Posted: July 7, 2014
If Beijing leaders meant to provoke an angry upsurge of dissent here, they succeeded. But what has happened since is making matters worse. For those of us trying to move through it, the annual July First anniversary protest march certainly looked as big and felt as big as the precedent-setting half-a-million strong 2003 protest. That was when Hong Kongers first learned the value of feet-on-the-ground and surprised everyone with a huge outcry that succeeded in shelving the Hong Kong government’s Beijing-mandated national political security legislation.
Since 2003, these protest marches have been held every year on July First, informally known as SAR Day. This year marks the 17th anniversary of Hong Kong’s return from British colonial to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, when Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic. Only now it’s a decade after 2003 and the powers-that-be, for their part, have learned a lot about how to manipulate and minimize the impact of pro-democracy campaigners. Freedom of political expression is alive and well. But so too is the official ability to diminish and discredit. Organizers this year claimed the same 500,000 turnout. But it’s being treated in some quarters almost as though it never happened and signifying nothing.
Turnout figures have naturally become the main point of contention and Hong Kong’s finest are the most adept manipulators. With at least 4,000 men and women on the ground plus plainclothes types milling about, the police are in a position to know exactly how many people they are responsible for keeping in order. And this they do well, thanks also to the patience and law-abiding nature of the participants.
At least this time, the police were honest enough to say their numbers were estimated at the start meaning when the main body of marchers had gathered and were ready to set out: 98,600. This would be about right: all six Victoria Park soccer pitches were packed and the adjacent lawn area was filling up fast … just like a month ago for the June Fourth candlelight vigil when people sit on the spot and do not move about (June 6 post). The police figure then, for the number of people gathered on that site for that one event was 99,500 (Ming Pao, SCMP, June 5). But as the 98,600 began leaving the park at 3:30 p.m. on July First, others were still pouring in. The park and pitches were not cleared until the last stragglers moved out at 7:30 p.m., and they did not reach the final downtown destination until 11:00 p.m.
Additionally, those not inclined to wait for hours on the pitches and lawn … in 90-degree heat, with humidity to match, intermittent downpours, and no shade … were already filling the sidewalks along the route for many blocks beyond the park by 3:30. With the sidewalks full, people moved out into the street and after about an hour began walking the route ahead of the lead Civil Human Rights Front contingent. The police did not even try to oblige with a likely cumulative headcount including all those who joined the march from the park and from the streets beyond along the way.
The numbers that do the most to undermine the turnout’s impact, however, are those calculated by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion pollsters and statisticians (HKU POP). In 2003, these estimates were almost the same as those of the organizers (South China Morning Post, graphic, July 2). But from then on, the HKU POP figures were substantially less … raising questions immediately in 2004 when the march was, like this year, massive and continued for hours. Also, in 2004 and eventually in 2003, marchers were allowed to move on both eastbound and westbound sides of the main roadway route. This year, unlike 2003, the police refused to change their plan and allow marchers onto the eastbound lanes. Only the westbound lanes plus the tram lines and sidewalks were open.
In 2004, HKU POP began relying on more “scientific” methods of camera spotting and selective monitoring along the way rather than attempting a direct headcount of those leaving the park. Like the police, the HKU POP teams and Professor Paul Yip who oversees the July First monitoring project have never given an adequate explanation of their calculating methods … including the extent to which crowds outside the park are also counted … and what is done with the camera count taken near the Admiralty subway station when everyone knows the drop-out point for many marchers is the previous Wan Chai station.
If they are trying to count the numbers present at the end of the march by comparison with those at the start and the number who walk from start to finish, then they need to clarify. Statistical computations and averages are fine as far as they go. But in this case, as everyone also knows, feet on the ground are being substituted for votes in ballot boxes that Hong Kong does not have. So it follows that every pair of feet counts. At least that’s what the people who take the trouble to march every year like to think.
Additionally, the South China Morning Post, commissioned its own head count based on even more scientific selective aerial camera-shot calculations. These naturally concluded that even fewer people had participated: only 140,408 (SCMP, July 4). If this keeps up, we will soon learn it was all a mirage and Professor Lau Siu-kai was right after all. Lau was head of the Hong Kong government’s Central Policy Unit in 2003 when he famously predicted that the turnout would be about 30,000 … reflecting his view that no more than that number of people here cared enough about issues of democratic governance to turn out to march on a hot holiday afternoon.
Meanwhile, for the sake of those who do care, it would be nice if someone could come forward to explain the anomalies. Because if the turnout in 2003 was really 500,000, which even the South China Morning Post has yet to try to talk down, then 2004 was a close match, and so was 2014. But if 2014 was only 140,000 then it’s time to start recalibrating 2003.
Or the Civil Human Rights Front organizers might see to it that head counters return to the method used in 2003 … easy enough to do because everyone still leaves the park via the same relatively narrow exit point. In 2003, after the nearest subway exists were blocked by the crowds, many people walked long distances just to make it back into the park because they wanted to be sure their heads were counted. The assumption that year was that if you wanted your presence to be noted you had to start out from the park. Now, ten years later, people are tired and bored with the routine … so they stand along the way and join the march as they like … leaving those with other motives to do as they like with the feet-on-the-ground that are counting for less and less however many they may actually be. And it’s the growing sense of futility that has helped propel the new Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign. Activists say they are tired of passive peaceful marches year after year with too little to show for the effort.
Head Counts for July 1, 2014
HKU POP: 172,000
After two years of growing irritation with the growing mainland impact on local economic and social life, the immediate provocation for this year’s July First anger was the document on “Implementing ‘One-Country, Two-Systems’ in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” Issued by Beijing without prior warning on June 10, it appeared in the British style of a “White Paper” formal government policy statement … as if to mock Hong Kong’s affinity with its colonial past while reaffirming the shrinking autonomy of its new SAR status.
The White Paper said many people are confused in their understanding of Hong Kong’s relationship with its new sovereign since the autonomy of the SAR is limited to what Beijing chooses to grant. The White Paper reinforced this message by applying its limited autonomy reminder to the main controversy currently at hand. Accordingly, the 2017 Chief Executive election must be conducted in accordance with what Beijing is now interpreting Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution to mean. Candidates must be loyal to the central communist party-led government and they must be chosen by a nominating committee of Beijing’s determination (June 12 post).
The Occupy Central campaign received a huge boost from this unexpected unwelcome intervention and close to 800,000 people came out in defiance of the official message. The vast majority who participated in the June 20-29 mock referendum said not only that the public should have a say in the nominating process for a Chief Executive election, but that the Legislative Council should refuse to endorse any proposal that didn’t grant local voters a genuine choice of candidates (June 24 post).
The final calculation after polling ended on June 29 and all votes including the few thousand paper ballots were counted was: 792,808 valid ballots cast, with 88% saying that no proposal was better than a phony one.
The referendum results and the White Paper were miles apart and galvanized protest sentiment accordingly. Usually many different kinds of issues vie for attention when the coalition of activists that make up the Civil Human Rights Front gather to plan for July First. This year it all came together in their blunt no frills leading banner, designed in the blue and white colors of the Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign. The slogans for the day: Protect Hong Kong People’s Autonomy; Don’t be Intimidated by the Chinese Communist Party’s Threats; Direct Public Nomination (for Chief Executive); Abolish Functional Constituencies (in the Legislative Council).
There also seemed to be much less humor along the route than in years past. “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung was absent from his usual spot beside the Canal Road flyover but he managed to provide one of the few light-hearted messages anyway, despite his predicament. He was still in jail, serving a four-week sentence for disrupting a public meeting and had to suffer the indignity of a regulation prison haircut. His League of Social Democrats’ placard for the day featured a cartoon of him behind bars with his new-style cut and long-haired friends all around … under the caption “We Are All Long Hair Now.”
But there was more to the message than apparent at first glance. This is not his first encounter with prison barbers. Only now, unlike 15 years ago, he is no longer alone in his direct defiance of the Chinese Communist Party. The lead banner for the day openly proclaimed it and that message resonated throughout the march.
Still, Long Hair knows he can count himself lucky. Across the border where one-country, two-systems protection does not apply he would be charged with defying sovereign authority otherwise known as subverting state power … and so would they all … a fate foreshadowed by the unprecedented mass detentions and arrests that followed the July First march.
This is something new for Hong Kong’s democracy movement. But then so is civil disobedience and it has already begun. Occupy Central organizers advised their supporters not to jump the gun after the final results of their referendum were announced on June 30. The government has yet to come forward with its electoral reform proposal, the community must then debate some more, there may be another referendum … and only then, if all else fails, will the decision be made to occupy streets in the downtown financial district. At least that was still the plan as of last week.
But many activists had been saying since last July First, 2013, that they wanted to give it a trial run this July First. The organizers did not interfere and about 2,500 people, mostly students, volunteered to participate. They refused to ask for police permission, known as a letter-of-no-objection, but they did announce their plans in advance and police prepared the site. The idea was to spend the night in a street near the old Legislative Council building downtown that becomes a pedestrian precinct on public holidays. The occupiers said they would be gone by 8:00 a.m. ahead of the morning rush hour on July 2.
Only the police never gave them a chance and began the removal operation soon after midnight. By 8 a.m. it was mostly all over: 511 protesters had been picked up one by one, put aboard buses, and driven to the police academy. All were released later in the day, most with only a warning that they might be prosecuted for unlawful assembly. But 25 were arrested on related charges and had to post bail. They included three Legislative Councilors who had promised to support protesters in their overnight sit-in. The three: Lee Cheuk-yan, who heads the Labor Party; Albert Ho Chun-yan of the Democratic Party; and labor activist Leung Yiu-chung. Also arrested was Alex Chow, current head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students who organized the sit-in, and Jackie Hung. She is one of the original leaders of the Civil Human Rights Front that has organized the July First march every year since 2003.
The police commissioner has said from the first he heard of Occupy Central’s plans that his force would not allow Hong Kong streets to be blocked and he vowed to remove forthwith anyone who tried. Like the police, Occupy Central supporters have also been training for months. But their training is in the disciplines of nonviolent resistance and all are required to sign statements whereby they agree to allow themselves to be arrested, without resistance, when the time comes. Both sides are saying they regarded July First as a “dress rehearsal” and are now ready to move on to the real thing … which may happen sooner than anticipated just a week ago. Word has begun to circulate that the government is soon to announce its formal preliminary verdict on all the political reform proposals and that verdict will follow the lead of Beijing’s White Paper.
More ominous for the future of Hong Kong’s street protests, however, were the arrests and warnings that followed. The driver of the lead vehicle in the July First march was subsequently arrested along with four other Civil Human Rights Front leaders … on grounds they violated police procedures for the march. It was, as usual, peaceful and orderly throughout. But the lead vehicle that sets the pace, a dilapidated old Democratic Party sound truck, had allegedly held up the line of march by moving at dead slow speed. The driver had also neglected to turn off the idling engine during full stops, in violation of a new anti-roadside pollution ordinance … or maybe it was the ordinance against leaving a vehicle without turning off the engine … there are conflicting accounts … need to check out the police charge sheet on this one … ??
In any case, the complaint about speed relates to the organizers demand for use of all lanes along the route, as was allowed in 2003 and 2004. Had the police opened up the eastbound lanes, of course, they might have had to acknowledge that more than their Victoria Park full-house base line estimate of 99,000 marchers should be hastened on their way.
And there was more. Occupy Central organizers were served with a formal letter from the police commissioner’s office on July 2, informing them that the walking tour led by Cardinal Zen was unlawful. The 80-year-old retired Catholic cleric had organized a week-long walk-about through all the city’s districts as his contribution to the get-out-the-vote drive ahead of Occupy Central’s mock referendum (May 28 post). But according to Hong Kong’s public order laws, controversially passed just before 1997, public processions and meetings that exceed 30-50 people must apply for the police permission letter-of-no-objection. Since the number of his walking companions sometimes exceeded the legal limit and he hadn’t bothered to apply for permission, Occupy Central was warned that no one is above the law.
A line has been crossed here this summer, something like an end to the age of innocence. It shows in the surprised responses of many pan-democrats, especially the moderates, and even some defensive pro-Beijing compromisers.
Credit for the new awakening goes especially to Beijing since its White Paper is the most forthright presentation to date explaining how the central government is managing its one-country, two-systems mandate. The unique design allowed Hong Kong to move from colonial to Chinese rule with relative ease and it is now being prepared for integration within the one-country, one-system national whole.
Some are still in denial but many more can now see what committed loyalists have known all along, namely, that they are the new establishment and they are moving Hong Kong onto a trajectory toward one-size-fits-all mainland-style rule. They will also succeed sooner rather than later unless those who want to retain some of their inherited rights and freedoms can concentrate their minds and dig in their heels and let everyone know they mean to work toward that end.