumbling style. But this bill represented a greater threat to Hong Kong’s way of life than anything else he had done and the public rebelled.

Requests for a delay in the legislative timetable were denied even though social life was brought to a near standstill in early 2003 while Hong Kong fought the SARS epidemic that left 300 people dead.  SARS had originated across the border in neighboring Guangdong province and its gravity was initially hidden by the very same culture of state-mandated secrecy that Hong Kong was being asked to accept via the Article 23 legislation.

Marginalized by the Tung administration and demoralized by official resistance to further electoral reform, Hong Kong’s democracy movement came slowly back to life during the struggle to amend the bill.  But thinking they had failed yet again, activists announced one last symbolic protest march for July First, just days before the bill’s scheduled passage.  Instead, 500,000 angry residents turned out, shaking the resolve of some centrist legislators and forcing withdrawal of the bill rather than risk its defeat.  Then, having found clear and compelling reasons for their cause of representative government accountable to the people governed, confidence returned and democratic candidates registered major gains in the fall District Councils election.

No benefit comes without cost, of course, and measured against the democracy movement’s revival since 2003 has been Beijing’s increasingly evident determination to drive democrats back into the shadows. This effort, pursued with the help of local loyalists and the Hong Kong government, has multiple dimensions.  But most significant has been the series of admonitions and directives from Beijing, beginning in late 2003, that have now pushed the goal of universal suffrage elections back at least to 2017 and 2020, for the chief executive and Legislative Council respectively.

Other dimensions would provide some comic light relief  —   if only the political implications were not so serious.   In 2004, for instance, the police and professional people-counters began their own new-found custom of underestimating by as much as 50% the number of marchers that experienced but less “scientific” observations indicated.  This reduced another half-million people to less than half that number.   In 2005, national security remained in limbo, the 2003-04 election cycle was over, and the government did its very best to distract people from their discontents.  A much-publicized display of Chinese dinosaur bones, timed to coincide with the holiday, drew a crowd of 200,000 people, with a new patriotic parade thrown in for good measure.  Protest marchers, by their own count, shrank to just 20,000.  Numbers have nevertheless grown each year since depending on the issues in play and the number of groups with grievances to air.

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong government and pro-Beijing organizations have hit upon an easy way to save face with a guaranteed body count of their own by organizing an early morning variety show at the Hong Kong Stadium (seating capacity 40,000).  Afterward, everyone troops out for a short 40,000-strong patriotic parade through nearby streets leaving the afternoon free for pan-democratic marchers or “dissidents,” as loyalists now define all who insist on protesting against mainland ways of political life.


In contrast, the afternoon event is an all-volunteer occasion, self-organized and self-financed and coordinated since 2003 by a group called the Civil Human Rights Front.  As usual, Front organizers spent months this year preparing, negotiating demands for space, and essentially trying to impose order on an energetic crowd of free spirits all insisting on their right to be heard.  But rules that everyone must follow impose order on what might otherwise be mistaken for chaos.   Politicians cannot campaign for themselves or their parties, although publicity booths and collection boxes are allowed along the three-mile route and side-street soap boxes provide additional opportunities.

Everyone must also agree to march under a common set of protests and demands.  This year the lead banners protested “faulty administration” (referring to several recent Hong Kong government missteps), and “disparity between rich and poor.”  The demands were “power to the people” (a slogan from the universal suffrage campaign that Beijing denounces as subversive for invoking the Western-style principle of popular sovereignty), and “improve people’s livelihood.”  Apple Daily’s customary headline broadsheet printed just for the occasion read “Struggle for Universal Suffrage, Oppose Servility,”  the latter targeting Chief Executive Donald Tsang’s much-criticized deference to Beijing.

Turnout was the only disappointment even though tens of thousands made this year’s march the largest since 2004.  Disappointment derived from expectations.  The other main pan-democratic event of the season drew at least 100,000 people, for the June Fourth candlelight vigil commemorating Tiananmen, and an equal number was expected on July First.  To compensate for extravagant police underestimates, organizers are probably doing the opposite.  But calculating the numbers crowded into Victoria Park’s staging-area soccer pitches, where the size of the annual June Fourth vigil throng is well established, at least 50,000 people set out with the main body of July First marchers this year this year (police:  28,000; organizers:  76,000).

There were also many reasons for the largest June Fourth turnout since 1990.  The milestone 20th anniversary was one; widespread publicity for then Communist Party leader Zhao Ziyang’s 1989 memoir was another.  Beijing’s clampdown ahead of this year’s sensitive anniversaries reminded everyone that the much-feared dangers of one-party rule are as strong as ever.  So did Donald Tsang’s use of official Beijing talking points to excuse its actions in 1989, which earned him the “servility” jibe. Yet another reminder was the just-revealed plot by two mainland men involved in a conspiracy to assassinate democratic leader Martin Lee and Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai, who are both vilified as “traitors” in Chinese polemics.

The imperatives for participating in Hong Kong’s July First democracy march were no where near as powerful as these mainland-focused reminders.  And the two-hour nighttime vigil requires considerably less stamina than a four-five hour trek along treeless streets in 90 degree heat with humidity to match.  More immediate threats generate greater stamina, of course, suggesting why Donald Tsang postponed public debate on the next round of Hong Kong’s snail-paced electoral reforms until after the anniversaries have passed, and why the back channel hints about reintroducing Article 23 legislation have stopped.  These are the two most contentious issues on the agenda before his term ends in 2012.   Everyone knows that when Hong Kongers are angry enough they will march in any weather and even a typhoon cannot deter them.

In fact, the two events, on June Fourth and July First, should be judged together and together they send the same message, namely, that Beijing’s post-1997 effort aimed at forcing Hong Kong into a one-size-fits-all mainland mode of governance needs re-thinking.   Democrats may have been unable to sustain their 2003 District Council gains, but Hong Kong’s “dissidents” are at their best as activists and agitators. They have kept their movement alive in this way by representing the general public’s commitment to its “way of life,” and their opponents know that at that level they may never be able to compete. (July 7, 2009)

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