On July 15, the Hong Kong government unveiled its first report on electoral reform to Beijing, formally beginning the five step process to amend the methods for selecting the city’s leader and legislature. Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying offered no concrete proposals, but affirmed the rule of the Chinese government.
Meanwhile, two weeks earlier — and 17 years after Hong Kong’s return to China from British rule — hundreds of thousands of protesters took part in the annual July 1 march to call for a more direct election of the chief executive in 2017.
The former British colony has been embroiled in a debate about its roadmap to democracy for more than a decade. The past two chief executives were chosen by an 800- and 1,200-member committee respectively, long criticized for representing pro-Beijing interests.
Following the march, 511 protesters staged an overnight and peaceful sit-in in Central, the city’s government and financial district, in what was seen as a dress-rehearsal for the Occupy Central civil disobedience action that will take place if the authorities reject their demand for a “genuine democracy” in the next two years. All 511 occupiers were arrested and detained the following day for “participating in unauthorized assembly and obstructing police officers.”
Experimenting in civic engagement
The Occupy Central campaign was first conceived by law professor Benny Tai in January 2013. Organizers of the campaign say that Hong Kong’s electoral system must satisfy the international standards for universal suffrage, and reform proposals are to be decided through a democratic process, including three so-called Deliberation Days and a civil referendum. If the authorities continue to snub its efforts, the campaign will plan a nonviolent occupation of Central to block traffic and paralyze the financial hub.
Three proposals, all of which allow the public to directly nominate chief executive candidates, were shortlisted on the third deliberation day. Organizers worried that the narrow range of options would alienate moderates and discourage people from voting, but nearly 800,000 residents participated in the unofficial referendum in late June.
The Hong Kong and Chinese governments have consistently rejected public nomination as being incompatible with the Hong Kong Basic Law, the mini-constitution promulgated in 1990. Though outlining universal suffrage as the “ultimate aim,” the Basic Law states that only a “broadly representative nominating committee” can select candidates. Many predict that Beijing will render universal suffrage meaningless by devising a nomination process that screens out pro-democracy candidates and others who do not share the Communist Party’s views.
The game changer
Under the “one country, two systems” principle in the Basic Law as agreed upon in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong enjoys a “high degree of autonomy” with an independent judiciary.
But Beijing sparked alarm and outrage across the legal and pro-democracy communities when it issued a white paper on June 10, which redefined the practice of “one country, two systems” and required that all the city’s administrators, judges of every court and other judicial personnel be patriotic.
Many lawyers see this as growing interference from Beijing and protested in a silent march a few days before the July 1 demonstration. The timely release of the white paper asserting China’s control over the territory also galvanized the demonstration and prompted the high turnout in the unofficial referendum, which Beijing dismissed as “an illegal farce.” As the political temperature rises, more Hong Kongers begin to see public nomination as the only way to counter the new patriotic requirement and to ensure more democratic procedures.
Anticipating this week’s official electoral reform report, the Hong Kong Bar Association warned that the Hong Kong government will “misuse and abuse the concept of the rule of law” if it simply rejects Occupy’s reform proposals without trying to explore whether their underlying objective of maximizing public participation could be consistent with the Basic Law, or without following up and offering alternatives.
But the report, which followed a 5-month public consultation, said the “mainstream opinion” agrees with Beijing that all candidates should “love Hong Kong and love the country.” The consultation, drawing nearly 125,000 submissions, coincided with Occupy activities and stands in contrast with the latter’s approximately 800,000-voter turnout in support for public nomination.
Beyond the annual routine
Heidi Law, a recent university graduate, felt a certain degree of impatience at the July 1 rally. She recalled being struck by a banner that featured the face of Li Ka Shing, a Hong Kong business magnate and Asia’s richest man, along with the slogan “Li Ka Shing reminds you to go to work on time tomorrow.” Another banner read: “File your taxes on time and see you next year on 7/1.”
Law thought the protesters’ message mocked the annual march for having become a ceremony that no longer puts real pressure on the system. Occupy Central’s proposed act of civil disobedience — “disrupting the everyday routines, and voluntarily submitting oneself to any legal consequences without fighting back in a violent way,” Law explained — might be the only way to pressure the authorities and induce change.
She found the mainstream media’s portrayal of protesters as a “rowdy violent bunch” to be unfair.
“There are rumors that the police planted them,” she said. “Who knows. But I am confident to say what you see on TV captures less than one percent of the crowd.” She described most people as polite and respectful of fellow protesters.
Chen Yun-Chung, who was among the 511 arrested, contrasted the occupation’s peaceful nature with the police’s acts of “symbolic violence.”
He criticized the police for denying detainees their constitutional right to consult a lawyer while inspiring fear by asserting the police’s right to take follow-up action upon release. But the sociology professor and nonviolent action trainer emphasized, “for us, to resort to violence is to lose, to give the regime legitimacy to crush you.”
The police also arrested four organizers of the Tuesday march, along with the man who drove the truck leading the crowd along the protest route. He was charged with a traffic ordinance: leaving an idling engine. A statement from the police also accused the organizers in the lead vehicle of ignoring orders to speed up and dragging out the pace of the march.
“We behaved well, that’s why the police had to come up with ridiculous charges,” Chen observed. “The police seemed hostile towards protesters. It wasn’t always like this. I think a new order is under way.”
Meanwhile, a group of civil servants from the Customs, Fire Services and other departments posted photos of their warrant cards on the Internet: their names and other identifying information are covered in hand-written notes saying “Leung Chun-Ying, don’t force me to do something against my will,” “I want a genuine democracy” or “The students are innocent.”
The business sector is experiencing some internal disunity as well. In late June, the Big Four accounting firms published an anti-Occupy advertisement in the local press, joining the financial establishment’s opposition of the movement seeking to paralyze the heart of the city — and a leading international financial capital.
A group of employees at the Big Four responded to their companies through another quarter-page, black-and-white ad that said “YOU boss, your statement does not represent our stance.” The oversized “YOU boss” evokes another coarse expression in Cantonese, conveying the employees’ bold sentiments and frustrations, but with a dose of sarcasm.
Chen saw the insiders’ revolt, however quiet and subtle, as crucial to civil disobedience. He said the key to paralyzing a system is not when protesters blockade the roads. It is when individual members of the establishment or those in positions of power — police officers, civil servants, financiers and the like — sympathize with the protesters and loosen up the system in their own ways.
What makes or breaks a movement
Many Occupy Central activists and allies — many of whom are legislators, scholars and students — are aware of the major problem that their movement still appeals mostly to the younger demographics, from teenagers to recent graduates to people in their thirties.
“The challenge,” according to Law, “is to garner support for a wider democracy movement from the general public” at a time when the editorial independence of mainstream media is eroding. She said the question lies not in how Occupy supporters should moderate their voices, but in how to radicalize the public.
“Public opinion, not civil disobedience itself,” Law said, “is what makes or breaks the movement.”
Chen also advocates for thinking beyond what he calls “alternative” talking points. Anti-capitalism or anti-Communist-Party are not messages that will get the regular people on board.
“We must remember moments when even the mainstream got pissed,” Chen said, pointing to the protests that followed the administration’s rejection of a new and popular TV network’s application for a free-to-air license. “Although the left perceived it as Chinese encroachment on the telecom industry and popular culture, the general public saw it as a violation of their consumer rights.” A hundred thousand Hong Kongers took to the streets, where housewives and celebrities marched side by side.
While an air of pessimism prevails over a tense political season and many think the dwindling of Hong Kong’s unique identity is inevitable, Chen is hopeful and moved to see many new faces at the sit-in. He believes now is the time to widen our imaginations, to get creative about mass mobilization beyond blockading the roads.
“We are still not ready,” he said, “but we are much readier than before.”