Posted: June 17, 2016
Summertime might mean escape from Hong Kong’s heat and humidity for some … but not this year and especially not for Hong Kong’s new political generation. The Legislative Council election is coming up September 4, and preparations are well underway. In fact, they’ve been underway since the District Councils election last November (Nov. 26, 2015 post).
That was when a few novice candidates from the rebellious Umbrella-Occupy generation of 2014 tested the waters and discovered, to everyone’s surprise including their own, that they weren’t pariahs and outcasts after all.
Up to that point, everyone had more-or-less accepted the logic of defeat: nothing had been achieved by the 79-day street blockades; public opinion had gradually turned against them; polls suggested that “genuine” universal suffrage was, in the end, not that high an item on Hong Kongers’ list of political priorities. Perceptions were all negative, so much so that Umbrella generation candidates tried not to talk about the experience when they were out on their campaign street corners.
Not many of the new post-Occupy candidates actually won seats on Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils last November. Pro-Beijing candidates and conservative allies retain their majorities and still dominate the councils. But the newcomers received enough votes to give them the courage they needed to carry on. And so they are … big time. Maybe too big. There are now multiples of new groups each with its own candidate list, and while these are not yet finalized, the trend is clear.
The perennial problem that has regularly allowed pro-establishment conservatives to outmaneuver their more popular pro-democracy competitors seems set to reproduce itself in the post-Occupy generation. The old temptation: to contest elections for reasons other than winning them has reappeared.
Actually winning seats on the Legislative Council in September seems, for now, less important than articulating the new post-Occupy political ideas, deciding what names to call them, and defining the political demands that should follow. This last is most difficult, there are many variations, all are a work in progress.
STARTING POINT: The Misunderstanding
The new ideas have already been introduced in bits and pieces: localism, autonomy, self-determination, independence. But the common denominator … the underlying theme that gives them the coherence and force they lacked before … emerged during Occupy and is now making itself felt. For want of a more precise time frame, the “moment of awakening” occurred when Beijing, after decades of promises, finally rejected the democracy movement’s quest for “genuine” universal suffrage elections.
It was at that point … when the last political reform cycle culminated in Beijing’s final August 31, 2014 ultimatum mandating mainland-style elections … that a new understanding finally emerged.
Beijing had promised “universal suffrage,” but no one seems to have understood until then that the promise meant one thing in communist party parlance and something else to Hong Kong’s Westernized democracy campaigners (April 20, 2016 post).
And if something that basic had been misunderstood, then maybe the whole “one-country, two-systems” experiment (that Beijing had designed to cover the 1997 transition from colonial to Chinese rule) had been misunderstood as well. If so, that meant everything about the Hong Kong system’s autonomy, as promised by Beijing, also needed to be questioned and reexamined.
It had taken almost 20 years to realize that the initial agreements were not what Hong Kong initially assumed and wanted them to be. More than 20 years, actually. The initial agreements were finalized in the 1980s and announced in 1990 when Beijing’s Basic Law constitution for Hong Kong was promulgated. In any event, that now leaves only three more decades to plot a different course because Hong Kong’s transitional one-country, two-systems autonomy was guaranteed by Beijing to last for only half-a-century from 1997.
With minds thus refocused, the year 2047 has suddenly taken on real-life significance (Aug. 13, 2015 post). The futuristic film Ten Years is a post-Occupy product that captures the new mood perfectly with a grim portrayal of life 10-years hence, based on the assumption that current pressures to impose mainland political ways and means will persist.
The new political ideas that campaigners are trying to formulate … in time for use on street corners ahead of the September election … all derive from this new questioning about everything that Beijing promised in the name of Hong Kong autonomy. These are the questions that Beijing leader Zhang Dejiang acknowledged during his visit here last month … the ones he glossed over without answering (May 30 post).
The ideas are not all that new. Concern about the future of Hong Kong’s autonomy began to gain currency roughly about the time Horace Chin 【陳雲】published his book, On the Hong Kong City-State 【香港城邦論】in 2011. His ideas and style of promoting them had made him a Facebook personality before that. But despite being challenged with labels like nativist, xenophobe, and even fascist by some democracy advocates and many others, his ideas have gained adherents as Hong Kong’s mood for critical political questioning grew.
He offers a mix of iconoclastic views, arguing for Hong Kong interests first and Hong Kongers foremost. He doesn’t advocate building a wall along the border. But critics can’t help noticing certain similarities between his way of expressing himself and that of presumptive United States presidential candidate Donald Trump.
Chin has mentioned as a source of provocation Beijing’s massive cross-border infrastructure plans that anticipate the eventual physical eradication of the Hong Kong-mainland border. Hence his focus on looking inward, to celebrate all aspects of the Hong Kong experience … language, culture, life-style … as well as government, politics, and the colonial history that sets Hong Kong apart from the mainland.
But his localist message also gained currency in practical ways as different groups began organizing spontaneous protests a few years ago. Protesters targeted, often crudely, the influx of mainland tourists who disrupted Hong Kong’s shopping patterns and forced up commercial rents; the “parallel traders” who still crowd into border towns buying up cheaper Hong Kong goods for transport and sale across the border; and the pregnant mainland women who rushed across just in time to create Hong Kong’s own version of the “anchor baby” problem.
Mitigating measures were introduced but the sequence was clear. Just like everything else associated with the ongoing mainland intrusions into local life, Hong Kongers had to take matters into their own hands and find ways of pushing back hard before the authorities took notice.
Among his more controversial views, Horace Chin also isn’t keen on the idea of mainland democratic development. He fears that populism would prevail in a democratic China and swallow up Hong Kong thereby erasing the border in a different way.
But he also doesn’t advocate full independence. Instead, he thinks Hong Kong should work to build itself into a genuinely autonomous city-state … autonomy of the sort he initially thought the Basic Law was promising for life after 1997. This should be Hong Kong’s goal for an uncertain period of indefinite duration, until Beijing learns to live with the concept of genuine autonomy as he and Hong Kong originally understood it.
Hong Kong’s new political ideas all reflect these same concerns. They go by somewhat different names depending on emphasis and interpretations that are yet to be finalized. But they’re tending toward agreement at least on what they are not and they no longer want to be identified by the common shorthand “pan-democratic” label.
They say pan-dems … the old democratic parties … still accept the post-1997 one-country, two-systems consensus as spelled out in the Basic Law. All are still thinking in terms of talking and communicating and negotiating with Beijing, still hoping to reach an acceptable compromise.
For now at least, the new generation of post-Occupy political pioneers want to be known otherwise. They want to be able to “revise and resubmit” the one-country, two-systems design. And they are claiming it as their right to be able to do so … because Hong Kongers were not allowed to participate in negotiating the 1980s agreements and drafting the Basic Law.
It follows that the entire range of “old” democratic political parties, all collectively known by the pan-dem label, are now showing their age. By the new standards, even long-time radical “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung 【梁國雄】 must be reclassified as a moderate. So, too, his League of Social Democrats, once on the cutting edge of democratic defiance. Now they must stand and be counted together with the Democratic Party, People Power, the Labour Party, Association for Democracy and People’s Livelihood, Neighborhood and Workers Service Centre, and maybe the Civic Party as well.
JUNE FOURTH DISTINCTIONS
The new and old groups and parties were clearly distinguished at the June Fourth ceremonies this year. Old pan-dems led the candle light vigil in Victoria Park as usual, commemorating the 1989 crackdown in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that put an end to China’s own 1980s flirtations with democratic reform. From that time, Hong Kong democracy campaigners have defied Beijing by proclaiming the slogan “down with one-party dictatorship.” Their original belief was that Hong Kong could only have democracy if China itself moved in that direction and the dictatorship ceased to be.
Today, the new post-Occupy generation doesn’t care whether Beijing reforms itself or not. Horace Chin’s contrarian view that a democratic China would not necessarily be good for a democratizing Hong Kong reflects that sentiment. The ideas presented at the alternate June Fourth dissenters’ commemorations … that deliberately boycotted the Victoria Park vigil … illustrated further by what names and aims the new generation wants to be known.
Largest of the alternate June Fourth gatherings was at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. It was a city-wide event with 11 tertiary-level student unions participating. The University of Hong Kong held its own commemoration. Featured speakers at the CUHK forum included Young-spiration convener Baggio Leung Chung-hang 【梁頌恆】, Hong Kong National Party convener Andy Chan Ho-tin 【陳浩天】, Hong Kong Indigenous convener Ray Wong Toi-yeung, 【黃台仰】and one-time moderate Brian Fong Chi-hang 【方志恆】. The tag lines were localism, autonomy, self-determination, independence … with Hong Kong identity as the counterfoil for mainlandization.
Estimated turnout for the three events: Victoria Park, 125,000; CUHK, 1,600; HKU, 1,000 (Ming Pao, June 5).
Speakers told the appreciative CUHK audience that Hong Kong activists should concentrate on building a democratic Hong Kong rather than divert energies to the forlorn cause of converting China’s leaders. That should have been music to Beijing ears … were it not for the views of Andy Chan and Ray Wong who, in effect, advocated subverting the Chinese body politick by declaring for Hong Kong separatism and independence.
Despite his mild manner and unassuming appearance, Andy Chan Ho-tin is emerging as the most audacious of the new generation with his Hong Kong National Party and its demand for independence. He says if Hong Kong identity is not clear and strong enough, the city will be suppressed by Beijing. And anything less than independence … like holding a referendum to seek local views on more or less autonomy … is but a futile gesture of deference to Beijing as the new colonial power. Nor does he rule out violence if it can be useful in achieving the desired end
Notable by his absence from this gathering was Hong Kong’s most famous young democracy activist, Joshua Wong Chi-fung 【黃志鋒】. He was in Victoria Park on June Fourth participating in the traditional vigil, and also fund-raising for his new political party Demosisto.
He, too, has suddenly been redefined as moderate … not in the same category as the old parties but something in-between. He eschews talk of violence and independence but without actually condemning either.
He also has his differences with hardline localists due to their explicit and often personalized anti-mainlander bias. He sees the designation as more fluid than that since some local people are genuinely patriotic and pro-Beijing, whereas some mainland migrants can become “localized” and identify with Hong Kong’s core democratic values.
None of that has endeared him to Beijing, though. Maybe because he leaves open independence as an option if all else fails. Meanwhile, his party is working to build public understanding and demands for genuine self-determination … to be measured through a popular referendum and the drafting of a charter. This will spell out how self-determination can be achieved while still acknowledging Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. But unlike the Basic Law, this charter will be drafted by Hong Kongers themselves.
….. Next: new candidates, old temptations
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on June 17, 2016.