Hong Kong can’t dodge democracy forever

Mischa Moselle reports from Hong Kong on the ‘umbrella revolution’.

Mischa Moselle

Topics World

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So far, the analysis of what is bringing protesters out on to the streets of Hong Kong has focused on almost everything but the protesters’ key demand – the right to run their own lives.

The upcoming election of the chief executive of Hong Kong, a position similar to a mayor, was what first sparked the protests. On paper, the chief-executive elections function under a system of one man, one vote, but given candidates are to be vetted by Beijing, the joke is that Chinese premier Xi Jiping is the one man with the one vote.

Despite the acres of op-eds you may have seen elsewhere, arguing that the protests are really about growing inequality, housing issues or Hong Kong’s relationship with mainland China, it’s the Hong Kong government’s democratic deficit that’s the problem. There are indeed lots of issues troubling Hong Kong, but the demand on the placards and banners at the protests is simply for more democracy.

The current government, composed of civil servants and toadies handpicked by Beijing, has lost much of its credibility, alongside that of the Hong Kong elite in general, since the handover from Britain in 1997. But the elite hasn’t only lost its credibility with the people of Hong Kong; it has lost its credibility with Beijing.

It’s the weakness of the Hong Kong elite as much as the demand for democracy that is testing Beijing’s patience. No doubt the Chinese government hopes that if it can show other cities in China a well-run, autonomous Hong Kong with limited democracy, it can limit democratic aspirations elsewhere in China. By 2047, Beijing will have ruled Hong Kong for 50 years. It’s commonly assumed that at that point, if the mainland could show the people of Taiwan that Hong Kong is prosperous and stable and has not been ruined by mainland interference, this would put the possibility of reunification on the table.

The most committed demonstrators are aiming to deny Beijing any wriggle room by vowing to keep the pressure up until their demands are met. Their primary demand is the abolition of Hong Kong’s functional constituencies (seats given to professional or special-interest groups such as law or medicine) which at the next election will take up 30 out of 70 seats in the legislative assembly. Under the functional-constituency arrangement, some 238,000 voters, representing interests from finance to transport, get to vote at least twice – once in their functional constituency and once in their geographical constituency. One political scientist calculated that one functional vote ‘carries the same weight as 12.5 geographical votes’ – adding rather unnecessarily that, ‘it goes against political fairness’.

Hong Kong’s non-democracy: a British legacy

In the race to become Hong Kong’s chief executive, the candidates are chosen by a committee of 1,200. These 1,200 have themselves been chosen by Beijing. For the next chief-executive election, this committee will put forward two or three candidates for the popular vote. (In the first elections after the handover from Britain, the committee itself chose the actual winner, with no input from the populace.)

In part, these deeply undemocratic measures are a legacy of the agreement Britain signed with China over the return of Hong Kong. When the handover was agreed in 1984, Hong Kong had no democracy. The agreement with China was that life in Hong Kong would remain the same until 2047. But the agreement wasn’t supposed to imply that there would be no democracy.

Rather more seemed to be promised by Article 45 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law: ‘The chief executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People’s Government. The method for selecting the chief executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.’

However, Beijing (or its mouthpieces in Hong Kong) has so far managed to find plenty of reasons why ‘the actual situation’ means delaying universal suffrage. At first, this came in the form of patronising comments that the people of Hong Kong were ‘politically immature’ or that Hong Kong was ‘not a political city’.

More recently, the message has become double-edged. A white paper issued by Beijing in August reminded Hong Kong that under the one country, two systems arrangement, Beijing was the ultimate ruler of Hong Kong. This was widely seen as a warning to the people of Hong Kong not to demand too much from the next phase of democratic reforms. Another possible interpretation of the white paper is that Beijing could take over from Hong Kong’s elite if that elite didn’t start running the territory more smoothly.

The ineptitude of the elite

The naiveté of Hong Kong’s political elite has been evident in a series of minor scandals. In 2009, then financial secretary Henry Tang, who was tipped to be the next chief executive, implemented a zero-tax regime on wine imports in 2008. Why? He said he wanted Hong Kong to be a wine hub, whatever that is. This was all before critics noted Tang’s collection of fine wines from Burgundy. Journalists then discovered Tang had extended his home with no planning permission. Tang didn’t help his credibility by shifting the blame for the planning-permission fiasco on to his wife.

A once-efficient government has come to be seen as laughable. The current democracy movement might have staged the first demonstrations to make international headlines, but there have been many other demonstrations before now – often prompted by misguided policies introduced by the Hong Kong elite in an attempt to get into Beijing’s good books.

In 2003, the Hong Kong government attempted to introduce anti-sedition laws. These laws are actually mandated by Article 23 of Basic Law, and while these laws are deeply draconian, their content – against sedition and treason – is standard fare internationally. However, in Hong Kong, the implementation of Article 23 was seen as an attempt to reduce the territory’s autonomy and enforce stricter Communist Party control, prompting thousands of people to take to the streets and the resignation of Beijing’s first appointed chief executive, Tung Chee-hwa.

Next came the ‘national education’ saga. This was an attempt to make Hong Kong’s education system more patriotic. One of its more extreme advocates suggested that Hong Kong schoolchildren should be taught to cry if Chinese athletes lost in their events at the 2012 Olympic Games. In Hong Kong this was perceived as an attempt to brainwash people into unthinking support for Beijing, or at least a clumsy attempt to make Hong Kong more like mainland China. Again there were protests leading to a partial backdown, which further weakened the government’s credibility. Those protests were partly led by a newly formed organisation called Scholarism, led by one Joshua Wong, who is now a de facto leader of the democracy protests.

A leaderless protest

This brings us to the events of the past few weeks. Occupy Central, a pro-democracy group based on pacifist principles and founded by academic Benny Tai, had been preparing to take to the city streets on 1 October. This is China’s National Day, a celebration of the coming to power of the Chinese Communist Party. But Occupy Central’s plans were hijacked by students, many acting spontaneously, who began the demonstrations several days early.

While that hijacking came as a surprise, the police response was even more surprising. It may have seemed like normal police behaviour in other parts of the world, but the people of Hong Kong were stunned to see their police force attacking unarmed students with pepper spray, tear gas, batons and (it is rumoured) rubber bullets on live TV. Such was the backlash that rather than intimidating the public, the police’s actions prompted more people to take to the streets in support of the students. It was at this point that the ‘umbrella movement’ acquired its name, as demonstrators protected themselves from the gas and spray with brollies.

Hong Kong’s rulers demonstrated their uselessness once again by seemingly hiding under a duvet for several days and wishing the world would go away. All the while, of course, protesters continued to occupy the streets. It was an eerie experience, walking around the demo zones at the centre of the city and seeing no police whatsoever. It took several days for a member of the government even to be seen in public. It was as if the government had lost control of its police force. While there was no actual talk of mutiny, it’s clear that the police were not happy to be called in to rein in the demonstrators – as evidenced by the sudden demands from many police officers for sick leave or holidays. One cop complained that he could no longer do his job properly as people would chase him down the street shouting abuse.

Over the course of the past few weeks, the police have reappeared. Protester sites have spread, but the number of protesters overall has fallen. The demonstrators have faced heavy-handed policing and intimidation from triads in a district called Mong Kok, famed for its gangster-run bars and brothels. But the government has not lost its uncanny ability to bring more demonstrators out on to the streets through issuing annoying, inane statements.

The government’s response to almost a month of demonstrations has been to talk with the students on live television. During the talks, the students offered the government creative ways out of their dilemma, to which the government responded with dithering and an offer to talk to Beijing again.

The day after the talks, chief executive CY Leung inspired more demonstrators to take to the streets when he told newspapers that the problem with democracy is that the poor always vote for anti-business policies.

Is there a way out of this impasse? The demonstrators have a serious handicap. As brave, committed and focused on their democratic demands as they are, their key leader, Joshua Wong, has only just turned 18. Other potential leaders of the movement, such as Benny Tai and Leung Kwok-hung (Long Hair), have taken more of a backseat role than one might expect.

The students are also less radical than they might seem. In fact, they’re very concerned their movement is not seen as revolutionary and that their ideas should apply only to Hong Kong.

The other key figure in the pro-democracy movement is tycoon Jimmy Lai, publisher of the pro-free speech Apple Daily newspaper. He’s in the background of one of the more famous ‘umbrella’ photos, in a white shirt, choking on tear gas. He and his businesses have been the subject of heavy intimidation for years. This has been ramped up during the protests as scores of unknown thugs have surrounded his newspaper production plant and attempted to block the distribution of Apple Daily.

Still, the people of Hong Kong and China’s rulers in Beijing have one thing in common – the perception that Hong Kong is ruled by dunces. And this gives Beijing some wriggle room.

Mischa Moselle is a Hong Kong-based journalist.

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Topics World


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