Trip Report: Six Key Observations From Hong Kong

I spent last week in Hong Kong, talking to a range of people about the tense situation there. The views ranged from optimism to pessimism. Each person struck a different balance between hope and fear. The immediate challenge is a find a way to end without violence the occupation of three major urban thorough fares by the protesters of the Occupy Movement (aka Umbrella Movement). Even if that happens, it will be necessary to try work out arrangements for the election of the chief executive in 2017 that both stay within the parameters that the Chinese government laid down on August 31 this year and give the public that opposes those parameters a meaningful choice in picking their leaders. That is a tall order. But without broad agreement on those arrangements, sufficient to secure the support of two-thirds of the Legislative Council, Beijing has promised that the next chief executive will again be picked by a 1,200-member selection committee instead of on the one-person, one-vote basis it had promised. If that happens, more political instability will likely follow.

I came away from my visit with these six observations.

1) Life goes on for most Hong Kong residents, even as the protests continue. People go to work, get their children to and from school and socialize on nights and weekends, as they have always done. The streets that the Occupy protesters still hold (in Admiralty, between the east and west sides of Hong Kong island; Causeway Bay, a major shopping area on Hong Kong island; and Mongkok, at the very center of Kowloon peninsula) are a relatively small area of the total territory. But those streets are major traffic arteries. Their continued blockage has a ripple effect on anyone who relies on surface transportation to get from here to there. Only those residents who have the luxury of relying on crowded subways are spared inconvenience. Whatever the views of Hong Kong people about the protests, however, they are doing their best to cope.

2) Political conflict in Hong Kong is not just about the mechanisms for picking the chief executive and members of the Legislative Council (LegCo). Also at play is the impact of long-standing economic policies on society. Inequality in Hong Kong is perhaps the most severe of any economy in the world. The middle class feels squeezed – literally when it comes to the tight housing market and figuratively regarding the search for jobs. Young people are particularly pessimistic about their life chances. Globalization and technological change certainly have helped create this situation, as they have in most advanced economies. But competition from an increasingly capable Chinese economy is also at play, particularly on the jobs front. So too is the preferential access of Hong Kong’s economic elite to political power, through the structure created by the British colonial government and consolidated by Beijing before Hong Kong reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. It is this political structure that Hong Kong’s democratic camp and the Occupy Movement would like to democratize.

The protests for constitutional reform we have seen this year are a symptom of these underlying social divisions. No matter what happens on constitutional reform, the policy roots of those divisions will have to be addressed. Yet constitutional reform is now a separate and independent issue of political contention.

3) The three occupations are different in character. The one in Causeway Bay is small and, it seems, is dominated by students. The one in Admiralty, also dominated by students, is the largest and takes up stretches of two east-west roads. It is also the one that makes the strongest political statement, because it is close to the offices of the Hong Kong government and LegCo. Indeed, it is not possible to get to those buildings without seeing the sweep of the protest encampment. The third site, Mongkok, is socially mixed and reflects a dark side of Hong Kong society. That area has a significant Triad (gangster) presence, and those groups have engaged in some serious attacks on the local occupiers. For now, protesters and the police peacefully coexist in Causeway Bay and Admiralty, while Mongkok is more complicated and conflict-prone.

4) Ending the occupations in a way that is non-violent and acceptable to the contending parties is the focus of current attention. People are aware that the Chinese government, which ultimately calls the shots concerning this crisis, may be holding back on repressive action until after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Beijing in the second week of November and President Obama’s one-day bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping right after. Also hanging over the Hong Kong standoff is the memory of the Tiananmen crisis of the spring of 1989 and the violent way it ended.

There is a widespread belief in Hong Kong that an end to the occupation would be in the public interest. The issue is who concedes more and who concedes first. The Occupy Movement, after taking an idealistic, moral stand and receiving significant public support, does not wish to stand down without getting something tangible for its efforts. Moreover, it is a coalition of various groups and tendencies without an integrated leadership, which makes it difficult to make strategic decisions and then effectively carry out whatever commitments it might make to the government. For its part, the Hong Kong government is constrained by the parameters already set down by Beijing on how candidates will be selected for the 2017 election for chief executive. And the gap between the two sides remains wide: the Occupy forces are holding out for “public nomination” by a relatively small percentage of Hong Kong voters; Beijing and the Hong Kong government have consistently rejected that approach.

The first step towards bridging that gap came last week, on October 21, when senior officials of the Hong Kong government met in a televised dialogue with leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the organizations at the core of the Occupy Movement. Nothing was resolved, but that is to be expected in the first round of any talks when each side presents its opening position. The government floated some ideas to demonstrate that some flexibility was possible within China’s parameters. It is hoped that more dialogue sessions will occur soon, and that they will ultimately facilitate an end the current standoff.

5) It seems that the leadership of the Hong Kong government is not speaking with one voice. On the one hand, the senior officials who spoke at the dialogue session acknowledged the idealism and sincerity of the students. They laid out in a steady and non-confrontational way why existing legal and policy provisions ruled out some of the movement’s proposals, and how a peaceful resolution to the crisis was in the interests of the whole community. They offered a few ideas in the hope of conveying flexibility and good faith. (The students were similarly professional and substantive in their presentations.)

The day before, however, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who is disliked by many Hong Kong residents, adopted a different approach and tone in an interview with foreign media. He essentially confirmed the view of the democratic camp that the local political system is, and should be, biased in favor of the business elite. According to the New York Times account of the interview, Leung argued that screening candidates by the Beijing-designed nominating committee would be a check against their giving into lower-class pressure for welfare state, and so protect the political interests of business. He reportedly said, “You have to take care of all the sectors in Hong Kong as much as you can, and if it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than $1,800 a month. Then you would end up with that kind of [populist] politics and policies.” Stephen Vines responded in Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post on October 24: “Leung adequately reflects the contempt he has for the ordinary people of Hong Kong and fails to understand that in this community, largely composed of immigrants and the offspring of immigrants, the work and self-help ethic is very strong indeed. The people he and his colleagues despise are pragmatic and sensible. So why, then, does he believe that they would rush like sheep into an orgy of emptying the public coffers?”

Not surprisingly, there is a range of views on whether the loose leadership of the Occupy Movement and the Hong Kong government (with Beijing in the background) can find a formula for ending the occupation of public spaces that is face-saving for all concerned. Optimists remain hopeful, but cautiously so. Pessimists worry that factions on each side prefer confrontation to compromise.

6) Even if the occupations end, it is still an open question whether acceptable arrangements for the chief executive election can be formulated that are sufficient to head off new, mass protests. Several questions are relevant here.

  • Was there a sensible compromise available back in the summer, before Beijing decided on a hardline? Hong Kong views differ, but my conversations last week strengthened my conviction that a deal had been possible.
  • If a deal was thus possible, why didn’t it happen? Some Hong Kong observers believe that the Chinese government was unwilling to run even a small risk of a competitive election that produced a winner who might challenge Chinese interests. Others believe that it was spooked by the original Occupy Central movement or turned off by the tactics and demands of the democratic camp. These specific reasons suggest that Beijing was not opposed to competitive elections per se but just to one in 2017. If that contest had gone well, then a liberalization of the rules for future elections might have been possible. Indeed, in recent statements Hong Kong officials indicate that the electoral arrangements for 2017 can evolve thereafter.
  • Is it possible to liberalize the operation of the nominating committee so that the 2017 election so is “competitive enough”? Some Hong Kong observers are skeptical, on the grounds that screening by a committee dominated by the supporters of Beijing will by definition limit voters’ choice too much. Others are more optimistic, believing that the nominating committee can be made more representative of Hong Kong society, with procedures that make possible the nomination of a leader of democratic camp. Moreover, the optimists say, the dynamics of a popular election almost ensure that even conservative candidates would have to appeal to voters in the democratic camp (who, by the way, constitute 55 to 60 percent of the total vote in the most representative LegCo elections). Hong Kong government officials have signaled a willingness to take liberalizing steps, but the democratic camp will withhold judgment until they see the details.

In my view, there are two related tests of the value of a liberalized nominating committee. The first is whether a member of the democratic camp is actually picked to run. The second is whether the election campaign fosters a serious discussion of the government policies that have created high income and wealth inequality and fostered such deep political alienation and division. The two are obviously related, but a contest that ignores fundamental policy issues will not inspire public confidence in the electoral system, no matter how competitive and democratic it may become.

The immediate priority, however, is finding a way to terminate the current standoff and so avoid the possibility of a coercive end to the crisis. In a climate of deep mutual mistrust between the two sides and of growing physical fatigue and emotional stress, that will not be easy.