Posted: Dec. 12, 2014
Clearing Hong Kong’s streets became as uncertain an exercise as the campaign to block them in the first place … back at the time when it all began last September 28. The last day was yesterday, December 11, when the government finally said enough was enough and protesters agreed to stand down. Within less than 24 hours, the main tent city encampment on Harcourt Road was gone along with all the improvised architecture of long-term resistance … the student study tables, light fixtures, supply center, first aid station, political party tents, organic garden, barricades, banners, decorations … everything that had sustained Hong Kong’s first full-scale civil disobedience campaign for over two months.
In many respects the Yellow Umbrella-Occupy Central project was a brilliant success. Thousands of people initially rushed out onto the streets, sat themselves down, and stayed put, blocking the city’s two main traffic arteries one on each side of the harbor. Ideas and aims had been the subject of community debate for months, but when it finally occurred neither the time nor place had been planned in advance. The occupation ultimately emerged from the flow of events as a leaderless self-organized exercise in the unfamiliar, for Hong Kong, routines of civil disobedience. Nothing like that had ever happened here before.
Discipline was impressive and the absence of recognized leaders proved a blessing in disguise. It succeeded in producing an illegal mass assembly that challenged Hong Kong’s restrictive public order laws but gave the authorities no one specific to target or even arrest. They couldn’t very well round up everyone according to prior police plans because these had been made months before when estimated numbers were far fewer. Nor was there ever a threat to call out the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), which happens to be headquartered just next to what was the main government headquarters protest site.
Police were further hampered by the spontaneity factor. The initial use of force backfired when they used tear gas and truncheons in an attempt to remove demonstrators from a busy highway. Even greater numbers then rushed out into harm’s way to “protect” the protesters who were mostly students at the start. The public seemed more tolerant of their “lawless” protest action precisely becasue they were students … long-standing Chinese tradition of educated youth in dissent.
Their aim was also clearly stated from the start and decades of political agitation lay behind it. Protesters were only demanding what they thought they had been promised, in the form of genuine universal suffrage elections beginning in 2017. Beijing had decreed instead, via its August 31 ultimatum, that the election must be mainland-style, party-list, a managed affair. The protesters’ consistent demand throughout was for Beijing to retract its August 31 decision, which Beijing refused to do.
Three months on, however, the diverse strains of activism that converged in late September to produce the occupation resurfaced to complicate its way forward. These strains were led by the intellectual founding fathers, university and secondary school students, and long-time civil society activist groups.
Professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man, and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming led with intellectual inspiration and guidance beginning in early 2013. Student energy propelled them forward in a way they did not initially anticipate. And the coalition Civil Human Rights Front provided organization and staying power, but the movement’s most radical elements were also contained within this coalition.
After reluctantly declaring the onset of Occupy Central ahead of schedule, on September 28, Benny Tai stood back and left leadership to the students who had initially rushed forward without him. This marked another milestone, an important rite of passage from one generation to the next. For the students, their futures lie before them and they now have a clearer view than did their predecessors about where all this is heading. They say they do not want to live in a Hong Kong that is governed just like any other mainland city.
Still, most everyone agreed that retreat had to come sooner or later. People couldn’t stay out on the street forever, said even the diehards still living in their tents as one month became two and winter set in. But just as it had emerged unplanned and leaderless at the start … a blessing in disguise … so there was no one to call time and signal a retreat, strategic or otherwise … blessing no more.
The occupiers had no reason to stay put but no reason to leave either because Beijing refused to budge on its August 31 decree. The stalemate dragged on. Ultimately, it ended as it began … with an uncertain combination of circumstances propelled by the use of force.
The initial inspiration for Occupy Central civil disobedience came from Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai and his two friends. From the start in early 2013, the three of them never ceased emphasizing the need for non-violence in their proposed civil disobedience endeavor. But the potential for street-level blood-letting was always there and conservatives milked it shamelessly in their campaigns against the illegal civil disobedience occupation idea.
That left much room and encouragement for spontaneous eruptions, some deliberately provoked some not. These came at the start from the police and later at the Mong Kok site … a rough neighborhood across the harbor in Kowloon …. where opponents and police seemed to collude in disrupting the occupation encampment.
At one point, in early October, all the moderate intellectuals and student leaders urged Mong Kok’s civil society defenders to give up and retreat back to the relative safety of the main site adjacent to government headquarters on Hong Kong Island. But the Mong Kok defenders refused to be led. When part of their encampment was broken up by unnamed forces, protesters returned and re-occupied the site.
They laughed at Robert Chow, self-appointed leader of the anti-occupy campaign, when he begged protesters ever-so-earnestly to retreat, reminding them that Mong Kok was organized crime Triad turf. Whoever disrupted their livelihood, he said, could expect trouble in return … except that their main sources of livelihood are prostitution, drug running and protection rackets … not necessarily the “mom-and-pop” shops whose interests do-gooder conservatives were invoking.
After protesters re-occupied their encampment that stretched for many blocks along the main Nathan Road thoroughfare, the authorities hit upon the idea of using court injunctions. These were initiated not in defense of Hong Kong’s Public Order Ordinance (POO) but by citizens who could prove their business and transport interests were being disrupted. Protesters fought the orders and appealed the injunctions, with Civic Party barristers Margaret Ng and Gladys Li arguing their cases in court, to no avail. Bailiffs arrived with their court orders and clearance crews followed close behind.
The same court order injunctions were then applied piecemeal to the Hong Kong Island encampments mostly all located in the Admiralty District adjacent to Hong Kong government, PLA, and Legislative Council headquarters. Violence flared again but this time as deliberate provocation by student leaders themselves intent on making one last grand gesture in anticipation of final retreat.
Overnight on November 30/December 1 they barricaded the footbridge leading from the subway exit to government headquarters and then tried to surround the main building. For this adventure, frontline protesters came prepared with hardhats, goggles, and wooden shields … no match for the well-prepared massive police force deployed against them. By Monday morning the main Admiralty encampment looked like what it was, the aftermath of a riot, with trash, barricades, and exhausted sleeping protesters scattered about everywhere. There had just been 40 arrests and over 50 hospital admissions.
As one final gesture of protest, Joshua Wong Chi-fung went on a hunger strike. He is the young student leader at the forefront of the demand for open nomination as a prerequisite for genuine democratic elections. He and a few friends wanted to demonstrate, once again, their determination to oppose Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum, and to be able to say they had done everything they possibly could.
On December 3, the original trio of moderate leaders turned themselves in at police headquarters as they had long said they would. They wanted to accept responsibility for promoting the illegal occupation but also to insist yet again that breaking the law is justified in pursuit of a just cause. They had intended to wait longer but said the trend toward violent confrontation must end before someone was seriously injured. Joshua Wong ended his hunger strike after five days and his companions did the same. Injunctions to clear a portion of the main site were finalized and the government announced that it intended to clear away all obstructions there at the same time, on December 11.
It’s still too soon to assess results but a few markers can be laid down already. The scale and staying power of the protest was unprecedented for Hong Kong and will be remembered in the annals of its democracy struggle for years to come. So too will the leadership succession from one generation to the next.
The movement also made headlines around the world. Local activists have lamented the lack of outside concern. In 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, there were many promises. “The world is watching,” was the motto of that time. But when nothing dramatic happened and Hong Kong’s way of life continued as before, the world quickly lost interest … even as the gradual erosion of autonomy gathered pace. At least now, say protesters, the international media is back to record the scene.
Hence the international platitudes that have routinely blessed Hong Kong’s “one-country two-systems” solution as a permanent fix for its post-colonial return to Chinese sovereignty have ceased. Hong Kong’s shrinking autonomy doesn’t seem like what was promised before 1997, say officials in London and Washington. We didn’t know … we never anticipated … maybe what’s good for business and trade is not so good for political life after all.
Now they can see well enough as Beijing tells the world where it can go if it doesn’t like the result. Beijing counterattacks with the charge that “foreign forces” are responsible for Hong Kong’s refusal to accept Beijing’s definition of universal suffrage.
On another dimension nearby, voters in Taiwan’s November 29 local elections gave the ruling Nationalist Party a real thumping. There were the usual range of local issues. But a first signal came last spring when Taiwan college students unexpectedly launched their Sun Flower Movement and occupied the legislature in protest at yet another trade pact with mainland China. It is one of many that the Nationalist government has concluded in its strategy of improving relations with Beijing and tying Taiwan’s economy ever more closely to that of its giant mainland neighbor.
Hong Kong and Taiwan activists compare notes constantly because Beijing is working toward the same goal for both, using business ties to integrate the economies and thus dilute anti-communist public opinion. China’s President Xi Jinping himself recently reiterated his dream of a Hong Kong-style “one-country, two-systems” solution for national integration that would return Taiwan to the Motherland in a few decades’ time.
Last spring, Taiwan’s President Ma Ying-jeou backed down during the students’ occupation and agreed to monitor trade pacts more closely in deference to popular concerns. Now he has no choice because his party will otherwise face certain defeat in the next, 2016, presidential election. The mainland media has done its best to disregard what happened in Taiwan on November 29, but the implications seem clear. Hovering throughout is the reminder from Taiwan’s activists and pro-independence politicians: “Hong Kong’s today will be our tomorrow.”
Beijing has surely heard the message even if Xi Jinping won’t admit it in public. His “one-country, two-systems” formula needs to be something other than a design for covering the transition to “one-country, one-system” in Hong Kong, if he really means it for Taiwan application as well.
RETREAT OR DEFEAT?
The biggest blot on this record of achievement is the absolute failure of Occupy Hong Kong to achieve its number one objective: the retraction by Beijing of that August 31 decision specifying how the 2017 Chief Executive election must be conducted. In fact, thinking the decision could be retracted was itself the primary failure. With it, all the diverse strains that came together in September have resurfaced to complicate decisions about what to do next.
Benny Tai’s litmus test remained unchanged from the start of his campaign in early 2013. He said the trigger for Occupy Central would be if Beijing’s decisions on electoral reform violated “international standards.” But immediately after Beijing announced its August 31 decision, Benny Tai shocked everyone by proclaiming his effort to date a “failure.” He had evidently really assumed that his threat alone … to organize 10,000 supporters for a temporary sit-down blockade on city streets … would be enough to influence Beijing. When Beijing ignored the threat he had no back-up plan.
It was at that point, in early September, that students stepped into the void he left and decided to go through with their idea of a symbolic one-week classroom strike. But the students said clearly, from the start, that they knew they could not force Beijing to withdraw its August 31 decision. Then why strike, people asked. Consciousness-raising, said the students, in the hope the wider public would “wake up” and raise their voices as well … to resist through their representatives’ veto power in the Legislative Council when the time came for passage of Beijing’s electoral reform design.
The third strain that threw its weight behind Occupy was the Civil Human Rights Front. This is a citywide coalition of all kinds of activist groups … gays, greens, seniors, young people … everyone with a cause who also counts themselves supporters of Hong Kong’s democracy movement.
They have come together each year for the July First protest marches that began in 2003 against the government’s attempt to pass Beijing-mandated national political security legislation. But pro-democracy politicians and legislators do not lead this march. By tradition and design they follow because by tradition they are regarded as compromisers and vote hustlers not fighters for causes. Beginning on September 28, they all came out together but only to do what they do best together: raise their voices in protest. No one used the weeks and months of Occupy to dissect Beijing’s mainland-style design and focus on ways of rectifying from within … without changing its name or external appearance.
Now the days of protest for Occupy Hong Kong are over and occupiers are returning to what they were: a coalition of disunited groups who argue about everything and could not agree on how to leave. Unable to plan a strategic retreat, they stayed too long … until they were finally evicted, leaving their enemies to gloat over their “defeat” and the government to win public acclaim for its “wise” strategy of attrition.
There is no back-up plan for what to do next except try and hold the 27 pro-democracy legislators to their word and veto Beijing’s electoral reform design if it remains unrevised. That will likely become as uncertain a task as it has been in reform cycles past, because the protest movement focused only on protesting Beijing’s decision and failed to contemplate Beijing’s likely scenarios for outmaneuvering Hong Kong yet again.
The government’s “consultation” for electoral reform will now resume as though Occupy never happened. Then, if past patterns hold true, Beijing will offer some incremental last-minute concessions. Public opinion will be ill-prepared to assess the obscure implications because these have never been addressed in public … and the handful of moderates on the pro-democracy side of the Legislative Council aisle will succumb once more, as they did in 2010, to the siren song of compromise. They will not realize that another building block has been cemented in place to secure Hong Kong’s absorption within the mainland people’s congress system of one-party rule.