Posted:  May 8, 2015


The “three R’s” advice came from Apple Daily’s Jimmy Lai Chee-ying midway through last year’s Umbrella/Occupy street blockades.  The advice went unheeded, of course, and he sat it out with protesters until December when police finally hauled away the last remaining holdouts.

All things considered, he was right.  It would have been better for their cause had demonstrators followed Lai’s advice when he gave it and staged an orderly forward-looking strategic retreat.  Sympathetic observers generally agreed that the street sit-ins were an effective means of protest at first but then went on for too long, pursued unrealistic goals that could not be achieved by the means adopted, and allowed adversaries to gloat over the “failure” of Hong Kong’s longest most dedicated campaign for democratic elections. 

Beijing has yet to budge on any part of its restrictive August 31 (8.31) decision that precipitated the street occupations and  Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying probably never even thought once about resigning as protesters demanded.  Even worse, say the concerned observers, Hong Kong’s democracy movement is now fragmenting again into all the disparate pieces that came together suddenly last year on September 28 when the street sit-ins began. In fact, there are even more disparate pieces now than before.

Downcast and discouraged everyone surely is but the pessimism is premature. Hong Kong’s democracy movement might be receding back into another period of irrelevance … as has happened many times before. This current phase is only the latest local agitation in a long sequence of abortive political reform efforts that extend back to the British colony’s earliest days. 

Or the movement might inadvertently be doing just what Jimmy Lai suggested … since the disarray is not random.  The new line-ups are being driven by fears about premature compromise and capitulation and no one is willing to bet the fears are unfounded.  Hence the disarray is also being driven in anticipation of the need for a renewed pushback against mounting pressures to accept Beijing’s design for Hong Kong’s political future. 

The movement is splitting and Beijing is trying  …  with some success … every means possible to exploit the divisions.  Yet without them the movement would be even more likely to dissipate.  It might still …  but if anything comes of this struggle beyond what Beijing has so far been willing to offer, then much credit must go to the energy of the younger generation that is doing what it can to hold Hong Kong’s aging pro-democracy veterans to their pledges.


Earlier this year Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok responded to questions during an informal gathering of sympathetic observers.  Leung was last year’s University of Hong Kong student body president.  She was also one of the student leaders who stepped into the void last September when Professor Benny Tai’s Occupy Central idea took off without him.

The older generation stood aside then and let students take the lead because they had come forward right after Beijing announced its 8.31 decision …  when Benny Tai was blindsided by Beijing’s intransigence and seemed uncertain about going through with his carefully rehearsed street occupation protest.  It had actually been planned to last only a few days.  The police had also rehearsed their removal tactics, so the whole exorcise was supposed to have been short-lived.  One reason it wasn’t was that the students were not alone. 

They took the initiative at the head of a much larger grouping that had already been planning to follow Benny Tai’s lead.  This is the Civil Human Rights Front that organizes the annual July First protest marches, a new tradition that began in 2003.  All kinds of single-issue concern groups unite on that day around their one common cause as champions of Hong Kong’s civil liberties.  It is also a march were political parties and elected politicians take a back seat.  They join but never in the lead.  This custom has developed in deference to ever-present suspicions and accusations about politicians exploiting idealistic goals for opportunistic purposes. 

The politicians were criticized by some last year for not playing a more direct leadership role in the occupy movement.  The reasons derive from this endemic suspicious tradition and not necessarily from lack of courage.

Yvonne Leung retold the story about how the all-city student leaders realized after a month or so that it was time to de-occupy.  But like Jimmy Lai, the students could not convince everyone else that it was time to go and, also like Jimmy Lai, they couldn’t just walk away … a leaders’ retreat while the ground troops stayed behind on the street to face police clearing squads alone. 

Those divisions are now reasserting themselves with some students and some others deciding to go their separate ways.  The basic division remains, between “radicals” and “moderates,” for want of better words to describe them.  Only this is not just a division between young and old or students and non-students, although it is both.  But it’s also appearing among the students themselves as well as between and within different political groups and parties, more like a rebellion from below … between leaders and the rank-and-file … than anything else.

Most dramatic is the disarray within the all-city Hong Kong Federation of Students that played the lead role in Umbrella/Occupy.   With over half a century of controversial history to its credit (the British thought it was a hotbed of pro-China pro-communist radicalism in the 1970s), the HKFS until recently represented students at all eight government-funded tertiary institutions here.  Students at several universities have just held referendums to decide whether to go it alone or remain within the federation. 

So far, four universities have voted to disaffiliate: the University of Hong Kong was first to go followed by Polytechnic University, Baptist, and City university.  The latter voted on May 7.  The Chinese University’s referendum had to be aborted after supporters fumbled the preparatory signature campaign.  They say they’ll try again next semester.  Of those voting, only one, Lingnan University, has remained within the federation (Ming Pao Daily, May 4).

Students say they have many grievances stemming from the 79-day Occupy protest, lesser complaints like lack of adequate consultation and disagreements over tactics.  Leaders are “undemocratic” … being only indirectly elected by the various student bodies … didn’t pay enough attention to the views of everyone else, and so on.  But the more basic underlying reason seems to be the moderation of HKFS leaders themselves.

They were allegedly too intent on trying to win official concessions and too fixated on their starring role in the unprecedented student debate with officials (Oct. 27, 2014 post).  There were also no  follow-up plans for what to do next after the debate, and student leaders were too inclined to listen to the professional politicians.  These were helping out behind the scenes, with logistics and office space in the Legislative Council building just adjacent to the main Harcourt Road tent-city encampment.

Of greater importance to the democracy movement as a whole, however, are two additional decisions that have just been made.  On April 27, the remaining members of the HKFS …  in deference to the new climate of dissent  …  decided that the federation will not be among the sponsors of this year’s annual June Fourth memorial vigil in Victoria Park.  

The event commemorates Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on its own 1980s democracy movement and the HKFS has been among the sponsors every year since.  Attendance has continued to grow, bolstered by increasing numbers of cross-border travelers and mainland students who want to see for themselves how Hong Kongers exercise their right to remember the past in a way that is not allowed anywhere else in China.

Last year was the first when the growing mood of antagonism among local activists toward mainland influence had a noticeable impact on June Fourth commemorations.  Dissenters held their own rally across town with several thousand attending … police said 3,000, sponsors said 7,000 (June 6, 2014 post).   The basic theme was meant as a direct challenge to the mainstream Victoria Park event.  It has always mourned the demise of the 1980s mainland democracy movement along with the violence in Tiananmen Square on June Fourth and has retained “down with one-party dictatorship” as a (more-or-less) constant slogan.

This year attendance at the counter-current rallies will be higher because the HKFS will be joining them rather than the Victoria Park vigil.   We need not concern ourselves with democratizing the mainland and patriotic unification themes, say the dissidents.  Protecting Hong Kong from the encroaching influence of mainland political ways and means should be our first priority.  Ironically, Beijing might now see more to its liking among the Victoria Park crowd than the autonomy-first outliers who are vilified daily in the pro-mainland media as traitorous seekers of independence (Ming Pao Daily, Apr. 28, May 2).

Finally, as if all that was not enough, the youngsters have just dealt another blow to the old guard.  Young Joshua Wong Chi-fung, a freshman college student, was the hero of the 2011-12 anti-patriotic education protest and is now much more besides.  He has just led his old middle-school student group, Scholarism, out of the informal coalition that was preparing to campaign for veteran Democratic Party legislator Albert Ho Chun-yan who is planning to resign his Legislative Council seat.  Ho’s idea is to use the subsequent by-election as a protest referendum against the Hong Kong government’s electoral reform bill based on Beijing’s 8.31 decision. 

In a statement released on April 28, Scholarism said it had decided not to participate in the referendum campaign, which has been growing into an extension of last year’s Umbrella/Occupy movement.  The reason:  Scholarism wanted to distance itself from the professional Legislative Council politicians some of whom now seem to be losing their nerve and wavering in their determination to veto the government’s electoral reform bill. The group decided to pull out in order to free itself from the constraints they anticipated within the by-election campaign.  Key to the decision was a commitment they would have had to make about holding in abeyance all disagreements with the democratic camp. 

The support coalition had initially included five political parties, plus Scholarism, and the HKFS.  The latter’s participation  is now also in doubt as is Albert Ho’s resignation project itself since it was counting on the students to provide a major source of enthusiasm and energy (SCMP, April 29).


So the retreat and regrouping have now been accomplished.  All that remains of Jimmy Lai’s “three R’s” advisory is the third act:  return … the most difficult stage of all.  The question is how to return and how best to use what little time remains in this long running debate. 

The government’s reform bill will be voted up or down within the next two months, before the Legislative Council’s summer recess. Consequently, attention is now focused on the simple up or down choices that must soon be made, on the public’s opinion about those choices, and its impact on the 27 pro-democracy legislators’ vow to veto.  

The government’s saturation-style promotion campaign has moved into high gear and seems to be registering some success.  Pan-democrats are on the defensive as they take up their street-corner positions with fliers and stump speeches.  And listening to their talking points, it seems clear why they are not “closing the sale” with a winning argument.   

A poll was commissioned by TVB in late April, soon after the Hong Kong government released its final version of the 2017 electoral reform plan based on Beijing’s restrictive 8.31 decision (April 17, 24 posts).  Close to 51% of the 1,000+ people polled said “pocket it.”   The results:  50.9 % said pass the bill; 37.9 % said veto it; 11 % were undecided (Ming Pao, Apr. 28).

But when the respondents in the same poll were asked whether they actually liked the government’s proposal, 35.5 % said they did not; 35.3 % said they did; and 25.1 % were undecided.*  Seems like about 15% of those respondents would like some good reasons not to pass the bill but hadn’t yet heard them.

A similar number of those waiting-to-be-convinced seemed to lurk within the first results of the three universities’ tracking poll that began in late April.  This poll is being conducted by three universities with reliable polling reputations:  the University of Hong Kong, Chinese University, and Polytechnic … with results announced every Tuesday.  The first two announcements on April 28 and May 5, were virtually identical.  The latter showed 47.6% in favor of passing the bill; 36.4% said veto. **

Unfortunately for democracy movement campaigners, their closing summations seem weaker than their openers. Yet pro-democracy legislators know what their constituents can do to them if they backtrack now.  The Democratic Party’s experience after Albert Ho’s sudden compromise decision in 2010 over a minor Legislative Council electoral reform bill remains uppermost in everyone’s mind.  As a result of that 2010 decision, many of its members quit the Democratic Party, voters punished its candidates in the 2012 Legislative Council elections, and Albert Ho later said the abuse he received all along the route of the July 1, 2010  protest march transformed it into the “worst experience” of his entire life.

With that experience in mind, pan-dem arguments now seem directed primarily at their own constituents in an effort to try and reassure them that last-minute deals will not be done.  But to do that, campaigners are invoking arguments that are not likely to get very far with people on the margin who don’t yet understand why the bill should not be accepted … even though they don’t like it.   The government’s line that “we know it’s not perfect, but it’s the best we could do under the circumstances and think how wonderful it will be to vote for your own Chief Executive, etc., etc. … ” seems to be working.

In contrast, pan-dem legislators are invoking the hallowed argument about voting their conscience regardless of the opinion polls.  Alternatively, pan-dem legislators are adopting a legalistic argument:  since the Basic Law requires a two-thirds majority vote in Legco to pass the electoral reform bill, then a one-third public opinion poll rating will be sufficient to justify their veto.

The explanations that might have followed from the initial catchy “pocket it forever” 【戴一世】retort to the government’s “pocket it first” 【戴住先】slogan are not being expanded and emphasized for the benefit of the general public ..and the general public seems to be responding to the government’s mantra about how pan-dems are planning to deprive voters of their right to unviersal suffrage (TVB poll).  Those explanations should be emphasizing Beijing’s insistence that 8.31 is as far as it has to go in meeting its Basic Law constitutional obligation for universal suffrage Hong Kong elections.  

Such arguments should be asking why Beijing refuses to provide any other definitions for future, post-2017, elections beyond the vague Basic Law phraseology that “if there is a need,” further reforms mgiht be allowed.   

The barristers have just returned from their biennial visit to Beijing where they seem to have inquired only about what “if there is a need” might mean … and received the standard Basic Law phraseology in reply  (Wen Wei Po, South China Morning Post, Apr. 29).  Apparently they did not ask whether Beijing would ever allow a free-choice Chief Executive election here.  If they have just fatalistically accepted that the latter is impossible, as some are now suggesting, then why isn’t the public being let in on that secret? 

Such explanations should also be spelling out in detail how easy it will be for Beijing to engineer a candidate line-up that will give current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying a clear popular mandate.  There can only be three candidates.  If he is one and Regina Ip is the second, who might qualify to give pan-dems a “chance,” as loyalists are saying.

And such arguments should be pointing out that local “universal suffrage” elections are common all over China today …  all with the same inbuilt communist party control mechanisms that are present in Beijing’s 8.31 decision for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election in 2017.

Voters there are endorsing and giving credibility to the party’s candidates … local people with leadership skills deemed “safe” by party election managers.   The local election reforms that helped inspire China’s 1980s democracy movement have been transformed since 1989 into a means of rejuvenating and strengthening the local party organization after the dsiruptions that followed the abolition of the Maoist era commune system.

If that is the future Beijing is planning for Hong Kong, then maybe Hong Kong voters would like to know before they advise their legislators to “pocket it first” and worry about the consequences later.




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