Democracy for Hong Kong: The Modest Demands of the Umbrella Protesters

Under a sea of umbrellas, what tens of thousands of angry yet polite protestors demand is rather modest: to enjoy genuine rights to elect the head of China’s Hong Kong special administrative region (SAR), where a high degree of autonomy – a contentious concept – is supposedly enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution.

It is not a “revolution,” as some media put it; not in a political sense. Hong Kong citizens are asking for a long overdue democratic right to run their own affairs under the One Country, Two Systems model promised by China. But this framework presumably designed for the city’s long-term prosperity and stability is subject to different interpretations between Beijing and Hong Kong people.

Often thought of as a politically apathetic financial center, Hong Kong has rarely come under the international spotlight since its handover from Britain to China in 1997. Since late September, however, the mass protests and subsequent “occupy” movements in Hong Kong’s busiest areas have put it in international headlines. Around the world, people were shocked to see disproportionate use of force against totally unarmed peaceful protesters, and impressed by the civility of the spontaneous protesters from all walks of life, especially young people.

On September 28, tens of thousands of citizens in support of the students’ movement for democracy were “pushed” to occupy Admiralty, in the city center, because the police cancelled permits for legal assemblies and then blocked almost all entrances to the students’ main protest area near the government headquarters. The government strategy of preventing a mass rally not only failed to intimidate but in fact stimulated many more people to join the students. Facing determined protestors, the government deployed riot police, fired 87 tear gas canisters, used pepper spray, and held guns when protestors defended themselves with umbrellas and plastic foil, which were later described by the police as threatening. Despite the Hong Kong Federation of Students’ (the class boycott organizer) plea to the protestors to disperse for safety, many stayed on or spread to occupy other major commercial districts.

Since then, the initially student-led week-long class boycotts have escalated to a spontaneous mass movement. The idea of “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” which was brewed for over a year but was expected to be joined by just a few thousands, accidentally developed into territory-wide occupy protests. The objective of the movement is clear: Hong Kong people demand genuine universal suffrage in the 2017 election for the next Chief Executive (CE), what locals call “true democracy” in the sense that people will have real choices of candidates, not simply among those pre-selected by Beijing.

Sadly, any hope for negotiations with Beijing for a constitutional reform package acceptable to the Hong Kong people was dashed on August 31, when the Standing Committee of the (SCNPC) National People’s Congress announced a highly restrictive framework of “one-man, one-vote” for the CE election possibly in 2017. Dubbed as “Iranian” democracy by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, the SCNPC decision in effect disallows any candidate not acceptable to Beijing. The pro-democracy camp, which obtained about 60 percent of votes in past elections for the Legislative Council, will almost certainly be excluded under the new SCNPC framework. First, nominations must be made only by a nomination committee whose composition is seriously biased toward business, sectoral interests and Beijing-supported groups. The nomination committee shall be formed according to the number of members (1,200), composition (by functional constituencies) and formation method of the current Election Committee for the CE. Second, the Beijing controlled nomination committee can put forward only two to three candidates. Third, each candidate must have support from more than half of the nomination committee members.

The three SCNPC requirements for nomination in the future “one-man, one-vote” CE election are more conservative than the present nomination mechanism which allows people who have support from one-eighth of the election committee to be a CE candidate. In each of the last two CE elections there was one pan-democrat candidate; though democracy-leaning members are the minority in the current election committee, they could pool their strength to nominate one pro-democracy candidate. The pan-democrat, however, had no chance of winning the elections whose voters were restricted to the 1,200 election committee members.

Now, with the bar for nomination raised to require support from over 50 percent of members of the new nomination committee, which if formed strictly according to the SCNPC decision that it should be the same as the current election committee, no democracy-leaning person or popular politician not acceptable to Beijing will see any chance of being nominated. The limit of two to three candidates adds another hurdle to any possibility of real competition in the election.

The SCNPC decision, described by commentators and pundits as “shutting the door to genuine democracy,” angered even the most moderate Hong Kong democrats. Students have been asking for civic nomination, which is currently allowed for the directly-elected seats in Legislative Council, for future CE candidates. Beijing firmly rejected this. Other pro-democracy people do not insist on civic nomination and agree to flexibly negotiate with Beijing for a nomination system that allows as much civic participation as possible. According to a civic referendum organized by the Public Opinion Programme at the University of Hong Kong and held in June 2014, almost 90 percent of the 800,000 citizens who voted supported the baseline that the “one man, one vote” system should comply with international standards. The SCNPC decision therefore alienated all democracy-leaning citizens in Hong Kong, who have been waiting for democracy for 30 years.

At the heart of Hong Kong’s frustrations is a dysfunctional political system skewed toward business values and Beijing-supported parties through functional representation and small-circle elections. The system turns a loose group of pro-democracy candidates who receive 60 percent of votes into a minority in the legislature. The system that was designed to be executive-led ironically produced a weak government in which the public has low confidence. Coupled with bad policies in housing and livelihood matters, a widening rich-poor gap, growing tensions between Hong Kong locals and Mainlanders due to competition for the city’s social resources, and cultural conflicts, the SAR government has been facing very critical governing problems. The societal grievances are deep-rooted and immense. Hong Kong’s political system is totally incongruent with the city’s status as an Asian financial hub which has highly sophisticated and well-educated people who know about the world.

The SAR government has mounted a publicity campaign attempting to persuade the public to support the advent of “one-man, one vote” system in 2017 because the voting right will presumably change the election dynamics such that CE candidates must appeal to the masses including pro-democracy citizens. In the past, candidates only had to appeal to the members of the election committee. However, the democracy leaning public is not convinced. They believe that the new system is not only imperfect but also is not real universal suffrage. Nearly half of respondents to a survey by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in October thought the Legislative Council should veto any proposal of direct CE election if the SCNPC framework is strictly followed. The experience of past CE elections probably explains the skepticism. Imagine that the SCNPC framework in 2014 had been adopted for the 2012 elections. Then, only two candidates who are accepted by Beijing could have secured nomination: former Chief Secretary for Administration Mr. Henry Tang and Mr. Leung Chun-ying, and no pro-democracy candidate could run. In March 2012, Mr. C Y Leung was slightly more popular than Mr. Tang after scandals about Tang’s illegal structures at home blew up. Mr. Leung also adopted a populist style and successfully appealed to some grassroots. At that time, the community was much dismayed by the lack of real competition. According to a civic referendum organized by the University of Hong Kong in March 2012, about 55 percent of over 220,000 participating citizens voted for abstentions and did not support any of the candidates. However, under “one-man, one-vote” and no more choices, Mr. Leung could have won marginally a popular election as he did so in the election committee in reality in 2012.

Now chief executive, C Y Leung has proven to be very unpopular according to tracking opinion polls conducted by different universities. He is widely believed in Hong Kong to have strong personal connections with Beijing. Mr. Leung who had appealed somewhat to the grassroots in 2012, said in October 2014 that the functional-based nomination committee ensures that government policies would not be “biased” toward the half of the population earning a below-median income per month (USD1,800). His comments, which implied favoritism toward large businesses, severely antagonized the community at large. The personal integrity of Mr. Leung and several his cabinet members has come under public scrutiny and criticism in the light of several scandals (including Leung’s own illegal structures built at his home) since the 2012 election. In the first two years of his tenure, Leung’s controversial polices in national education and licensing of new free television prompted political crises and mass rallies attended by tens of thousands. His divisive and hardline governing style, such as openly signing up for campaigns organized by the “anti-occupy Central” alliance, a non-government group believed to be Beijing-supported, has further polarized the society. The Hong Kong people cannot trust him to be an honest broker in managing the relationship with Beijing on constitutional reform.

The crisis is still burning. Leung’s administration is bound by the SCNPC’s decision and has no real concession to offer for resolving the deadlock. The day after the police used force against the umbrella protesters, the government made a U-turn and sent only a bare minimum of police to the occupied sites; and then suspended schools in some districts for days. This is widely speculated as a deliberate strategy to prolong the stalemate so public sentiment will turn against the occupy movement that caused business losses and inconveniences to daily life. Violence finally broke out after a week of protests in Mongkok. With little police enforcement, anti-occupy people mobbed the protest sites and attacked protestors. The police confirmed triad involvement and there is evidence that some anti-occupy movement people are paid to attack peaceful protesters. But the occupiers were not intimidated. The movement has been continuing over a month and as of this writing there is no sign of it ending.

The world has been impressed by the civility, non-violence and determination of the Hong Kong protestors. Since September 28 the movement has been spontaneous, without leaders. Protestors are self-organized, thanks to the use of Facebook, Twitter and What’s App; or organically organized through student networks such as university clubs. These young protestors and students are from the best educated generation in Hong Kong’s history. With voluntary support from citizens, the students organized supply stations, first aid booths, publicity, litter collection and even recycling efforts, and maintained order in the occupied sites. As the movement drags on, creative forms of protests have emerged. For example, a group of climbers put a gigantic banner stating “I want true universal suffrage” on the Lion Rock hill, gaining attention around the world. The young generation has different temperaments from its parents and grand-parents and is ready for resolute actions. It does not automatically put economic interest before social justice. Hong Kong is truly a home to the young generation, not a temporary refuge as for their earlier generation.

Now, the ball is in Beijing’s court. So far, the official line is not to give in even a tiny little bit. Beijing has stood firmly behind the chief executive. The deadlock can only be resolved if Beijing authorities are willing to show at least some flexibility on constitutional reform, such as by expanding the composition of the nomination committee to allow general public participation, or by suggesting a timetable to open up the nomination criteria in future.

No matter how the occupy movement ends, it is very clear that the current political system and the restrictions imposed by the SCNPC on Hong Kong’s democratic development cannot resolve the city’s deep-rooted conflicts. It is not very surprising that although Hong Kong has one of the world’s highest per capita GDPs, it is an unhappy city according to surveys by local and external organizations. If Hong Kong’s long-term stability and contribution to China is to be treasured, Beijing and influential Hong Kong business leaders should heed the voice of Hong Kong’s young people, who are among the finest in the world.

Their demand is simple and modest: to have a say in running their home affairs, and in Hong Kong only.