Posted: June 5, 2015
When they began, the three biggest events in Hong Kong’s democracy movement had little to do with each other. Now … for better and possibly for worse … the law of unintended consequences is bringing them together in one common cause.
For better, because Hong Kong’s “age of innocence” is finally disappearing. People on all sides now understand that promises for autonomy and universal suffrage in cross border jurisdictions can mean very different things depending on whose definitions are being applied. Maybe energies can now be put to more effective use instead of talking in endless circles to no apparent effect. But the reality-check might only lead to more wasted energy if it produces yet another excuse for fratricidal bickering … or worst of all, fatalistic acceptance of an unwanted fate. All possibilities are now in play.
JUNE FOURTH is a date that Hong Kong has continued to commemorate every year since 1989. On that day, Chinese central government authorities cleared democracy protesters from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square with a show of force that continued in one form or another until every last trace of China’s own 1980s democracy movement was extinguished. It has never been allowed to revive, but the memory lives on if only in Hong Kong’s annual June Fourth candlelight vigil.
Held in Victoria Park, its sponsor is a coalition of now aging 1980s activists still rallying under the banner of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China. Founding leaders were Martin Lee Chu-ming and the late Szeto Wah. Except for Hong Kong, which continues to defy Beijing by holding this event, commemorations are banned throughout China but in recent years mainland visitors have been attending in ever greater numbers.
The JULY FIRST marching tradition began in 2003 and has been held every year since. It aims to keep alive the spirit of massive indignation that erupted when Hong Kong’s first post-colonial administration, led by Tung Chee-hwa, tried to force passage of national security legislation as mandated by Beijing in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s post-colonial Basic Law constitution. July First is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 return to Chinese rule. Like the June Fourth candlelight vigils, July First marches are not political party events. July First is organized by a multitude of groups known as the Civil Human Rights Front.
And then OCCUPY CENTRAL brought everyone together … at least at first … in an effort to realize the 30-year quest for democratic universal suffrage elections. This objective is not so much mandated as promised by the Basic Law. But so seriously did Hong Kong take the promise that, after Beijing finally designated 2017 as the year universal suffrage elections might begin, activists gave it plenty of lead time and set to work in early 2013. Debates and meetings continued non-stop thereafter producing countless reform proposals.
This 2013-14 phase was only the latest in a campaign for universal suffrage that had actually begun in the 1980s … with antecedents stretching back many decades into Hong Kong’s colonial past. Hence 2017 took on special significance as the culmination of a long-running quest.
It was the shock of seeing all their idealistic efforts and proposals summarily deleted by Beijing that sent thousands out onto the streets for the 79-day Occupy protest last September. The immediate provocation was Beijing’s August 31, 2014 (8.31) final word on how the 2017 election must be conducted. City streets were not finally cleared until mid-December and the shockwaves are still reverberating.
Their impact so far has been to rekindle old fears and bring new understandings. These are now taking the form of growing “localized” 【本土化】demands that reject the simple “greater China” we-are-all-in-this-together assumptions prevailing in Hong Kong’s democracy movement since the 1980s.
The trouble with those 1980s assumptions was that local democrats also assumed they could keep their own democratic ideals and win tolerance for them from Beijing as well. Instead, the prevailing winds are now blowing in the opposite direction. Beijing leaders are not mellowing with age but trying to revive confidence in the old institutions and revolutionary traditions that brought the party to power in the first place (May 18 post).
So now finally, thanks to the universal suffrage saga, that political reality can no longer be denied. If held in accordance with Beijing’s 8.31 decision, the 2017 election would be a party-managed affair. As such, it would owe more to the communist party’s “democratic-centralist” traditions than to any version of Western-style democracy.
Nor is Beijing offering any hope of future progress beyond the essentials of the 8.31 framework (according to final official speeches in Shenzhen on June 1). In response, democratic disappointment is leaving its mark all around town.
REMEMBERING TIANANMEN IN THE WAKE OF OCCUPY
Pre-vigil polls and preparations registered the impact. Hong Kong University’s advance polling showed support at its lowest point in two decades … down 5.5% over last year, to 44.6%. A quarter of those interviewed said the Hong Kong Alliance itself should be disbanded. Only 38% said it should continue. Music to Beijing’s ears perhaps. If only 65% were not still agreeing that Hong Kong has the responsibility to promote mainland democratic development (http://hkupop.hku.hk/english). The principle evidently remains intact even if Victoria Park’s annual ritual now seems a futile gesture after last year’s energetic struggles.
Alliance leaders were also jolted by the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) decision to pull out of its usual June Fourth co-sponsoring role. The decision, announced in April, was seen as fallout from student dissatisfaction with the alleged moderate inclinations of HKFS leaders given their close association with pro-democracy political parties during Occupy. The rank-and-file argued that student leaders were too inclined to listen to the political party elders.
Four of the eight university student unions have actually taken the unprecedented step of withdrawing from the federation as a result (May 8 post). Students from those schools organized separate on-campus commemorations or went to Victoria Park on their own without school representation. The separate events were “Hong Kong-oriented,” in contrast to June Fourth’s mainland focus with its line that Hong Kong cannot have democracy unless China has it as well. Hong Kong’s struggle must continue regardless, say the “local-ist” dissenters. After all, Britain was a democracy but London never allowed elected representation here. So one is no guarantee of the other!
The Victoria Park vigil has always been organized as a non-political party event but politicians like the Democratic Party’s Martin Lee and Szeto Wah, and now Albert Ho Chun-yan have always been the main leaders, which accounts for the students’ current skepticism.
Politicians always compromise like Albert Ho did over political reform in 2010. They wheel and deal and are invariably calculating their chances of winning the next election instead of focusing on the things that matter. And for students now the thing that matters most is Hong Kong’s political future. They are focused on holding the line they worked to establish with Occupy and want to put as much pressure as possible on the politicians who will soon be voting up or down on Beijing’s 8.31 election format.
Alliance leaders are so far holding firm in their support of the vow to veto 8.31. But they were also alarmed enough by the counter-current defections to issue a 40-page “June Fourth Questions and Answers” pamphlet. Some of the questions: “Why commemorate June Fourth?,” “Why attend the candlelight vigil?,” “What has been achieved in 26 years?,” and “Hong Kongers are not mainlanders so why help democratize China?” (http://issuu.com/hka1989/docs/64qna … Chinese only).
Defections of course didn’t begin with the students this year or with Occupy. Actually, it was the other way around. The growing counter-current of dissent is what produced the mindset that led to Occupy … as illustrated by last year’s arguments from People Power, Civic Passion and their companion Passion Times plus The Real Hong Kong News (June 6, 2014 post). This year that message was much the same: remember June Fourth but ignore the Alliance’s compromising politicians. *
In the end, however, everybody won. There were no losers … probably because Alliance leaders got the point and merged new Occupy themes with old June Fourth traditions. All six soccer pitches in the park were packed … the usual criteria for a full house … with spillover filling the basketball courts behind the stage and the north lawn as well. Not the crushing crowds of recent years but more than enough to satisfy Alliance organizers. Police disgraced themselves by estimating the turnout at only 46,000 … about right for half the pitches. Organizers said 135,000.
The old slogans were all still prominently displayed … no banners hidden in dark corners to avoid offending someone. “Vindicate June Fourth” and “Struggle for Democracy” … plus “Build a Democratic China,” “End one-Party Dictatorship,” “Demand Accountability for the Massacre,” and so on. But Hong Kong’s own current struggle featured as well along with a new logo that combined a vigil candle with a yellow upturned umbrella. Tribute was paid to 300 mainlanders thought to have been arrested for expressing support during Hong Kong’s Occupy protest.
Like last year, localists led by Civic Passion and Raymond “Mad Dog” Wong Yuk-man rallied separately across the harbor in Kowloon and at various points around town. But their mockery of compromised Alliance politicians did not seem to substantially boost attendance at the small localist rallies
MORE TO COME: June 7, June 17, July First, and beyond …
The government’s 2017 election reform bill will be tabled in the Legislative Council (Legco) on June 17. Culmination of all the past two year’s campaigning will then be registered in an up or down vote. Plans for filibustering or government delays may intervene. But if not the vow to veto will hold or not in time to be celebrated or reviled during the annual July First protest march. Any legislator who breaks his/her vow should stay away from that march if Albert Ho’s 2010 experience is anything to go by. That was the march, just after his 2010 compromise on Legco electoral reform that he later said was the worst three hours of his entire life.
The Civil Human Rights Front has planned a full roster of events for June, all designed to carry forward the spirit of Occupy with its demand for “genuine” universal suffrage. Never give up is the motto for a new movement called “Popular Opposition to Fake Democracy.”
The plan, to begin on Sunday June 7, is to join up with pro-democracy political parties and groups from last year’s Umbrella/Occupy. They will march in all five Legislative Council electoral districts to protest the government’s bill. Plans also include a rally at the council itself depending on how long the debate continues before the actual vote.
Whichever way it goes, preparations for the July First protest march are also well advanced. The theme this year will be “regaining Hong Kong’s autonomy,” meaning the autonomy Hong Kong thought it had been promised when the Basic Law was promulgated in 1990.
Demands for “building democracy in Hong Kong” are wildly ambitious but they should make good marching slogans. They will call for Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign and for the Basic Law to be rewritten or at least amended since it obviously cannot serve as a vehicle for democratic development in its present form. The obstacles it contains must be removed.
Specifically, marchers will call for the abolition of the Nominating Committee mandated by Beijing in its 8.31 decision on grounds the Basic Law itself mandates such a committee and only that committee and will continue to do so throughout the life of the Basic Law (which ends in 2047). They will also call for the abolition of the Legislative Council’s special-interest Functional Constituencies. These form half of the council and most of the committee.
Additionally, slogans will call for the abolition of the Public Order Ordinance (POO) because it requires police permission for rallies and marches … a requirement that Occupy protesters routinely flouted during their 79-day street blockade. They will now call for the ordinance’s repeal on grounds that it is an obstacle to the exercise of their civil liberties!
* Wong On-yin, English trans. (http://www.ejinsight.com/20150603-remember-june4-forget.alliance).