Posted: Oct. 6, 2014
Hong Kong has been trying for 30 years to establish a democratically-governed community within the Chinese state … not independent but autonomous, as allowed by the “two-systems” terms of Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer back to Chinese rule. In this community, all of Hong Kong’s currently existing rights and freedoms would still apply. If not, the goal will have failed, although it’s a good bet that Hong Kong will succeed … eventually. But the route between then and now will be long and difficult and Hong Kong is currently in a difficult place. Autonomy is eroding, integration advancing.
Still, Hong Kong is not alone in this struggle. That it might, eventually, result in Hong Kong’s favor is suggested by considering the current standoff, NOT from perspectives at the Hong Kong end where young people have precipitated the current crisis over political reform. Better to contemplate instead the view from Beijing and the perspectives of old men, the Chinese Communist Party leaders who must ultimately approve any solution that might be found for Hong Kong’s present political impasse.
The immediate issue is how Hong Kong should elect its Chief Executive in 2017, that is, whether it should be done mainland-style, as a communist-party-vetted election, or as something Hong Kongers can call their own.
By reason of the inflexible system they insist on preserving, President Xi Jinping and relevant associates have backed themselves into a corner over Hong Kong. Several options are actually open to them but as they see it, all are bad. Their difficulties are reflected in protesters’ escalating demands, which have already disrupted Beijing’s carefully scripted plans and attempts to dominate the debate.
Their most basic problem, of course, is that Beijing leaders have never done this before … never had to oversee a universal suffrage general election for a position equivalent to that of a mainland provincial governor. But since the terms of Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer included a clause about “universal suffrage” elections, Beijing feels obliged to keep up the appearance of compliance with the pledge. It has a shelf-life of 50 years and expires in 2047.
PROTESTERS’ ESCALATING DEMANDS
It wasn’t entirely clear at the time. But Beijing’s plans for the 2017 Chief Executive election were already in place by early 2013 when an official invited Beijing-friendly Hong Kong Legislative Councilors to a meeting across the border in Shenzhen (April 2, 2013 post). The outline he introduced for the 2017 Chief Executive election was essentially the same as that announced by Beijing’s August 31 decision that set off the current uproar (Sept. 1, 2014 post). Candidates can be only 2-3 in number; they must be politically correct patriots; and they must be approved by at least 50% of the same safely-designed committee that has been rubber-stamping Beijing’s choice for Chief Executive since 1997.
So anxious were Hong Kong’s pro-democracy partisans after the early 2013 alarm bell, however, that they immediately initiated a community-wide debate, which has continued ever since. During that time all manner of proposals have been raised and discussed at length. But no one except pro-Beijing loyalists were in on the secret. Hence they were alone in offering proposals that mirrored precisely Beijing’s spring 2013 warning signal and the August 31 decision.
Since early 2013, however, marches and meetings and mock referendums have all been registering something very different than the mainland-style officially-vetted exercise Beijing obviously had in mind all along. So little wonder that the political atmosphere erupted in frustration and anger after the August 31 decision was announced. Professor Benny Tai had been the target of Beijing’s wrath for a year over his Occupy Central idea of blocking traffic in the downtown financial district if the 2017 election could not be conducted in accordance with “international standards.” All of Beijing’s polemical skills were mobilized to disprove the validity of any such bizarre notion as the universal and equal right to elect and be elected.
But when Benny Tai was initially overwhelmed by Beijing’s total disregard for his ideal, the younger generation stepped forward and upped the ante. They said in effect that international standards were not enough and dedicated their one-week classroom boycott to far more ambitious goals.
The Federation of Students, representing all eight government-funded universities, issued ultimatums and demands ahead of their September 22-26 strike that was joined by all post-secondary institutions and many secondary schools as well (Sept. 25 post). No phony universal suffrage election, said the students. The National People’s Congress, that had issued the August 31 decision, does not represent us. Abolish the Nominating Committee. Let the public do the nominating. Occupy Central, said some, and the sooner the better.
When asked to explain what they hoped to achieve by their over-the-top “unrealistic” demands, student leaders knew exactly how to answer. We understand that we cannot change Beijing’s decision, they said. We are talking to the people of Hong Kong. We hope they will wake up, see clearly what’s happening here and why Beijing’s August 31 decision is wrong for us.
But in fact, when pressed further, they were trying to influence Beijing’s decision. Their aim was to wear down Beijing’s resistance by building public pressure and mobilizing opinion here. And by extension, such pressure would also help provide Hong Kong’s 27 sometimes wobbly pro-democracy Legislative Councilors with the courage necessary to veto the proposal when the time comes … if it remains in its unvarnished unrevised August 31 state.
It’s still way too soon to predict end results … and legal retribution is sure to follow for some. But protesters have already scored important gains that suggest more to come. The week-long student strike was a great success … well planned and effective. Professors volunteered their services and filled every hour with lectures delivered in open-air public venues outside the Legislative Council/Government Headquarters complex. On the last day, September 26, over a thousand secondary school students also joined, far more than expected.
Up to that point, all had played by all the rules … multiple restrictions that government and police impose to maintain order, safety, control, and so on. But then, late at night on the last day, student leaders broke the rules. They jumped the fence and forced their way into the closed Legislative Council compound, an area known as Civic Square. It was fenced off only a few months ago to block protesters bent on emulating the takeover of Taiwan’s legislature earlier this year.
At last, the police were free to do their thing … law and order … pepper spray and arrests … including university and secondary school leaders Alex Chow and Joshua Wong who had led the charge over the fence. But so far it was still just a student protest. To register an impact on the official powers that be here, the public must in large numbers be seen to care. And from that point on it did … first in support of the students although strictly speaking their actions on Friday night were illegal.
People kept trying to visit the narrow street outside the Legislative Council compound all weekend. They were just ordinary citizens on their own and since no rallies had been planned, the police could not control numbers with the usual letters-of-no-objection prior approval routines.
Benny Tai, acknowledging the momentum of the growing crowds, jumped the gun and declared his Occupy Central campaign underway in the early hours of Sunday, September 28. The anticipated kick-off date had been October 1, China’s National Day.
By Sunday afternoon, the police had managed to block off every single passage way and footbridge leading to the one narrow street where the students had rallied on Friday night. But vehicular traffic on the multi-lane expressway nearby had not been halted … until crowds started spilling out into the path of oncoming cars.
Unwilling to open the blocked passage ways or stop traffic,the police continued to treat it as an illegal assembly and called out the teargas brigade. And unwilling to support the police in their effort to restore order, the public responded spontaneously en masse against the heavy-handed police tactics. Rather than steer clear of the trouble spots, people rushed to the scene … intent on showing solidarity with students and occupiers.
Benny Tai had actually succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. All throughout the past year, when he was promoting his idea for civil disobedience by blocking downtown city streets, people kept asking him how the idea could possibly work. He said he was aiming for 10,000 volunteers to sit down and occupy but the police immediately declared their intention not to allow any such obstruction (which they showed they could do during a trial run on July 2). Undeterred, Benny Tai and his organizers would always say, hopefully, that ever more people would come out to join them once their protest began … more than the scant 2,500 volunteers who had signed up as of last May.
His hopes were realized many times over, although both he and student leaders … all those arrested on Friday September 26 were soon released … admitted that the crowds had come out spontaneously, on their own. No one was in overall control leading, guiding, or even organizing the clean-up details that immediately set about keeping things tidy amid the chaos.
So where did the extra help come from if neither Occupy Central nor the students could claim full credit? Probably from many places. Supporting students during strike week preparations, for example, was the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of multiple activist pro-democracy groups whose biggest accomplishment has been the annual July First protest march when tens of thousands come out in orderly procession. These groups have been organizing each in their own way for over a decade and by now know all there is to know about self-motivation, self-direction, and street-level self-policing.
In this way, all kinds of groups and individuals, but especially students of all ages, came out to block traffic primarily in two main shopping districts as well as on the main East-West Hong Kong Island expressway leading past the government compounds and on into the downtown financial district.
The protests were all illegal unauthorized assemblies undertaken without permission. The police did not clear the streets as they had been warning Benny Tai they would do because they could not. The public would not allow it. But neither did he “paralyze” the financial district as his detractors had spent millions in negative advertising trying to proclaim he would. The subway system is carrying on as usual and “financial district” buildings are now scattered around town in many different locations.
Still, Occupy Central organizers may have quickly lost hands-on “control” of their movement, but Hong Kongers stepped forward anyway … because the message about a genuine universal suffrage election got through to the general public even if Benny Tai’s organizing abilities didn’t extend that far.
The same thing happened again the next weekend, October 3/4, when mainland-style anti-occupy toughs tried to physically break up one of the shopping district sit-ins. Supporters rushed to the scene to offer protection. After the tear gas episode, police had virtually disappeared from the streets. Now protesters demanded to know why the police were not doing their duty when they were needed! A hastily organized Saturday night rally brought thousands back onto the Hong Kong Island expressway, the largest crowd yet, this time in protest against the previous day’s violence.
WHAT IS XI JINPING TO DO?
So the student strike was a success; Occupy Central was a success; and the public is engaged as never before over the question of electoral reform. It follows that clearing Hong Kong’s blocked roadways is the least of official concerns. Beijing’s first priority now must be to shore up the authority of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and the political reform legislation he is supposed to see enacted. Except that the popular protest has threatened Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s prospects as well.
One of the students’ demands throughout strike-week preparations was for CY Leung to resign. But this was just one of several extravagant consciousness-raising slogans … until the tear gas episode on Sunday September 28. Afterward, it became a persistent demand of the occupiers and by Thursday, October 2, they were threatening to take over government buildings including his own if he didn’t resign by midnight!
Of course, he did not and they did not. But something almost as important was at work, namely, a further drain on the authority of an already widely-unpopular Chief Executive. Pro-Beijing loyalists had nevertheless been making no secret of their aim and that of Beijing. The idea was to use the new 2017 electoral reform arrangements to have the Nominating Committee nominate CY Leung and the public rubber stamp his second term in office. It would serve to strengthen his authority, they reasoned with Beijing logic, by making him Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive to be elected by universal suffrage. It was an ingenious idea … and one that must certainly now be abandoned.
Hence the first thing that Xi Jinping could do is see to it that all talk of a second term for CY Leung is laid to rest. Since nothing has been said officially in public about this idea, Beijing needn’t worry about the embarrassment of having to back down … or remove him mid-term as it had to do with Hong Kong’s first ineffective Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa.
Depriving CY Leung of a second term will then open up the candidate field and the second most powerful man responsible for Hong Kong decision-making in Beijing, Zhang Dejiang, had something relevant to say just two weeks ago. He told a group of Hong Kong visitors that although the August 31 decision had specified the candidate must be patriotic, that did not necessarily mean that only a dyed-in-the-wool pro-communist loyalist (such as CY Leung) could qualify. The person did not have to “love” … meaning profess loyalty to … the communist party. Candidates must only not be among those who advocate an end to one-party dictatorship in China.
That leaves the way open for pan-democrats to begin organizing their own primary campaign, just as they have been informally organizing over political reform proposals throughout the past year. The public could simply nominate its own preferred candidates … and then it would be up to Beijing and its Nominating Committee stalwarts to find their way out of the impasse they have created for themselves. Some judicious redesigning of the inherited committee would be a good place to begin and all of this could be achieved while leaving intact the sacrosanct August 31 decision itself. Beijing doesn’t need to back down; it just needs to move forward.
Meanwhile, the public has made a good start and now has plenty of hands-on experience in pursuing its aspirations. People have learned what they need to do and Hong Kongers should be able to take it from there.
Only don’t call it a “revolution” and especially don’t call it a “yellow umbrella revolution” … yellow for the ribbons everyone wore and umbrellas everyone used for protection against teargas and occasional torrents of rain. A major line in Beijing’s polemic against Hong Kong’s democracy movement is that it’s all the work of “foreign forces” bent on creating another “color revolution” like those that helped break apart the old Soviet Union. It’s true that the Hong Kong slogan about “ending one-party dictatorship” resurfaces at least once a year during the June Fourth memorial activities. But Hong Kong’s current Occupy agitation is about something much less grandiose than revolution or independence. Protesters are asking only for the autonomy they were promised in the form of a 2017 election they can call their own.
For now the message at least seems to have gotten through to the Hong Kong government. Its offensive subliminal-type public service ads have disappeared from TV screens. Viewers no longer have to watch the “Gotta have my vote ” routines that were supposed to induce everyone to become unknowing rubber stamps for CY Leung’s second term … a shameless attempt to exploit presumed public ignorance …