Posted: Dec. 10, 2015
For at least a year before and a year afterward, Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protest movement for universal suffrage elections was portrayed as the epitome of all evils. Not only pro-Beijing loyalists, but conservatives of all stripes and moderates as well could not find enough words to express their indignation over the illegal street sit-ins that blocked traffic for 79 days.
Commuting was a nightmare, professional drivers threatened to sue, business was disrupted, profits down. “Hong Kong is all about luxury,” enthused one CNN news anchor, to emphasize her point that even high-end shops downtown were begging their landlords for rent relief.
The police force was hard-pressed and many not-so-peaceful confrontations erupted as key intersections were gradually cleared. There were so many arrests that the courts have yet to process them all one year later. Student leader Joshua Wong has just had his court date pushed back to February.
During the past year, there has been a business downturn of sorts with several contributing factors … mainland tourists’ changed buying patterns, fluctuating exchange rates, a slowing Chinese economy. But no report could end without harking back to Occupy as the original sin responsible for disrupting Hong Kong business-as-usual.
Conservatives were happy to note a finding from the Economist Intelligence Unit in London. It reported on something called the “global livability” index and found that Hong Kong’s livability rating had declined by 3.2% year-on-year … a result of Occupy and the prospect of more protests to come (South China Morning Post. Aug. 19).
Anti-Occupy activist Robert Chow was not the only one who warned protesters that payback time would come with the next election. Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying said the same thing, more than once: “vote them out.” Loyalists took it to heart and ran their entire District Councils election campaign last month under the anti-Occupy clarion call: “use your vote; send the trouble-makers packing“ (Nov. 26 post).
But no sooner had the votes been counted and the results begun to sink in, than the official tone changed … literally overnight … without even the slightest mention of the complete about-face that had just been executed. It was as though everyone actually knew all along that voters would not punish pro-democracy Occupy supporters.
Everyone must have also known that Occupy participants would not only not be scared off but would contest the November 22 District Councils election … and win enough votes to occupy many seats including two held by veteran loyalists. It was suddenly as if officials did not know that loyalist forces had done their utmost, using all means fair and foul, to try and make the official anti-Occupy doomsday predictions come true.
HAIL THE NEW WAVE
Soon after the election, Chief Secretary Carrie Lam surprised her listeners by claiming that the Occupy protest movement last year had not harmed Hong Kong’s economy. She was speaking on December 2 at a business executives luncheon. The event was part of a two-day forum sponsored by the Hong Kong Trade Development Council. In fact, she continued, Occupy probably helped raise confidence in Hong Kong!
She said business friends had told her that the careful way the Hong Kong government and police handled the civil disobedience movement was actually a confidence-booster for the city.
She was quoted as saying: ‘Basically I think everyone of us in the government do not feel that Hong Kong has suffered tremendously from the Occupy movement’ (Dec. 2: chinadailyasia.com; also, Dec. 3: Apple Daily, HK Economic Times, ejinsight).
As number two in the Hong Kong government, second only to Chief Executive Leung Chun-hing, Lam was the official in charge of last year’s political reform exercise and she led the government team during the unprecedented debate with student leaders while the Occupy street sit-ins were underway (Oct. 27, 2014 post).
At the December 2 luncheon, Lam also said that the participation of young people in the District Councils election last month was not a bad thing and the government should not let the opportunity pass. Officials should engage with young people and draw them into the political arena.
She wasn’t alone, of course. A smiling Chief Executive surprised everyone even more when he came out on the day after the election to say that he wanted to welcome young councilors into the (heretofore politically correct) circle of advisors and consultative committee members … and presumably the whole raft of ways the Hong Kong government has always had of reaching out to local elites (Nov. 25: SCMP, Ming Pao). It was known politely back in colonial days as the “administrative absorption of politics.”
Leung’s friendly words were intended to bridge the political divide since loyalists also made a point of sponsoring young candidates … one of whom was the beneficiary of the campaign to oust super-seat councilor Frederick Fung (Nov. 26 post).
But the surprise was Leung’s olive branch extended to everyone including even law-breaking “umbrella soldier” Occupy participants. Loyalists naturally welcomed the invitation. The umbrella soldiers are not so sure … waiting to hear more about what he has in mind. Does he really mean to accept them on their own terms? Or is it just another official ploy? The sweetness and light came too suddenly after so intense a storm.
A PORTUGUESE SOLUTION?
So what might the soothing words mean? Perhaps little more than another try at luring freshmen politicians to join the “third force” strain of moderates along with Ronny Tong, Nelson Wong, and other disgruntled democrats. Or it might mean that Beijing is finally beginning to see the light … namely that pan-democrats are being sustained by a reservoir of genuine public concern about Hong Kong’s current political drift toward mainland-style governance.
Otherwise, why are loyalist pundits still searching for possible ways out of the deadlock that Beijing created with its August 31, 2014 ultimatum? This mandated mainland-style pre-selected candidates for Hong Kong’s first universal suffrage election and officials said it was that or nothing.
But after pan-democrats mustered their courage to veto Beijing’s design last June, the tea-table discussants continued the debate. Their questions assumed that the matter had not necessarily been settled on Beijing’s terms, that is, 8.31 or nothing. They were asking what a solution that democrats could accept might look like (July 21, 2015 post)
And if Beijing officials are not still searching for alternatives, why would Li Fei 【李飛】travel half-way around the world to discuss constitutional arrangements in two tiny Portuguese holiday destinations?
Li Fei is the stern-faced chairman of the Basic Law Committee who personally delivered Beijing’s toughest declarations on electoral reform to Hong Kong during the recent political reform controversy.
Granted that even Li might welcome a brief respite from the onset of winter in Beijing. But the Azores and the island of Madeira enjoy something more than sand, sea, and sunshine. They also have the distinction of being two autonomously governed Portuguese territories each with their own small legislative assemblies elected by universal suffrage.
According to the South China Morning Post account, Li Fei visited Madeira in mid-November where he and his delegation were especially interested in asking questions about the legislative process as well as the relationship between the directly-elected assembly and the local government. The delegation also wanted to know about the role played by the national government’s representative on the island. Unlike Hong Kong, neither territory has its own courts or currency (SCMP, Dec. 6).
Evidently, Beijing’s August 31 ultimatum is not written in stone after all. But will Li Fei’s far-flung search for alternatives lead to a solution that Hong Kong’s concerned voters are willing to accept? Much will no doubt depend on whether they demonstrate the same level of interest and concern during next year’s Legislative Council election as they did on November 22.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on December 10, 2015.