This month, our first Young China Watchers Conversation takes a look at the ongoing and evolving Occupy Central protests in Hong Kong. Contributing are Michael C. Davis, a professor in the Law Faculty at the University of Hong Kong, and George Chen, a Hong Kong based journalist and author. Professor Davis previously spoke with YCW in Hong Kong on ‘The Chief Executive Election and Democratic Rights in Hong Kong‘.
Young China Watchers: It has now been two months since the current Occupy protests first began, and the likelihood of a compromise or significant resolution remains uncertain. Numerous early attempts to clear protest sites have failed, serving only to galvanize the protest movement. In the wake of these efforts, and instances of alleged police brutality, tensions between protesters and police and now anti-occupy protesters have grown. Yet now momentum for the movement appears to be waning. It also remains unclear to what extent student protest leaders or Occupy leaders represent those on the streets, and whether protesters in Mongkok will follow any agreement they are a part of. What is your view of the recent evolution of the protests and the government’s response, or lack thereof? What are the long run implications of this movement, both for Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China?
Michael C. Davis: “Hong Kong’s determined student and other protesters clearly won round one. So what should they do now?”
To rephrase the questions more simply, we might ask, have the protesters failed? Should they give up? The answer to both questions is clearly no. Establishment attacks on protesters have shifted from claims that they were asking for the impossible to crude assertions that they are undermining the rule of law. As protesters linger in protest sights, seemingly a spent force, the Government and its supporters should not be too quick to declare victory.
What is often overlooked in these dismissive attacks is that a band of youthful protesters effectively exposed to the world the Beijing and Hong Kong governments’ duplicitous abandonment of solemn commitments under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Hong Kong Basic Law. The June, 2014 White Paper and the subsequent National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee decision have provided the text of this betrayal for Hong Kong and the world to see. Heavy-handed police tactics to contain the problem with tear gas and pepper spray merely insured that more people showed up to expose the truth. The White Paper claims sole overall authority in the Central Government over the “one country, two systems” policy and comprehensive jurisdiction in the NPC Standing Committee to interpret or amend the Basic Law as it chooses. This leaves little doubt that the solemn international legal guarantees of the Sino British Joint Declaration are abandoned and that the NPC Standing Committee is effectively above the law. People can only wonder why the Basic Law in several provisions distinguishes matters of central authority from matters within autonomy if all matters are matters of central authority.
What was put at risk in this carving back of Hong Kong’s autonomy guarantees is Hong Kong’s most cherished core value, the rule of law. The rule-of-law requires that no one is above the law and everyone is subject to the law applied in the ordinary manner, with added commitments to justice and human rights. Such value cannot survive a government with unlimited power. The exercise of such power in the NPC Standing Committee decision to turn the promised universal suffrage into a vetted election left the human rights guarantees in the Basic Law in tatters and without legal recourse. Can people sensibly rely on rights that are so easily mutilated? It is the recognition of what was done that brought thousands of Hong Kong students to the streets. Their efforts to speak truth to power riveted the attention of the world. Paths taken by the Beijing and Hong Kong governments in the future respecting solemn human rights commitments will no longer go unnoticed.
Hong Kong’s determined student and other protesters clearly won round one. So what should they do now? The strength of the student protests was in part a product of the spontaneous public response to events. Such spontaneity demonstrates a sincere and passionate public concern but it also leaves in place a group of occupiers less under the control of protest leaders. On the one hand, protesters fear that if they leave protest sights their protest will die. On the other hand, protest leaders and democratic supporters worry about protest fatigue and about losing public support. Inconveniences have stretched on without any serious government efforts to address the substance of the public grievances. There is growing recognition that protesters may need to consider withdrawal and diversification of tactics if they are to prepare for a sustained campaign. Consumer boycotts, community outreach, teach-ins and select short-term targeted occupations or marches are often mentioned. The challenge will be to gain a consensus for organized withdrawal and other tactics. At the same time the presumptive costs of continuing protest have gone down as occupied areas have shrunk and rather quiet tent-cities have emerged. Society has largely adapted to the remaining obstructions of daily routines. Cries of economic disaster due to the occupy movement have largely proven false.
What has clearly been driving the protests is a perception that the Hong Kong Government no longer represents Hong Kong people and along with this a fear that Hong Kong’s autonomy and associated core values will be quickly eroded. Democracy is seen as a path to addressing this situation. There is clearly a need for the Hong Kong Government to change tact and be seen to fully address public concerns. Establishment politicians and government supporters should line up to encourage such reexamination of policy. Continuing on the same path will leave all sides as losers. Without a fundamental change of policy pan-democrats will veto any government bill, Hong Kong will be left with a distrusted local and national government and protesters will be left frustrated and demoralized. Any effort to impose a solution without public consensus will only make matters worse. By now it is clear that an open society in Hong Kong cannot be run like any other mainland city.
George Chen: “The Occupy Central movement may be over sooner or later but more Hong Kong people, especially the young, have ingrained the spirit of protest against government into their DNAs.”
After more than a month of protests, the Hong Kong government has become more skillful in handling the situation while missteps taken by the students and co-leaders of Occupy Central show they are somehow short of a clear and long-term strategy to fight for what they really want. Furthermore, it is increasingly unclear what the protestors actually want. The lack of strategy and coordination does sound like a sad story to me after more than one month of political struggle in Hong Kong streets.
However, there are indeed a few things that are quite clear now. We all know Beijing is not going to compromise at all. Xi Jinping has repeatedly pledged his support for the Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung, so the protesters’ original demand that Leung must step down has become unrealistic. Politics is a game and the game is far more than just yes or no. The protesters now must think about a new strategy to deal with both the Central and Hong Kong governments and stay focused on what matters the most. What matters the most in my view is of course universal suffrage. Another original demand requested by protesters, civic nomination, is now hopeless as Beijing is determined to let the 2017 election happen through the nomination process. What we can negotiate further is how the make the nomination process more democratic. For example, who can be the nominators? How many nominators can we have to demonstrate the most possible broad representation of the Hong Kong society? If we just get stuck on civic nomination, I’m afraid we will go nowhere and the time is now not on the protesters’ side. The pressure is actually growing on the protesters’ side as we do hear more complaints from the general public about social disorder and inconvenience caused for daily life.
Hong Kong government’s strategy to end the crisis looks actually similar to how the US government dealt with the Occupy Wall Street movement following the 2008 financial crisis. They just want to exhaust the protesters. How long can the protest last? Another year? Hong Kong’s winter won’t be as cold as New York but we will have typhoon season next summer. So how can protesters deal with typhoons if they want to continue occupying the streets? That is just one example and I am sure there are more realistic challenges that the protesters must think about and that explains why I say time is not really on protesters’ side. More recently, as local media reported, some young students began to blame the UK government for not showing enough support for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement and some said they wanted to occupy the roads around British Consulate-General in Hong Kong. This is so far the most ridiculous idea I have heard since the outbreak of Occupy Central. Fortunately, this is not the mainstream view among young student protesters.
I think we must make one point clear – this Occupy Central movement from the very beginning is all about 2017 election. This is not a Hong Kong independence movement. Involving the UK government won’t be constructive in working with the Central and Hong Kong governments on making the 2017 elections and democratic as possible. Again, such ideas to occupy British missions in Hong Kong just show a lack of coordination and clear strategy in the long run. This has been my biggest worry for the student protesters. The whole movement has clearly become a turning point for Hong Kong history. It grows distrust between Beijing and Hong Kong significantly and it has also grown frustration among the young generation of Hong Kong. The anti-Beijing or anti-Communism sentiment has become wider and stronger among the young generation and from Beijing’s point of view, this is a long-term threat to the Communist Party’s ruling. That’s why I say Beijing is at the risk of losing the entire next generation of Hong Kong and that’s the price Beijing decides to pay for short-term success to end the political crisis in Hong Kong.
The Occupy Central movement may be over sooner or later but more Hong Kong people, especially the young, have ingrained the spirit of protest against government into their DNAs. We will probably see more on-and-off protests throughout the years or even decades to come on various social problems. The power of society is growing bigger while the Hong Kong government will continue to be stuck between the demands by Hong Kong people and zero tolerance on Beijing’s side for protest against central government ruling.