Posted:  Sept. 25, 2014


The idea that Hong Kong’s young people and their democracy movement are inspiring hope for an uncertain future came from an unlikely source.  Essayist Lee Yee 【李怡】 is separated by a lifetime of experience from today’s college and secondary school students.  Now close to 80, he began his professional life not as a fighter for individual rights and freedoms but as a  pro-China loyalist.  That was back in the days when people here who now proudly identify themselves as “pro-Beijing” patriots were alternately despised and ignored by British Hong Kong and its majority émigré population whether rich or poor.  He learned his craft amid the limited-circulation publications that hewed to the Chinese Communist Party line and were read mainly by members of the small community that looked after China’s interests … tolerated by the British colonial government on condition that local leftists, as they were known, kept out of sight and out of trouble.

Political life here has since done a 180-degree turn.  British rule is a thing of the past and loyalists are the new governing establishment.  The old anti-communist mainstream has become the new pro-democracy opposition … alternately vilified and ignored by the same news media that Lee Yee once served.  But he is one of a small band of journalists who broke ranks in the 1980s … and most dramatically after 1989, when the Beijing government ended China’s own 1980s democracy movement by forcefully clearing protesters from Tiananmen Square on June Fourth and tolerating no such dissent thereafter. 

Lee Yee is now a featured editorial writer for the one remaining overtly anti-communist newspaper, Apple Daily, and his verdict came at a critical moment in the history of Hong Kong’s long-running struggle for democratic elections.  Hong Kong’s young people, he said, were the last remaining hope for any kind of a positive future outcome.  He lauded their idealism and saw them as Hong Kong’s only source of renewable energy … left to stand alone against the forces of big government, big business, and middle-class inertia now blocking the way forward at Beijing’s behest. (Apple, Sept. 6, 2014; ). 

Beijing had just announced a decision that signaled defeat for the 30-year democracy struggle.  It should have been foreseen but was not, leaving the older generation of leaders and activists in stunned silence … followed by sad admissions of failure and defeat.  First to regain their composure were college and middle school students.  They had been paying more attention and had done the most work in preparation for Beijing’s August 31 decision on Hong Kong’s promised first universal suffrage election for Chief Executive, to be held in 2017.   It had been thought of as a major step forward in achieving a goal that now seemed to be receding once more … beyond the lifetimes of those who thought they had been laying the foundations in the 1980s.  Instead, it was the students, some in their 20s, others still in their teens and not yet old enough to vote, who stepped forward as their mentors faltered. 

Lee Yee was celebrating the youthful decision to insist on continuing the struggle.  College students immediately announced that their plan to organize a one-week class boycott would go ahead.  Student leaders said they knew they could not force Beijing to change its decision.  But they were determined not to abandon the movement their mentors had begun when they were students in the 1980s. 

Young People could not accept that their hope for a democratic future might never be realized and they were insisting on their right to keep saying so.   The practical aim of the boycott, however, was to use the attention it generated in order to explain to Hong Kong voters who might not have been so attentive in following all the tedious election reform arguments … to explain about the difference between a genuine democratic election and one where Beijing’s communist party leaders choose the candidates … and to explain what that could mean for the future of Hong Kong society’s rights and freedoms.

The class boycott is currently underway, September 22-26.  Students from all eight government-funded universities are participating as are those from all post-secondary schools and institutes.  A big all-city rally at the Chinese University kicked off the protest with a full schedule of civics lectures and activities arranged for every day thereafter.   Over a hundred secondary schools have agreed to let their students join a one-day protest on September 26 … but only with parental permission for every student who wants to cut classes for the day.


The crux of the argument, say today’s students, is that Beijing has reneged on its promise to allow democratic elections here.  The promise was written into Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution, promulgated by Beijing in 1990 to govern the first 50 years after Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule (1997-2047).   Beijing designed the one-county, two-systems formula that would prevail during that time, allowing “Hong Kong people to run Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy,” or so the promises went.

More specifically, Beijing acknowledged the demands that students in the 1980s had helped to amplify while the Basic Law was being written.  Hence the new law also promised the introduction of “universal suffrage” elections for both Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and “all the members” of its legislature (Articles 45, 68).   This is the promise today’s students are invoking … and it is within the overall context of Hong Kong’s eroding autonomy that their dissent has taken on a more urgent edge.

Everyone accepted that the “two-systems” arrangement would phase into one system by 2047.  But 2047 was far away and everyone’s assumptions about how the unification would proceed were not the same.  The collapse of communism elsewhere in the early 1990s gave hope to Hong Kong’s democracy advocates that China would follow a similar path.  That hope sustained them until recently. 

Now it has become clear that the pillars of China’s communist-ruled political order, along with the political logic and culture that sustain it, have not collapsed.  Not only are they as strong as ever but they are now being established in Hong Kong as well.  So that instead of Hong Kong serving as an example and inspiration for Chinese political reform across the 1997 divide, Hong Kongers have watched during the past 15 years while the essentials of mainland rule are gradually imposed within Hong Kong’s own space. 

The official attempt to impose national political security legislation, as mandated in Article 23 of the Basic Law, was shelved only after a massive protest movement erupted here in 2003.  The official attempt to require compulsory national political studies for all students, grades one through 12, was similarly deflected in 2012.  Pressures on the media, including both privately owned and the publicly-funded broadcaster Radio Television Hong Kong, began early on, in the 1990s.  These pressures for political deference are what has left defiant Apple Daily publisher Jimmy Lai Chee-ying【黎智英】the last man standing and not without constant efforts to bring him down.

On the current political reform controversy, activists and voters have kept the issue alive from one reform cycle to the next.  But what activists had not foreseen in the 1980s when their dream took shape was:  (1) that Beijing would procrastinate for 30 years on its Basic Law promise to allow universal suffrage elections to take place; and (2) that during those years China itself would reconstitute its own traditional People’s Congress system after the disruption of Mao Zedong’s cultural revolutionary experiments. 

Today one-person-one-vote universal suffrage elections are held regularly all over China from the grassroots levels up to the small constituencies that make up the country people’s congresses.  Above the county, the congresses are indirectly elected from the level below.  The only hitch is that the whole system, from top to bottom, is run by the ubiquitous communist party branches that exist everywhere, at every level of government and in every major work unit and university.

Not fully aware of the mainland’s reform effort … Hong Kong pro-democracy partisans have found themselves arguing at cross purposes with mainland officials.  These have kept talking about “universal suffrage” reforms for Hong Kong, but without specifying whether they mean mainland-style party-dominated candidate-controlled elections … or the other kind. 

 Nevertheless, uncertain as to what their effort could achieve …  and without demanding definitions to clarify that everyone was at least talking about the same thing …  Hong Kong democrats took Beijing at what they thought to be its word and began planning for Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election.  Beijing officials had finally announced, in 2007, that 2017 would be the year for realizing the Basic Law’s Article 45 promise and they have kept that part of the bargain.  Pro-democracy party leaders and legislators set to work in early 2013 and formed the coalition Alliance for True Democracy 【真普選聯盟】.  Its task was to help coordinate the reform debate and design some proposals for the 2017 election arrangements that all could agree on.


At first no one even noticed the student generation … maybe because its youngest most active members weren’t even old enough to vote.  But who should emerge in the vanguard of these student preparations?  None other than secondary school student Joshua Wong Chi-fung 【黃之鋒】and his small band of like-minded friends.  He had organized a discussion group in 2011, for schoolmates keen to discuss the burning issues of the day.  They called it “Scholarly Trends” 【學民思潮】but coined the word “Scholarism,” for their preferred English translation.  No one dreamed at the time that it would soon become a household name here, celebrated as the vanguard of a movement that mobilized parents, teachers, and the wider community to protest against the national political studies curriculum in 2012 (July 31, 2012 post).

After that success, they decided to take up the cause of political reform as their next extra-curricular activity.  They began reading up on government and politics and democratic elections during the 2012/13 academic year, and concluded that without genuinely representative institutions of government, the ongoing official threat for national security legislation and national political education would be even more difficult to deflect.  Feet-on-the-ground marches and demonstrations were not enough.

By the summer of 2013, Scholarism was ready with a proposal of its own to contribute to the debate on how the 2017 universal suffrage Chief Executive election might best be conducted.  Key to the success of such an endeavor, they decided, was civic nomination 【公民提名】, meaning the public should not only be able to vote freely and fairly but also be able to participate in nominating the candidates (Ming Pao Daily, Aug. 12, 2013).

Their elders had already abandoned as impractical an early idea for a directly elected nominating committee.  This might have produced something like United States-type presidential nominating conventions where delegates are bound (on the first ballot) to vote to nominate candidates that the general electorate has mandated through primary elections or caucuses in each of the 50 States (May 14, 2013 post). 

Way too complex for Hong Kong, people concluded.  But the idea of public nomination had caught imaginations and continued to strengthen.  Although, in typical fashion that activists have learned to dread, a “moderate” countervailing view had also taken hold, namely, that public nomination was not necessary for a genuine democratic election.  This could be held, said moderates, as long as all candidates were allowed to contest without political censorship.

Undeterred, the youngsters applied the same tireless energy to the cause of civic nomination that they had used to raise the alarm over national political studies.  Ultimately, several political parties even signed a Scholarism pledge promising to support civic nomination, although Hong Kong’s Democratic Party was not one of them.  But young Joshua held his own in a memorable radio talk-show exchange with Democratic Party veteran Albert Ho Chun-yan 【何俊仁】… trying to convince him that the absence of political vetting was not enough for a democratic election.  The public should be allowed to participate in selecting the candidates as well as voting for them (Ming Pao, HK Economic Journal, Aug. 13, 2013).

During the 2013/14 academic year, Scholarism teamed up with university students and they lobbied together … despite all kinds of official and unofficial attempts to dissuade them and deflect them from their self-appointed task.  The litmus test was supposed to be an election that met “international standards.”  Toward that end, the University of Hong Kong’s law school in March, invited a group of distinguished international scholars to discuss the matter.  International standards, they concluded, meant the universal and equal right to elect and be elected.  But that could be done without civic nomination

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 Still the students persisted.  When the government’s working party called time in April for submission of all public recommendations, the joint Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism proposal was distinguished from all but one of the others by its insistence on public nomination.

When Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting 【戴耀廷】and his Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign took its first soundings with an internal poll of supporters in early May, it was the students who had been paying the most attention.  They also worked the hardest to get out the vote … held at five community centers around town.  With only a small sampling of 2,500 activist supporters, naturally the Federation of Students/Scholarism civic nomination proposal came in first (May 15, 28 posts). 

Moderates and veterans cried foul so Occupy Central organizers added another question and threw their mock referendum poll open to the public at large.  To everyone’s surprise, 800,000 ordinary citizens turned out of their own volition and essentially vindicated the students’ effort.  The overwhelming majority verdict in the June poll:  better no reform proposal than a phony one (June 24, July 7 posts). 

Thus encouraged, the young people have persisted in their cause.  No surprise then that when Beijing issued its doctrinaire ultimatum on the 2017 Chief Executive election, students were the first to revive and forge on. The decision essentially anticipates a contemporary mainland-style party-dominated election.  Beijing ruled out public nomination; decreed that only two or three candidates could be selected; they must be vetted for patriotism; and candidacy can only be confirmed with the approval of a 50% majority of the existing stacked Election Committee.  This last has been rubber-stamping Beijing’s choices for Chief Executive since 1997, and is to be reconstituted as the Nominating Committee (Sept. 1, 8 posts).

The tolerant response from university administrators, faculty members, and school principals to news of the students’ class boycott suggests that their determination will continue to resonate … just as it did for Lee Yee.  Chinese communities may lack experience in democratic institution building.  But there is an ancient tradition of idealistic scholars speaking out against perceived injustice and taking up causes that others might lack the courage or ability to pursue.

 If Hong Kong’s struggle for a “genuine” universal suffrage election succeeds in modifying the format decreed by Beijing’s August 31 decision, then voters will have to thank …  more than anyone else …  the young people who refused to take “no” for an answer.

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