Posted: March 10, 2011
Rightly hailed for its current coverage of Middle Eastern people power uprisings, the Al Jazeera news network nevertheless failed its first test here on Sunday March 6, while trying to locate the whereabouts of Hong Kong’s own “jasmine revolution.” Obviously unfamiliar with the political scene and looking for some dramatic signs of resistance to Chinese dictatorship, the correspondent went to the logical place: Beijing’s representative Central Liaison Office where small groups of local radicals have been staging their street-theater demonstrations for months (Dec. 13, 2010 post). There he found a small band of protesters engaged in the weekend’s activity, trying to sow the symbolic seeds of revolution by planting miniature jasmine bushes in Liaison Office flower beds. These were added only recently in an attempt to reduce the number of protesters able to gather at the front gate. Hong Kong’s most famous street person, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung [Liang Guoxiong], was on hand to explain that they were expressing support for jasmine revolutionaries on the mainland, who also failed to materialize on March 6.
The reporter was not impressed and ended with a shot of the Hong Kong group ambling away in retreat while security guards reestablished order in the flower beds. He should have followed along because the young people were headed back downtown to where the action was: a day-long protest that succeeded in re-kindling Hong Kong’s fighting spirit after months of discord and setbacks. All the pro-democracy groups, factions, unions, and parties turned out together with thousands of protesters, 113 arrests, and a hard pressed police force that struggled to keep the jasmine planters at bay once marchers arrived at the main Hong Kong Central Government Offices protest site.
The atmosphere of political protest has definitely revived but resistance to autocratic rule looks different here because it has taken a different form, targeting local issues and mostly using the local government as proxy. Hong Kong’s effort began in the 1980s and has succeeded in establishing, partly by demand and partly by daily use, a political culture built on all the basic rights and freedoms. The struggle now is to safeguard and perpetuate what has already been won, given the potential threat posed by Beijing and Hong Kong’s transitional status in the national order of things. Based on their use-it-or-lose-it philosophy, pan-democrats turned out together on Sunday March 6 with the deliberate aim of challenging the authority of Hong Kong’s government.
The specific issue was the annual budget announced by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah [Zeng Junhua] on February 23. This must be approved by the Legislative Council and the vote is scheduled for April 13. Much lobbying for various interests and projects usually precedes and follows the budget announcement prior to final approval. But this year, economic issues have intensified along with an out-of-control property market, rising food prices, a growing wealth gap, and the new-found voices of the younger post-1980s generation. Thanks to last year’s political reform debate, the economic issues are also galvanizing around the government’s unwillingness to tackle causes, reinforced by the entrenched hold of business interests within the Legislative Council’s purpose-built Functional Constituencies.
TURNING A SURPLUS INTO A LIABILITY
Had the authority of Hong Kong’s government not been challenged on so many other counts, the budget would have been cause for great celebration. Governments around the world would vie for the privilege of changing places. The local gross domestic product grew by 6.8% last year and 4-5% is expected for 2011. Unemployment fell from 5.5% in 2009 to the current 3.8%. Retail sales for January this year were up 28.2% compared to January 2010. And that is not all. Hong Kong’s surplus for the 2010-11 fiscal year, ending April 1, is estimated at HK$ 71.3 billion (US$ 9.15 billion). Accumulated fiscal surplus reserves add up to HK$ 595.5 billion, for a city of seven million people.*
Hong Kong’s finances have achieved this blissful state by adhering to the old colonial maxims of “fiscal prudence,” “big market, small government,” few entitlements, and so on. Hence instead of targeting causes and offering long-term solutions for some of the community’s multiple health, education, welfare, and housing needs, the government proceeded in its usual way with one-time giveaways and sweeteners. Typical of this approach was the public-private Community Care Fund charity announced by Chief Executive Donald Tsang Yam-kuen [Zeng Yinquan] in his policy address last fall (Nov. 1, 2010 post). The straw that broke the Financial Secretary’s back, however, was his proposal for a HK$ 6,000 (US$ 769) contribution from the government to be deposited in every employed person’s Mandatory Provident Fund (MPF) account.
The MPF is another typical Hong Kong creation, established a decade ago after years of agitation for some sort of social security or retirement protection. All employed people are now supposed to have an MPF account into which both they and their employers must contribute a small percentage of the employee’s income. At that point everyone loses track of their money, which will not be seen again until account-holders retire at age 65. Professional fund managers of various sorts take over in the meantime with all the usual fees and risks, and little guarantee of significant retirement benefits when the time comes. This was an unpopular scheme even before the 2008 global banking crisis instilled in the public even greater distrust of fund managers.
Given so many people’s needs today, the idea of dumping $6,000 per person into the MPF black hole made for a perfect protest issue, especially in an election year. It was also an issue on which everyone all across the political spectrum could agree. This meant there were enough votes to veto the budget, which legislators threatened to do. As it happens, a budget veto is one of the few reasons, written into Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution (Article 50), for which a Chief Executive can dissolve the legislature and call new elections. If the budget was rejected without the possibility of a compromise solution, Donald Tsang would have a constitutional crisis on his hands and he was about to leave for the annual National People’s Congress meetings in Beijing where provincial leaders must report on their progress.
Although he had initially said he would not budge, Financial Secretary John Tsang (no relation to Donald) did a sudden about face. Flanked by pro-government legislators including those from the pro-Beijing party, Regina Ip of the New People’s Party, and others representing business and industry, Tsang announced on March 2, that instead of the MPF top-up, all adult Hong Kong permanent residents would receive $6,000 in cash whether they need it or not. Gambling-rich Macau has recently begun distributing some of its earnings in this way, but Hong Kongers do their serious gambling in Macau and direct cash give-aways have always been against Hong Kong’s scruples.
It may have saved the budget from defeat and Chief Executive Donald Tsang from embarrassment in Beijing. But the abrupt U-turn did little to enhance the credibility of his government or placate the many critics who scoffed at the government’s lack of economic and political common sense. Pan-democrats also went ahead with their plans for March 6. Pro-government parties did not participate because the protest was not just about the budget but about challenging the credibility and authority of a government they are pledged to support. The lead March 6 slogans: “Oppose the short-sighted budget,” “Incompetent government, no long-term vision,” “Down with the two Tsangs,” and “Retirement Guarantees for Everyone,” “Resume the Home Ownership Scheme,” plus many more.
Just in case anyone forgot to make the connection, the best handout of the day was a large well printed sheet, no doubt based on the careful research of last year’s anti-Functional Constituency campaigners. Their new flier listed the pro-democracy motions during the present Legislative Council term (beginning in 2008), and the voting records of all pro-government legislators, primarily those in the Functional Constituencies, who were responsible for defeating every motion.
THE NEW MARCHING ORDER
Everyone has been speculating on the damage done to Hong Kong’s democracy movement by a year of setbacks and factional infighting. The day of almost-peaceful protest provided an interesting preview since it was the first time — after last year’s July First march following the big split over political reform — that all pan-democrats have organized an event and turned out together. On July 1, 2010, the Democratic Party ran a gauntlet of vilification and abuse for its back-down on political reform a few days before. By March 6, 2011 everyone seemed to be adjusting to the new order with a place for everyone and everyone in their assigned places. The lead organizers included the Confederation of Trade Unions, the Civic Party, and the Democratic Party.
Some had wanted to call it a “Bauhinia Revolution” after the local orchid tree, currently in bloom, that Beijing chose as post-1997 Hong Kong’s official symbol. Inevitably the Democratic Party dithered so the term was formally dropped and used informally instead. Besides the Democratic Party, the other big question mark was the recently split League of Social Democrats (LSD). That problem was solved by organizing the day’s events around a series of separate rallies that kept the two sides of the LSD split as far apart as possible. But if this outing is anything to go by, little has been lost in terms of energy, enthusiasm, or popular response.
The original LSD, with its chairman Andrew To still at the helm, was up front once marchers headed out in mid-afternoon from the main staging area behind the Legislative Council building. The short walk up Government Hill took less than an hour but LSD members, who had begun their day with a morning rally, were among the last to leave. Many including Andrew To were also among those arrested that evening during their deliberately provocative demonstration downtown. In between everything went more-or-less smoothly.
The LSD group was followed up the hill by the New Democratic Alliance, recently split off from the Democratic Party, and a small band of smokers angry at the tax increase on cigarettes. Unrepentant smoker “Long Hair” Leung Kowk-hung, who has also refused to quit the LSD, dropped back to spend some time with fellow sinners. Next in the line-up was the main Civic Party contingent and then all the others: unionists, party groups, migrant workers, new immigrants (who do not yet qualify as permanent residents), etc., etc. Meanwhile, waiting in a side street to bring up the rear was the single largest gathering, listening to LSD-defector Raymond Wong who harangued the crowd for hours on the theme of grassroots’ needs. He now heads the new People’s Power (Renmin liliang) group. Rallying together with his radicals were new Voters’ Power activists and old Frontier fighters. Police estimated that 6,300 headed out of the main staging area but several other groups marched in from elsewhere and probably added up to the 10,000 claimed by organizers.
The evening confrontation and arrests represented the vanguard cutting edge of the campaign, and a new appetite for civil disobedience that has grown along with the rise of post-1980s protesters during the past two years. The young people, who deliberately provoked a confrontation by blocking traffic downtown, explained that they had grown impatient with Hong Kong’s routine “protest and leave” tactics that seemed to accomplish nothing. A few days before, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung said something similar after one young LSD member was arrested for assaulting Chief Executive Donald Tsang. The physical contact was accidental, explained Leung. But the young man was one of a few party members chosen to stage rowdy protests at official functions. The disruption was meant to be non-violent but forceful, part of an ongoing campaign to challenge the dignity and authority of an unelected government they have chosen to disrespect. Beijing got the point and issued an unprecedented call for punishment, but it was left to Donald Tsang to define the significance in mainland terms. An assault on my person, he said, is a challenge to political authority (zhengquan).
* HK$ 7.80 = US$ 1. These are official Hong Kong government figures presented by the Financial Secretary in his Feb. 23 budget speech. Critics argue that if all the savings squirreled away in various funds were included, Hong Kong’s actual hoard of reserves would add up to something over $ 1 trillion.