The summer of 2019 has been like no other in living memory. But of all the unprecedented protest events, the most audacious was the assault by masked black-clad young protesters on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building.
After several attempts, they finally managed to break into the main chamber where they proceeded to impose vigilante justice by trampling on desks, defacing decorations, and spray-painting messages on every surface. The date, July First, was as symbolic as the act itself, and so was one graffiti message in particular: “You have taught me that peaceful protest is useless.”
The day, July First, was a public holiday, marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese rule on July 1, 1997. People understood at a glance all that had provoked the assault and inspired the message, because the Legislative Council lies at the heart of Hong Kong’s resentment.
That the central government in Beijing refuses to acknowledge the resentment serves only to reinforce its underlying cause.
The city, now home to 7.5 million people, never had elected representation in colonial days, and still doesn’t in any meaningful sense of the term. That being the case, citizens have taken to voting with their feet. They walk endless miles, usually on Sunday afternoons, rain or shine, demonstrating, demanding, protesting.
In years past, these marches have always been peaceful, orderly, sometimes even good-humoured. But this summer the mood has changed because the public’s patience has finally been exhausted.
Instead of tens of thousands, people have turned out in hundreds of thousands, too many to count. The crowds are angry, defiant of authority, and disruptive. Court orders and police bans are ignored. The expected public backlash against the July First assault on the Legislative Council never materialized. There have been over a thousand arrests.
Nobody has been killed, but the riot squad has learned how to crack heads. So much so that staff in hospitals all over town have organized their own lunchtime events to protest police brutality. They may soon have more to protest. The police are now requesting permission to use live ammunition against protesters setting off Molotov cocktails.
The trigger for this abrupt change was proposed local legislation that would have permitted the transfer of fugitive criminal suspects to all jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not yet have formal extradition agreements. But the only jurisdiction that mattered was mainland China, a lapse that had remained pending since 1997. Once passed, the new law would have allowed the transfer of alleged Hong Kong wrong-doers for trial within China’s much-feared criminal justice system.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam initially directed the Legislative Council to pass the bill before the summer recess in July. Despite some adjustments, the proposed legislation remained full of “traps,” said a senior member of the governing pro-establishment coalition. Hong Kogners are frequent cross-border travelers and can easily fall afoul of unfamiliar mainland laws. But as a loyal coalition member he and the others declared their intention to do their duty … because it was expected of them.
Protesters had tried, on June 12, to storm the Legislative Council but were turned back by a police tear gas barrage. The chaos outside nevertheless managed to disrupt the proceedings, in a sequence that was able to run out the clock on the summer recess. Carrie Lam finally announced the unconditional withdrawal of the bill in early September.
But why should one piece of legislation, however threatening, trigger such a public outburst? The answers can all be found in the ongoing drama that has centered on that same Legislative Council building since 1997.
Expectations were created that pre-1997 Beijing decision-makers either did not understand or had no intention of fulfilling. Rallies had begun in the 1980s, while the British were negotiating conditions for the 1997 handover and everyone was looking for assurances. Beijing wrote may promises into Hong Kong’s new Basic Law constitution, which was meant for post-1997 use.
Accordingly, all the basic rights and freedoms were guaranteed along with judicial independence. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would eventually be elected by universal suffrage, as would all members of the local legislature. Local government officials would all be Hong Kongers. The slogan back then was “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong,” and the unique arrangement was dubbed “one country, two-systems.”
Twenty years have now passed and not only have the promised elections not been held, but all the rights and freedoms are being steadily qualified, compromised, and eroded. They are being replaced, incrementally, by Beijing-style rules and definitions, best illustrated by Chief Executive Carrie Lam herself.
After a small pro-independence political party was formally banned last year, Lam adopted a Beijing-style explanation. “Talking about independence,” she said, “has nothing to do with free speech.”
Leading local officials must all be approved by Beijing and Beijing has yet to approve a single pro-democracy partisan for any leading local position.
The Legislative Council, or LegCo in local shorthand, lies at the heart of this struggle. The name is inherited from colonial days. It was originally an appointed body, filled with established members of the community who could be relied upon to produce “safe” votes legitimizing decisions and policies of the colonial government.
Today the council is elected. But the sectors and designs are so convoluted, and representation so effectively spliced and diced that it is still producing “safe” results, in the style of its colonial predecessor. Pro-democracy candidates may win over 50% of the popular vote, but the system confines them to the status of a permanent opposition.
That was why protesters knew the only way to prevent passage of the extradition bill was to find ways of physically blocking it.
Had the results of the last, 2016, election been allowed to stand, the pro-democracy coalition itself might have had enough votes to defeat the extradition bill. Forty of LegCo’s 70 seats are directly elected, by proportional representation, from five electoral districts.
Pro-democracy candidates routinely win over half the votes cast for these seats. But their political impact is limited by the 30 Functional Constituency seats. These provide special interest representation from various sectors chosen to ensure a pro-establishment majority of these seats.
The problem in 2016 was that the electorate was already angry over what had happened in 2014. After decades of marching for universal suffrage elections, Beijing finally issued a decision, on August 31, 2014. It decreed mainland-style candidate-vetting, by Beijing, for the Chief Executive election candidates, and no reforms at all for LegCo elections until the Chief Executive decision was accepted.
It was that 8.31 decree from Beijing that provoked the occupation of major city thoroughfares for 79 days in late 2014. The experience was a watershed “awakening” event. Many, especially among the younger generation, concluded that without “genuine” autonomy from Beijing’s heavy hand, democratic elections could never be achieved.
Official vetting was introduced ahead of the 2016 LegCo election and the most outspoken new-style candidates were stopped at the starting gate. Others less forthright passed muster and did better than expected.
Voters may have liked them but the powers-that-be did not. Altogether six legislators elected in 2106, who had betrayed too much of this new post-Occupy spirit, were disqualified and lost their seats.
The specific cause was the irreverent manner in which they took their oaths-of-office as newly elected legislators in October 2016. This was deemed “unconstitutional” by another decree from Beijing. Thereafter, the proceedings were all reviewed and confirmed via multiple court rulings.
These, in effect, transformed Hong Kong’s independent judges into enforcers for Beijing’s definitions and ultimatums.
The same sequence then occurred for the special elections to replace the six. Candidates who betrayed too much localist spirit were disqualified by government vetting officers.
As if all that was not enough, the government took advantage of LegCo’s depleted pro-democracy caucus to force through changes in its rules of procedure. The aim was to make filibustering and other disruptive tactics that much more difficult.
The final disqualification of the oath-taking saga came in the form of a judicial review ruling in February just this year, against Hong Kong’s oldest radical, “Long Hair” Leung Kwok-hung. Two months later, judgements and sentences were announced for the Occupy Nine, protest leaders from the 2014 campaign. Four had just begun serving their prison sentences when the anti-extradition bill protests began.
The first march was on Sunday, April 28. It was billed as a protest against the prison sentences just handed down on April 24. But the turnout was much greater than expected. And instead of one last protest in memory of the Occupy-Umbrella Movement, the crowd’s attention seemed focused elsewhere. Headlines for the day proclaimed, “Oppose Sending to China,” the first slogan of the anti-extradition bill campaign.
Posted by Suzanne Pepper on September 19, 2019