Posted: Jan. 29, 2010
After looking back at the growth of Hong Kong’s democracy movement from 1949 to the present (Dec. 10 and 28 posts), only the future remains and Hong Kong’s latest generation of activists is pointing the way forward. They like to call themselves the “after 80s” (bashi-hou), meaning anyone born after 1980, and they have only just burst upon the scene taking everyone by surprise.
One reason for the surprise is that Hong Kong’s political community is currently focused on the government’s latest political reform proposals (Nov. 23 post) and consumed by the debate over how to respond. The three-month consultation period now has less than a month to go. Public forums and debates including those sponsored by the government and all other concerned parties have become daily events but the pan-democratic camp has so far spent more time talking about strategy than substance. Everyone agrees that the government’s proposals are sorely wanting because they do nothing to reform the half of Hong Kong’s 60-seat Legislative Council that is elected not by universal suffrage but by special interest groups known as Functional Constituencies. The main stumbling blocks are Beijing and Hong Kong conservatives unwilling to change the status quo. Democrats are trying to decide how best to confront this impasse.
Nevertheless, despite much disagreement and rising tempers, the radical League of Social Democrats and Civic Party activists are resolved to proceed with their resignation/referendum plan even though no one else seems prepared to take the risk. Accordingly, five LSD and CP legislators — one from each of Hong Kong’s five electoral districts — have just announced their resignations, effective from January 29. The move is meant as a gesture of protest against Beijing’s refusal to allow anything more than incremental progress toward the officially promised goal of universal suffrage direct elections for the entire legislature and for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. A further aim is to force simultaneous territory-wide by-elections wherein each legislator will run for the seat he/she just vacated. Campaigning will be used as a platform for public debate that can illustrate the real life defects of Hong Kong’s current indirectly elected system compared to the benefits of one directly elected by all the people. In this way, the public’s commitment to democracy can hopefully be kept alive in the face of Beijing’s intransigence.
AN ENVIRONMENTAL PROTEST
Given the historic potential of these distractions, no one paid much attention when a small group of young people began a strange silent protest that was initially mistaken for some sort of religious cult ritual. Led only by a single funereal drum beat, they walked a few steps, knelt down, kowtowed forehead to ground holding grains of rice as a gesture of supplication in outstretched hands. They would then rise to their feet and begin again. This exhausting routine was originally choreographed to dramatize the protest of a suburban village that stands in the way of progress. Tsoi Yuen village must be demolished to make way for a railway project that will link Hong Kong with the mainland’s new high-speed line. Official aims are all about modernization, development, big business, corporate money, and construction jobs, plus Hong Kong’s now unrelenting physical and economic integration with the mainland. The rice gains were meant to symbolize fields and vegetable gardens that re-located villagers will lose.
This particular protest had actually been underway for months with concerned groups joining residents who ultimately won a generous compensation package from the government. Most of the 150 village households have now agreed to move. Hence when the drum beat dirge routine moved into town, onlookers and pundits dismissed it as more street theater from some unarticulated youth protest perhaps over poor job prospects, low incomes in a not yet fully recovered economy, and so on. But that was before the young people set up camp around the Legislative Council building downtown as legislators began their final debates prior to authorizing funds for the project.
At that point people began talking to the protesters and discovered they were not primarily poor unemployed youth or suburban villagers but secondary and college level students and recent graduates. They saw themselves as a coherent if deliberately disaggregated and leaderless force of activists who had a name for their movement, bashi-hou, and a purpose, namely, to protest social injustice as they saw it and in their own diverse ways.
They also did not just spring up over night but their typical Hong Kong-style small group activism never qualified until now even as a loosely-organized protest coalition. Small groups of young people have in recent years spearheaded Hong Kong’s green movement with multiple environmental causes ranging from plastic bags to pesticide-laced vegetables, air pollution, and the density of high-rise apartment blocks. Three especially high-profile protests have also focused on heritage or “collective memory” conservation and some bashi-hou activists began their protest careers in the mini-campaigns to try and stop demolition of the unpretentious but much-loved Star Ferry Pier and Queen’s Pier beside it. Some then took up the cause of Wedding Card Street in the Wanchai District of Hong Kong Island as proprietors tried to save the dilapidated buildings that housed their print shops and generations of sentimental Hong Kongers remembered their own wedding invitations printed in the shops.
The anti-high speed rail campaign followed naturally and appealed to many diverse groups — all represented in a festival-of-protest organized beside the Legislative Council building. The demonstration culminated on January 15-16, when funding for the project was finally approved after a marathon debate while the drum beat routine circled the building and a small public square beside it and police lines encircled the whole scene. By then it contained everything from hunger strikers to earnest discussion groups, choristers, and an organic vegetable stall. Organizers claimed 10,000 people took part in the finale when young people packed the surrounding streets as well. The police naturally claimed far fewer. But even they had to admit surprise when about 1,000 text-messaging young people left suddenly to stage an impromptu sit-in several blocks away at the official residence of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. The Twitter generation had arrived and successfully staged its first illegal event, illegal because public order regulations decree that any gathering of more than 50 people must be registered in advance. There have been no arrests to date.
After it was over, everyone realized they had either witnessed or participated in an important rite of passage. Hong Kong’s traditional political culture, rooted in small group activism, was reproducing itself in yet another generation. And like every other such upsurge dating back at least to the 1960s, this one serves to perpetuate the same basic commitments that also sustain Hong Kong’s democracy movement. A dozen years after the return to Chinese rule, Hong Kong’s younger generation was replenishing “Hong Kong values” at their source in unspoken defiance of Beijing’s ambitious effort to promote mainland-friendly mindsets among local young people. The strength of these values (Nov. 10 post) lies in their spontaneity and their weakness derives from the small-group attachments that hinder effective community-wide action. But for now that weakness is a major plus because it allows groups to carry on beneath the political radar that Beijing uses to target and label as “dissident” Hong Kong’s established pro-democracy parties.
In fact, the 1980s protesters may proudly proclaim themselves leaderless and non-political but they are definitely not a-political. The extra energy that propelled this latest agitation seemed to flow from the new appetite for political confrontation seen in recent months and from the developing crisis over Hong Kong’s political reform debate. This last protesters readily admitted. “Oppose Functional Constituencies,” proclaimed one giant placard in the square, “Promote Universal Suffrage.” Fliers spelled out in clear detail how the Legislative Council’s current design promotes social injustice because the Functional Constituencies give big business the extra weight needed to win legislative approval for all such projects regardless of popular opposition.
Again dating back to the 1960s, Hong Kong political activists have always maintained this same contradictory association with political power. Not for us, they say today, of officials and politicians. Out motives are too pure to be diluted by public posturing, prevaricating, and above all the pressures to compromise that come with elective office. Especially these activists say they do not want to let themselves become “mouthpieces” for any political party. But in this respect, the new 1980s generation is most closely related to its immediate 2003 predecessors who organized the massive July 1, 2003 protest that succeeded in shelving Hong Kong’s first attempt to pass national security legislation as mandated by Article 23 of the post-1997 Basic Law constitution.
Several coalitions were formed at that time, in 2002-03, and the leading Civil Human Rights Front still organizes what has become the annual July First memorial march. Yet so adamant were they in rejecting organized political parties that Front members voted to remove a leading 2003 organizer, Richard Tsoi, from his position after he decided to run for elective office. Nevertheless, the Front has become, after due deliberation about not compromising its principles, a staunch supporter of the universal suffrage campaign.
The post-1980 generation also has its political heroes and favorites, most of whom just happen to come from the LSD and CP. For years, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung led the ranks of angry young street protesters. So far his standing among them seems to have been only marginally compromised by his 2004 decision to contest elections and join the “establishment,” which he and his LSD colleagues regularly scandalize by bringing their street theatre antics into the Legislative Council chamber. The CP’s associated Professional Commons group took up the latest cause and designed an alternative shorter cheaper route for the offending railway project.
These preferences are also reflected in party age cohorts. The LSD claims that 55% of its membership is under 30; the CP claims 42.5% under 40. In contrast, the Democratic Party, which broke with its Young Turk faction years ago, today has a membership only 12.6% of whom are under 30. The main pro-Beijing party ranks lowest with 8.4% under 35 (Ming Pao Daly News, Jan. 5, 2010).
Consequently, the figures and preferences provide clues as to why the LSD and CP have struck off alone on their risky resignation venture. A dynamic interactive relationship has grown between the two parties and their constituencies that is propelling them all in a different direction from others still bound by the conventions of Hong Kong’s post-1997 political life. This has allowed the two parties, in effect, to call Beijing’s bluff by saying that since the Basic Law’s promises for universal suffrage elections are not being kept, politicians need no longer be bound by the established rules of the game. Since these are not working in the service of all the people, direct civil society activism is the only alternative short of civil disobedience or violent protest.
The parties have given a name to their venture calling it a “new democracy” movement that challenges the public not to give up on democratic goals but to follow the example of the 1980s generation by taking the initiative on their own when no one else will. This idea is reminiscent of 1970s social activism that filled the void left by Hong Kong’s aborted1960s political reform project. The difference today is that new-style democrats see in the disparate demands for social justice a convergence of interests and a new source of energy for their universal suffrage campaign. Whether the new strategy will have any more success than the old in winning concessions from Beijing and big business is doubtful. But LSD and CP democrats are now offering an alternative — as if, in risking their Legislative Council seats for the cause, they are also preparing a retreat back into civil society should their gamble fail.