Posted:  May 15, 2014


The campaign to shut down Hong Kong’s business district is approaching decision time.  For those just tuning in to this story, it began over a year ago, in January 2013, as the brainchild of Hong Kong University law school professor, Benny Tai Yiu-ting 【戴耀廷】.  He has long been a regular contributor to the Chinese-language Hong Kong Economic Journal 【信報】and as he himself later said, no more than a handful of readers ever paid much attention.  But Hong Kong’s democracy movement was in a depressed state that winter, having suffered one defeat and disappointment after another following the Democratic Party’s controversial compromise decision in 2010, during the last political reform cycle.  With nothing to look forward to and another reform cycle looming, Tai’s January 16 article caught the mood perfectly. 

          He followed up with a second on January 30, just before the Lunar New Year break, and within a month Tai found himself leading a campaign that would probably have taken off without him had he decided to step aside (2013:  March 14 and 25 posts).  Instead, he and two friends took on the task that has occupied them non-stop ever since.   The other two:  Chinese University sociologist, Chan Kin-man【陳健民】and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming 【朱耀明】.

          Chu is a Baptist minister remembered especially for his role along with many other Hong Kong activists in helping student leaders escape from China after the government ended their occupation of Tiananmen Square in June 1989.   He still heads the Democracy Development Network set up over a decade ago to further the cause of moderate political reform. 

          A member of the Democratic Party, Professor Chan was among the intellectual opinion leaders who had counseled caution and stood behind party chairman Albert Ho in his 2010 compromise decision.   Chan recalled that he was one of the local academics who met informally with mainland counterparts ahead of that decision but said he would not do so again.  He concluded that while he had been arguing in good faith for the cause of genuine political reform, the mainlanders were not.  Now another reform cycle was approaching and he did not want to waste more time on aimless discussion (Ming Pao Daily, Feb. 13, 2013).   

          Ironically, all three of them … Tai, Chan, and Chu … had been regarded as the most mild-mannered of intellectual moderates.  Now they are routinely mocked and vilified by pro-Beijing loyalists and pro-business conservatives as the evil incarnate for their alleged dedication to the destruction of Hong Kong’s peace and prosperity.  The title of Tai’s first article suggests why:  “Civil Disobedience, the Most Lethal of Weapons.” 


          Because nothing else had worked, explained Tai in his January 16 article, and because neither Hong Kong’s new Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying nor Beijing officials had made any moves in the direction of genuine democratic elections.  Lip service, yes, but no indication of serious intent and he anticipated they would all carry on as usual during the coming reform cycle.  This is ostensibly aimed at achieving genuine universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 and for the Legislative Council in 2020.  The dates were promised and announced by Beijing in 2007. 

          And civil disobedience because something like it had worked to a certain extent in 2003, 2010, and 2012.  In 2003, Hong Kong’s Liberal Party lost its nerve and its legislators withdrew support after the massive 500,000-strong protest march on July First.  Deprived of a necessary Legislative Council majority, the government had no choice but to withdraw its Article 23 national political security legislation.  Loyalists regularly threaten to retable this legislation but it has remained on the shelf since 2003.   

          In 2010, the “radical” referendum campaign initiated by the League of Social Democrats and joined by the Civic Party yielded 500,000 protest votes against the government’s Legislative Council election reform plan.  That protest and the subsequent upsurge of popular approval for Civic Party leader Audrey Eu (who overrode vociferous objections to her party’s participation in the referendum campaign) likely contributed to the minimal 2010 compromise that Beijing agreed to at the 11th hour.  Albert Ho’s problem was that he agreed as well without adequately explaining the flawed nature of the deal.   His Democratic Party had also refused to participate in the referendum campaign although he did eventually grudgingly acknowledge its contribution to the compromise he brokered.

          In 2012, a massive impromptu march and demonstration by students, parents, and teachers ended with the Hong Kong government agreeing to shelve its plan for a compulsory national political studies curriculum.

          Tai reasoned that stronger more deliberate and concerted action would be needed to achieve genuine universal suffrage elections in 2017 and 2020.  He proposed non-violent civil disobedience, a first for law-abiding Hong Kong where protesters take care to operate within the confines of official rules and police regulations.  Tai cited the precedents set by Mahatma Gandhi demanding independence from the British in India, the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King against racial discrimination in the United States, and the “occupy” tactic recently used against Wall Street in the U.S.  Specifically, Tai proposed to occupy the streets in Hong Kong’s central business district as a means of pressuring Beijing on the one thing here that everyone knows it values most, namely, the contribution of Hong Kong’s smooth-running business and financial sectors to China’s economic growth and political power.

          Tai had already done some preliminary thinking and spelled out his ideas in the January 16 article.  At least 10,000 dedicated law-abiding model citizens would be needed to create the necessary disruption downtown and register the desired political impact.  Ideals and aims would have to be clearly spelled out.  Non-violence was essential.  Participants would have to sign an oath accepting responsibility for their disobedience.  The occupied downtown streets would become open public spaces used to disseminate the message as widely as possible.  Only when every last hope of achieving genuine universal suffrage elections for Hong Kong had been exhausted should the protest begin.  In fact, the aim was not to use the weapon at all but only to let everyone know that a serious civil disobedience campaign had been readied  for use just in case.  The threat must be plausible and clearly announced in advance:  either genuine universal suffrage elections or occupy!


          Besides non-stop writing, speaking, organizing, and fundraising, Tai and his friends and a growing band of like-minded activists designed a work schedule.  This was inspired by the old civil disobedience ideas as well as the more recent occupy protests, and also by some procedures for deliberative democracy worked out by Professors Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin.*    Non-violence became a key point to emphasize since opponents and skeptics of many stripes immediately began sounding alarm bells.  Hence the formal name of the campaign:  Occupy Central with Love and Peace … website:

          The work schedule included three “deliberation days” when anyone interested could join the meetings held around town at designated locations.  These meetings were well-organized with volunteer group leaders, facilitators, note-takers, and so on.  Topics for discussion were, first, the rules of non-violent protest, and then how best to propel the movement forward.  Finally, the third deliberation day, on May 6, reviewed the various political reform plans that have been put forward by all kinds of groups and parties during the government’s just-concluded five-month …  December thru April …  consultation period.   There are many proposals and many more opinions (for some:  April 1, May 2 posts; good summaries:  South China Morning Post, May 6; Ming Pao Daily, May 1, April 23 ).

          Besides submitting them for the government’s consideration, sponsors of the main proposals advertised them at a series of seven open-to-press-and-public seminars hosted by the University of Hong Kong’s law school.  Benny Tai sat through all of them, as well as the day-long round-table discussion when non-local legal scholars discussed with local counterparts the application of international standards relative to Hong Kong’s Basic Law requirements (March 26 post).  

          This was an important issue for Occupy Central because the initiators had agreed, from the start, on the key criterion to be used in deciding whether or not Hong Kong’s election reforms were genuinely democratic:   they would have to be recognized and acknowledged by all, locals and outsiders alike, as being in compliance with “international standards.”   The main proposals were assessed accordingly, and 15 were deemed acceptable.   

          Occupy Central supporters who attended Deliberation Day 3 on May 6, proceeded to consider the 15 proposals, all carefully listed and explained in Chinese and English.  Final step of the day was to vote for the one, and only one, that each person preferred.  There were five meeting places organized all around town:  one each for Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, three in the outlying New Territories.

          Voting in all five locations was computerized and overseen by Robert Chung who heads HKU’s Public Opinion Program.  His team of pollsters kept the computers working and checked everyone’s ID cards to guard against irregularities.   Only Hong Kong residents over the voting age of 18 could vote and 2,500 did so … far short of the 10,000 needed to present the authorities with a credible threat according to Benny Tai’s original scenario.   All who voted had first to indicate that they were at least supporters, but they did not have to agree to participate in the occupation force … if and when it materializes.  The rules bar participation by anyone under voting age.


          A rowdy group of patriotic vigilantes that calls itself Caring Hong Kong Power 【愛頀香港力量】did its best to block the entrance at the Hong Kong Island polling place on May 6, but the group eventually packed up its sound equipment and moved on.  Otherwise, everything went smoothly … until the votes were counted.  As a result, Benny Tai now has big problem on his hands.   Actually, it should be easy enough to sort out if only the costs in terms of more fratricidal bickering can be contained. 

          As in 2010 with the referendum campaign, the radicals may have done everyone a favor if they can force Occupy Central to improvise, thereby propelling the movement in a direction that will in turn force official hands beyond the point they now seem willing to go!

          The 15 proposals that appeared on computer ballot screens were generously selected to represent just about every inclination except the most conservative Beijing-blessed option. The subject was the Chief Executive election only, and the two main points of contention that have emerged during the community debate:   (1) composition of the Nominating Committee that most everyone accepts cannot be dispensed with given Beijing’s commands; and (2) procedures for nomination.  

          Organizers are now blaming radicals for hijacking the exercise by packing the May 6th Deliberation Day meetings with supporters who had not necessarily attended earlier deliberation sessions where rules and regulations were discussed and refined.  But whoever designed the May 6th ballot set it up for what resulted.  The first three options were the most “radical” (by Hong Kong’s definition of the term) and they also received the most votes.    Sponsors of the down-ballot proposals are naturally crying foul.  They include veteran Anson Chan who heads the Hongkong2020 group and Civic Party barrister Ronny Tong.  The top three winners:

Hong Kong Students Federation/Scholarism:  1,124

People Power:  685

Alliance for True Democracy:  445

          What sets these three apart is that they all contain the strongest recommendations to allow the general public a direct say in nominating candidates for Chief Executive:  

 No. 1  (from college and secondary school students) proposes a nominating committee composed only of the 70 Legislative Councilors. They would be obliged to endorse candidates recommended by the public. 

No. 2  (from People Power) would also oblige the committee to endorse the public’s choices. The committee would be composed of all District Councilors and some legislators. 

No. 3  (from the Alliance for True Democracy) is not quite as radical as it seems since this is a combination three-track proposal and the alliance is the coalition of all pro-democracy Legislative Councilors (minus one) plus their parties that was formed a year ago.   Two of the tracks would oblige the nominating committee to accept the endorsement either of the public or of political parties.  The third track would allow an unreformed nominating committee to nominate as it likes.  No conditions of any kind are attached to the nomination committee in any of the three tracks.  The third track could presumably carry on in the manner of the much maligned current Election Committee that since 1997 has been endorsing Beijing-approved candidates for Chief Executive (Jan. 13, 2014 post).     

          Since People Power is a member of the coalition, it is being blamed for striking out on its own when all had agreed to stand together.  In response, People Power asks why it should be singled out when other parties in the coalition allowed members to contribute separate proposals.  Others point out that the question of whether or not to make public nomination a mandatory element in the alliance proposal has been an issue from the start.  Ultimately, coalition members only agreed to support the three-track proposal, which they have done.  But they never agreed not to promote public nomination on their own time.

          The dilemma for Benny Tai and his friends is that, according to the rules they have set for themselves, the top three winners in this “internal” May 6 poll will become the three proposals in a poll planned for June 22 that will be thrown open to the public.  All registered Hong Kong voters will be invited to participate and the organizers hope they will. 

          The June 22 exercise will be similar to the mock online election that HKU pollster Robert Chung organized ahead of the 2012 Chief Executive Election Committee selection.  Some 200,000 voters thought enough of that experiment to participate even though the online operation crashed and organizers had to improvise with street-corner cardboard ballot boxes (Mar. 29, 2012 post).

          Compounding the dilemma is one final step in Occupy Central’s carefully laid out work schedule.  If the government’s final electoral reform draft legislation, to be submitted later this year for ultimate Legislative Council approval, is not compatible with the public’s final preferences …  as determined by the online June 22 mock election poll and maybe some others …  that will be the signal to set the civil disobedience routines in motion.  

          The most obvious immediate solution is to let the public choose on June 22  from among all 15 of the approved May 6 options.  But so far, the organizers are standing firm and will not be deflected from the symmetry of their original work schedule.  They have suggested casting blank votes, which is not likely to boost enthusiasm for a big turnout among those who don’t like any of the three choices. 

          The Democratic Party is so indignant that members are debating whether to quit the Alliance for True Democracy and go it alone despite being party to the alliance that did well enough to make the June 22 cut.  Anson Chan is meeting with Ronny Tong and the group of 18 academics who proposed a scheme for public recommendation.  They will press for a moderate solution … and so it goes.

          For the record:  Anson Chan’s HK2020 proposal calls for “indirect” public nomination by a partially elected nominating committee.  Her proposal was listed in 12th place on the ballot screen and received 43 votes.  Ronny Tong remains opposed to all forms of public participation in the nominating process for reasons he has yet to make clear.  His proposal was listed in 11th place on the ballot and received 17 votes.


*  Bruce Ackerman and James Fishkin, Deliberation Day (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2004).

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