Posted: Oct. 27, 2014
Among pan-democrats and all who have anxiously watched Hong Kong’s latest drama unfold, just about everyone is despondent. A month has passed since students led Occupy Central activists out onto the streets where key intersections have remained blocked ever since. Yet the impasse continues … along with the drumbeat of defeat. People have said from the start that Beijing will never give in. Do you expect central leaders to hold up their hands in surrender? Authority can never be challenged in that way. The August 31 decision … by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage Chief Executive election … is written in stone and once written cannot be unwritten. Only the most ignorant could suggest otherwise. The Chinese Communist Party brooks no dissent. Remember Tiananmen!
It’s as though people are still mesmerized by the aura of the Dragon Throne. In fact, there are now many intimations that the students, who have not yet lost their nerve, will succeed where their elders have been failing repeatedly throughout the past 30 years. Or better to say their elders deserve credit for the incremental gains that have been registered in Hong Kong’s political development since the 1980s, and younger hands now seem set to carry forward the tradition. Progress in limited steps … not giant leaps. But the August 31 decision signals a fork in the road (Sept. 1 post).
The real battle now is whether the next steps forward will be mainland-style, with CCP-dominated elections, or whether Hong Kong can retain something of the post-colonial autonomy people thought they were being promised …. in the form of elections they might call their own. The August 31 decision mandates a patriotic loyalty requirement for candidates, which means vetting by Beijing, and nomination by 50% of a purpose-built Nominating Committee where pro-democracy candidates would have little chance of competing.
It’s ironic that pan-democrats had been looking forward to the official promise of a universal suffrage election for Chief Executive in 2017 as the culmination of their struggle for autonomy … only to discover that Beijing’s formula would actually serve to bind Hong Kong more firmly within the mainland governing system.
Of course, it’s still too soon to say for certain that the students are winning anything in this battle, but looking back at how events have unfolded during the past two months it’s now more-or-less safe to conclude that they will not walk away from this confrontation either bloodied or empty handed.
Students and protesters are largely ignoring the imaginative arguments being spun by conservative pundits and Beijing polemicists … not even bothering to try and refute. According to its skeptics and detractors, the democracy movement that has been developing here for 30 years (and more if anyone cared to consider its antecedents), is variously a function of factional power struggles in Beijing or conspiratorial “foreign- force” machinations in Washington, London, and Rome.
Onlookers may want to claim or disclaim ownership now that Hong Kong has moved back into the international spotlight. But this current crisis is down-home local, rooted first and foremost in the pressures generated by Hong Kong’s 1997 return to China after 150 years of colonial rule.
The crisis, over arrangements for the 2017 Chief Executive election, began in earnest over a year ago and has been propelled (as recorded ad infinitim in these posts) by countless meetings, marches, debates, official reports, and reform proposals ever since. It’s an insult to the intelligence of all the thousands who organized and participated in these events to suggest that they are unwitting pawns in some shadowy international chess game. That they are not is also suggested by the small intimations of success surrounding the student protest effort. If they were, the powers that be would not now be trying to decide what to concede and how.
A first hint of success came from the unexpected public approval for the college students’ September 22-26 classroom boycott as a gesture of protest against the August 31 decision (Sept. 25 post). Initially, there were only skeptical negative reactions. A useless gesture, said some. Waste of good study time. Beijing will never back down. But when pro-Beijing agitator Robert Chow set up a hotline inviting callers to name and shame middle schools that were willing to allow their students, with parental permission, to join the college students’ strike, his idea had to be abandoned amid mockery and ridicule. The same thing happened to the distinguished former head of the Chinese University, Arthur Li, following his attempt at a sarcastic putdown.
After that, strike-week was so well organized that public disapproval receded before the students’ earnest dedication to their cause. So much so that on the last day the public forgave them when they deliberately broke the law by trying to crash the gate of the Legislative Council compound where they had been holding their daily open-air public lecture sessions. Not only did the public forgive them, it joined them, converging on the scene throughout that September 26-28 weekend.
When police responded with tear gas to control a crowd they had not expected … no prior permission letter-of-no-objection here … their effort was the opposite of that intended. People rushed to the site in even greater numbers forcing closure of the nearby multilane roadway. Professor Benny Tai’s Occupy Central civil disobedience campaign thus began ahead of time, almost without him. Again officials and police backed down from their initial hardline stance … to provide a second intimation of success for students and protesters. No more tear gas and the crowds have stayed put … turning that stretch of freeway into a neatly organized tent city.
Almost as soon as the Occupy Central idea took hold, in early 2013, a great hue and cry was raised by the business community and pro-Beijing partisans. Professor Benny Tai’s idea was to occupy the downtown financial district if this time, after many past reform cycle disappointments, Beijing did not allow an election for Chief Executive in 2017 that could pass muster in terms of “international standards.” He was using the gold standard International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights definition of the universal and equal right “to vote and to be elected” in genuine periodic elections that guarantee the free will of the electors.
No nonsense Police Chief Andy Tsang came forward immediately to say that no such disruption would be tolerated in his Hong Kong. He would prepare his forces to clear away any protesters forthwith who tried to disrupt law and order. Benny Tai pledged his people to nonviolence at all costs and said civil disobedience was entirely within the law because everyone who joined him had to sign a pledge of non-violence and non-resistance. They would submit to police arrest as and when the time came, which it did. During a “rehearsal” for both sides on July 2 this year, the police quickly cleared 2,500 protesters from a sit-in, physically removing 500 one-by-one and arresting 25 (July 7 post).
When the real time came, however, Benny Tai quickly lost control … but so did the police in terms of their vow to clear the streets forthwith. He had planned to launch Occupy Central over the Chinese national holiday, October 1, to minimize disruption. Instead, Hong Kong’s college and secondary school students “hijacked” his movement by generating so much civil disobedience energy of their own, with their September 22-26 classroom boycott, that he had to declare a few days early, in the early hours of Sunday, September 28..
Ordinary sympathizers who had not been through his year-long civil disobedience rehearsals rushed to the street … but not downtown to the central business district intersection of Pedder Street and Queens Road where it would have been relatively easy for police to remove a sit-down crowd of several thousand. Instead, volunteers hastened to the streets around government headquarters and the Legislative Council complex where students had gathered each day during the strike.
Everyone’s rehearsals were of no use. The crowds filling the area were too great to remove one-by-one. Tear gas produced an effect opposite to that intended, and greater force was evidently never an option. But the occupiers proceeded to follow their own rules of discipline … suggesting that Benny Tai’s preparations for non-violent civil disobedience had not been entirely in vain. Everyone seemed to have absorbed his message even if they had not signed on to his program. Benny Tai himself largely disappeared from the scene. But so did hardline police chief Andy Tsang, who has not given any of his usual stern-faced public briefings since October 1, just after the street occupations began.
A Ming Pao Daily snap poll showed 60% disapproval of the police response. And more people blamed the government than Benny Tai for the street side occupation although it was his idea in the first place (MP, Oct. 1).
In fact, all the adults seemed to disappear leaving onlookers to marvel at the lack of leadership. But given the demoralized state of public discourse here that was the best possible outcome. It left politicians and professionals taking cover out of sight, on the sidelines, with only student leaders remaining out front to speak for all.
Luckily, the students are both old enough to know the difference between political right and wrong, and young enough not to be compromised by the conflicting interests that Beijing is so good at exploiting to its advantage. Their aims remain as clear as they were at the start of the strike: to “awaken the community” to the issues at stake and alert people to their dangers. We don’t want Hong Kong to become just like any other mainland city, they keep saying. We must protect our rights and freedoms.
STUDENTS IN THE LEAD
The third intimation of a breakthrough came a few days into the occupation, in early October, when government officials in a highly unusual move agreed to meet with students and listen to their arguments. Previously, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and his team had said the political reform issue was closed, Beijing’s August 31 decision was final, the constitutional straightjacket governing procedures allowed for no second thoughts, time to move on to the next stage of drafting the legislation.
Officials continued in this vein, but by the time the meeting finally occurred, on October 21, they seemed more willing to listen … maybe because the occupiers were proving so hard to dislodge from the streets. Students had insisted the talks be open, not held behind closed doors, and televised live so the community could hear their arguments directly without any official editorial filter. The unprecedented two-hour exchange was broadcast live in Cantonese and English.
Students had been asking officials to send a supplementary report to Beijing explaining the reasons for the protests that had followed its August 31 decision. Officials initially refused saying the constitutional procedures did not allow for such improvisation. Now they have agreed to find a way. The students also wanted some kind of permanent platform to discuss the specifics of ongoing political reform; the government agreed to that, too.
Still, the students were not satisfied. They wanted to hear more. But because they were as intent on articulating their points for public consumption as winning vague promises from the government, they persisted with their questions for two hours after the government opened with its concessions. The contrast was clear: between the young people and officials old enough to be their parents. The students were speaking for their future, the officials for Beijing.
Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and her two constitutional development team colleagues represented the government at the October 21 exchange. The five student speakers were led by Alex Chow, head of the Hong Kong Federation of Students. Others were Yvonne Leung (HKU), Lester Shum, Nathan Law (Lingnan University), Eason Chung (Chinese University).
Carrie Lam reiterated all the old familiar Basic Law points: Hong Kong was only a Special Administrative Region, not an independent state. The Chief Executive was responsible both to Beijing and to Hong Kong so he could not just do what Hong Kong wanted. Article 45 of the Basic Law required a Chief Executive Nominating Committee. Hence there was no constitutional provision for public participation in the nominating process as students wanted. But she said repeatedly that she really did not understand what all the fuss was about, that is, why students found Beijing’s preferred arrangement undemocratic! The general public would be given a chance to approve the approved candidates via one-person, one-vote. Wasn’t that a great step forward?
She also said there had been a misunderstanding about Beijing’s August 31 decision. It was not the end of the road. More democratic improvements could be built in after 2017, which was why she was now offering the students a platform to carry on the reform discussion … to show the government’s good faith.
Additionally, she said the police were showing great restraint. The occupiers were not all strictly adhering to their “peace and love” promises. And would they all please get off the streets for the public good.
In response, the students asked why they should leave when they had no other options and their concerns still had not been addressed much less accommodated. The public is willing to let us block the roads because people realize that the democratic process is being blocked. If there can really be progress after 2017, please let us know how. If officials are sincere, they should show us a roadmap and a timetable. We have still not heard any answers.
We students have been chosen by this time and you officials have been chosen, too. It’s your responsibility to show leadership and courage and move the process forward or go down in history for depriving us of our rights. You are asking us to make concessions on the August 31 decision … just pocket it now, you say, and hope for more later. But we are already sacrificing our time, studies, future … risking jail … when all we want is what should belong to us: nominating rights and the right to vote and be elected.
Someone asked why the August 31 decision from the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress could not be withdrawn or redrawn since China’s national constitution had provisions for correcting mistakes. Someone else asked why Hong Kong’s Basic Law itself could not be amended to allow more electoral leeway. And they asked why the Hong Kong government had misrepresented the public’s views when it reported to Beijing in preparation for its August 31 decision (July 17 post). Opinion polls had shown the public wanted the restrictive special-interest Functional Constituencies abolished, yet the government report had not said so … and Beijing’s August 31 decision ignored the matter altogether.
The students pointed out that there was no Basic Law constitutional provision for a political requirement, yet the August 31 decision said that to qualify as Chief Executive, candidates must “love” the country and Hong Kong (Sept. 1 post). Yet no definition had ever been given, so no one knows who can qualify and who Beijing will reject on political grounds.
The students see through the constitutional subterfuge and are not afraid to say so. They are essentially arguing that Hong Kong ‘s Basic Law says what Beijing wants it to say and Beijing could interpret the same words and articles in some other way if it so decides.
As proof of why they do not trust the Hong Kong government, students pointed to the interview Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying had given to international journalists just the day before. He had defended the built-for-purpose Nominating Committee on grounds it was needed to contain populist demands. This was necessary, he said, since half the population was earning less than US$1,800 per month. If they were fully represented in the nominating process, their candidates could turn Hong Kong into a welfare state. The Nominating Committee was designed to produce candidates who would maintain Hong Kong’s business-friendly environment. The wealth created could then be allocated more rationally to address problems of poverty and inequality (NYT, Oct. 20).
Leung’s thinking obviously hasn’t progressed an inch since the 1980s, when Beijing was getting to know Hong Kong’s tycoons and he was becoming one himself. They all complained mightily when London finally introduced universal suffrage for limited use here. They then joined together with Beijing in common cause to carry on Hong Kong’s business-friendly colonial traditions by insisting they be written into its post-colonial Basic Law constitution where they remain frozen in time to this day. **
WHERETO FROM HERE?
After student leaders finished debating on October 21, they reported back to their friends in the street. Everyone assumes Carrie Lam’s promises are largely cosmetic … in the form of a non-binding report to the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing rather than to the decision-making National People’s Congress Standing Committee … plus some sort of talking shop platform to discuss ongoing reform.
So no reason to give up now. They thought about holding an online vote among street occupiers over the weekend but that idea was abandoned as premature. Instead, they want to continue working toward a solution whereby the government will offer something concrete.
The basic demands are for a retraction or modification of Beijing’s August 31 decision, to include public participation in the nominating process. They also want some specifics about how the system can move forward in a more democratic direction. Especially they would like to know that the government will move to begin thinking seriously about abolishing the special-interest Functional Constituencies that are now being used to dominate both the design of the Nominating Committee and half the Legislative Council … the basic design feature that is responsible for containing Hong Kong’s populist impulses!
** Pepper, Keeping Democracy at Bay (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007/8).