Posted: July 5, 2013
If anyone is looking for proof of Hong Kong protesters’ resolve, it can surely be divined from the two biggest rallies of the year … especially this year. The annual June Fourth candle-light vigil commemorates Beijing’s crackdown against its own democracy movement in 1989. July First marks the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British back to Chinese rule. The anniversary was transformed from a day of celebration into one of protest on July 1, 2003, when half-a-million Hong Kongers surprised everyone including themselves by turning out for a march protesting the government’s attempt to force its national security mandate through the Legislative Council. July First has been a day for protest marching ever since.
Beijing was by all accounts shocked to discover the extent of local resistance in 2003. People here were shocked as well once they caught their first real glimpse of the dangers lurking within the benign one-country, two-systems formula that was supposed to maintain their autonomous way of life for 50 years. Since 2003, the intrusion of mainland ways, means, and personnel has grown more apparent as Beijing strives to counter Hong Kong’s resistance. But far from succeeding, the intrusions have so far only provoked more of the same: a decade of accumulating resentment and resistance, and the revival of a democracy movement that seemed to have lost its way during the first five post-colonial years. The net effect, beginning with the July 1, 2004 march, has been to refocus on Beijing’s original promise to allow universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council … thereby allowing Hong Kong to protect its rights and freedoms with a local government of its own choosing. The promise was written into Articles 45 and 68 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law mini-constitution promulgated in 1990 … a promise that Beijing has now parsed to the limits of obfuscation.
NOT FOR THE FAINT-HEARTED
If Chinese officials still harbor any illusions about Hong Kong’s political stamina, which they did before 2003, this year’s June Fourth and July First protest demonstrations should lay those hopes to rest. The same thing happened both days. With tens of thousands filling all six soccer pitches in Victoria Park, the skies opened up just as starting time approached. On June Fourth no one ran for cover. People stood where they were, in the driving rain, for over an hour until the sound system finally gave out and the remainder of the memorial vigil was cancelled (June 10 post).
On July First, the challenge from on high was just as demanding. Lead marchers were due to set out from the park at 2:30 p.m., when the rain began. A tropical storm had formed suddenly and stayed well to the south of Hong Kong but the outer rain bands were bad enough and arrived just in time for the afternoon march. People stood where they were and the march began on schedule nonetheless. The deluge lasted only about an hour and then tapered off but police crowd-control measures for these marches mean that everyone must begin at the same two designated gates leading out of the park … meaning that everyone had to follow behind the lead contingent. The last of the marchers didn’t leave the park, already full at 2:30, until after 5:00. They arrived at their destination downtown about three hours later. A few thousand of the hardiest stayed on for a final wind-up universal-suffrage rally.
Numbers can now only be reported as approximations since questions are being raised about all estimates and the gaps between them have grown to irreconcilable proportions. The Civil Human Rights Front, organizer of the July First protest marches since 2003, estimated this year’s turnout to be 430,000. Police figures were 35,500 at the start and 66,000 at most. Additionally, the University of Hong Kong offers two estimates. One is overseen by statistician Paul Yip; the other comes from the HKU POP program that used to come close to organizers’ estimates but does no longer. His figures were 103,000; the other was 93,000.
Frustrated march organizers are evidently trying to compensate especially for the presumed conservative bias built into police estimates, a bias that seems to grow from year to year along with a multitude of “crowd-control” regulations. Organizers say these are designed to discourage participation and keep numbers down; police naturally say they are necessary for public safety. Still, how they estimate “leaving the park” needs to be explained since it took three hours for everyone to leave the park and people continued to arrive long after the lead contingent moved out. The police also do their best to block impatient groups (those unwilling to wait their turn for hours in the park) that try to push into the line of march from nearby side streets. Maybe these groups are then counted to represent the march “at its peak” once they make it through the police barricades. But that would mean the gatecrashers and regulars were equal in number … not likely at least from vantage points all around the soccer field and at the blocked intersections.
How they calculate the extra numbers is also not explained by the academic statistical compilators. Neither is their propensity to focus far up the line near the end of the route where numbers are much thinner as people begin to drop out. This also seems to be a deliberate decision. But as for the 430,000 organizers’ claim, if accurate it would put this year’s march in the same league as the massive half-million-strong turnouts in 2003 and 2004, which it clearly was not (All four sets of estimates for each year, 2003-2013: South China Morning Post, July 2). Attendance at the post-march rally downtown was variously reported as 300 and 6,000 (SCMP, Ming Pao Daly, July 2).
A TENTH ANNIVERSARY COUNTER-CAMPAIGN
If Beijing was really keen to promote peace and harmony here, the in-your-face provocations directed at what it calls “the opposition” might be downplayed at least on special occasions like July First. Instead, just the opposite was laid on for this 10th anniversary of the big 2003 pro-democracy revival. Why its successors might be tempted to exaggerate their turnout figures becomes clearer in light of the government’s claims for its effort: 225,000 were said to have joined the celebrations … with an extra special twist this year.
After 2003, the government and pro-Beijing sponsors began organizing patriotic parades and stadium entertainments on July First. But this year organizers went a step further sponsoring their main events not in the morning as before, but in direct competition with the afternoon protest march. Organizers nevertheless insisted, with straight faces, that such a thought never crossed their minds as a pro-Beijing business association signed up 1,000 shops and restaurants to offer big discounts on July First … but only during the afternoon between 2-6 p.m. (the complete list of shops: Wen Wei Po, June 29).
Also beginning at 2 p.m. was a pop concert, paid for by property developers, with the 18,000 tickets going for a song or less. The venue was way across town at the old Kai Tak Airport site in Kowloon. There was also an afternoon carnival on the lawn outside government headquarters attended by Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the head of Beijing’s Central Liaison Office here. Fairs and celebrations in all 18 districts rounded out the events. Organizers explained that since at most half-a-million people had participated in pro-democracy protest marches, the other 6.5 million members of Hong Kong’s population … its silent majority … needed more appropriate ways of celebrating the holiday.
Perhaps the government won’t try quite so hard next year since results were not as hoped, although readers would never know it from pro-Beijing press accounts. Online critics tried to organize a boycott of some shops that joined the discount scheme, but business was reportedly less than brisk for all of them. The outdoor pop concert also didn’t go as planned … and not just because it had to be cut short due to the weather. The concert featured six groups, four from out-of-town and two local. The locals came under such a barrage of online criticism that … after first claiming ignorance about the hidden purpose of the concert … they atoned by singing protest songs, wearing protest T-shirts, and rushing in the rain to join the end of the march.
Police claimed only 1,500 people attended the government headquarters outdoor celebration (organizers 4,000). If a quarter million actually participated in patriotic events these must have included the three-day weekend district fairs, military base open days, and other activities. Photographs showed mostly indoor restaurant scenes and cultural performances … plus 10,000 volunteers personally visiting low-income households to deliver care packages each containing among other things a catty of rice and a $50 supermarket gift certificate … all without a drop of rain in sight (Wen Wei Po, China Daily, July 2). Patriotic vigilantes who have recently taken to disrupting pro-democracy meetings kept to themselves. There were no confrontations with protest marchers.
TOWARD WHAT END?
Democracy movement elder Martin Lee said before the march that they had been walking the same route out of Victoria Park for a decade and had “not an inch” of progress in democratic reform to show for their effort. Others prefer to think more positively. They like to say they are “voting with their feet” and have learned some useful lessons from the experience. They say that the spontaneous demonstration of popular dissent is virtually the only leverage they have against the intransigence of Beijing leaders who remain intent on pursuing their own agenda here in alliance with pro-Beijing loyalists and establishment conservatives. “Voting” in this way, protesters have kept the national security legislation at bay for a decade and sent off the compulsory political studies course as well, to name their two most important achievements.
Veteran protesters also take credit for the mid-term removal of Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa, whose main political asset was and remains Beijing’s trust in his loyalty. Now they are saying they want to do the same for the current Chief Executive. Hence the lead slogan for this year’s march proclaimed: “Leung Chun-ying Step Down,” followed by many others including “popular autonomy,” “immediate universal suffrage,” “Occupy Central,” and much more.
The key demand of the march and the movement behind it is for CY Leung to step down simultaneously with the introduction of universal suffrage so the general public can elect his replacement. They know he won’t but say the aim must be articulated to keep the purpose alive in the public mind. Further toward that aim, the Civil Human Rights Front (a coalition of just about every pro-democracy political party and social activist group in town) has committed to joining the Occupy Central movement next year. According to the July First marching rules, participants can set up their own fund-raising stalls along the route and advertise their own demands … but all must agree to accept the lead slogans that are negotiated months in advance … which means the campaign for universal suffrage elections here is again gaining a full head of steam. Energies have not dissipated as semed likely after the 2010 failures.
Occupy Central is the campaign, born almost by accident last January, that seems to have struck real fear in the hearts of Hong Kong loyalists and their big business allies who have spent millions of dollars on advertisements denouncing it. The brain child of a Hong Kong University law professor, Occupy Central aims to introduce civil disobedience into Hong Kong’s democracy movement. He and two of his moderate friends (who have been part of Hong Kong’s democracy movement forever) are adapting the people-power lessons they have learned here during the past decade (March 14, 25 posts).
They are now threatening to carry those lessons one step further with a plan for 10,000 people to occupy, peacefully, the downtown financial district … but ONLY if official proposals for a universal suffrage Chief Executive election are just another exercise in procrastination like the last one in 2010. That sequence has actually been going on since 1988. Another government consultation on political reform is due next year in preparation for the next, 2017, Chief Executive election. Beijing has promised only that “universal suffrage” can be introduced at that time.
Yet despite the scare-mongering about blood on the streets and billions lost on the stock market, all groups on July First agreed to accept Occupy Central as a marching slogan. Even worse from their opponents’ perspective, its three middle-aged moderate intellectual leaders were the most popular draw along the route as marchers gathered around their fund-raising stall to shake hands and wish them well. They also received more contributions than any other group … about HK$800,000. On-the-spot snap opinion polls indicated the enthusiasm for their cause: 72% of some 300 marchers said they supported the idea (although only 31% said they would risk arrest by actually joining the sit-down in central next year when the campaign is due to begin). Even 25% of the concert-goers liked the idea (SCMP, July 2). According to Ming Pao Daily’s sample, 44.7% of 300 marchers said they would participate in Occupy Central next year; 44% said they were undecided (MP, July 2).
The downside of these people-power campaigns is that they have allowed Hong Kong’s democracy movement to carry on in its original form, which remains essentially a fractious coalition of small political action groups with leaders to match. They can come together and work for months to organize marches and rallies. But they cannot even sustain a candidate coordination strategy for important elections with long term institution-building implications … much less join in a united political party capable of addressing the challenges Hong Kong’s democracy movement now faces from its pro-Beijing adversaries.
Nevertheless, pan-democrats are inching forward with renewed energy for the coming year. But like their opponents they are essentially putting the cart before the horse. All the opponents have to do to stop Occupy Central is present some plausible political reform proposals of their own that demonstrate good faith. The fact they haven’t suggests maybe they don’t intend to. Maybe their real fear is not about the physical occupation of downtown Hong Kong but the campaign’s demand that they relinquish their special electoral powers and privileges.
Meanwhile, the Civil Human Rights Front protest coalition is well on its way to mobilizing another agitation if demands for genuine universal suffrage are not met … but how can they be? Pro-democracy parties and groups have yet to come up with plausible reform proposals of their own so negotiations can begin and the suggestions so far seem to please no one.