By Chin Yi Chow
With the roads in Causeway Bay barricaded, the district is free from the usual rumble of engines and chatter of shoppers. It is an eerie silence, as if the streets are crying. Fliers and posters are plastered across tram stops; they cover the barricades and street signs. Rows of paper cranes are strung from street lamps, the words “Hong Konger” written on the wings. Protesters are littered across the main road, settled in tents close to each other. Some are playing cards, while others listen to the radio. They are trying to keep the atmosphere pleasant, but the aura of fear and anxiety permeates the air like pungency settling into the soul of the city itself.
At the heart of it, the so-called Umbrella Revolution is a story about trust and betrayal. The premise is simple: the people of Hong Kong trusted the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to act in good faith to maintain the city as a bastion of freedom and to protect its status as a unique and international world-class city, choosing to remain after the Handover of 1997. The CCP agreed to this promise, and while the Hong Kongers were not paying attention, walked the other way.
The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 that saw the legal return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty was designed to instill this trust. The principal tenet is the idea of “One Country, Two Systems”, in which Hong Kong’s liberty and way of life would be preserved. Hong Kong was supposed to serve as a model for what mainland Chinese cities could be: rich and powerful, while remaining distinctly Chinese. In 1997, the average Hong Konger placed their affinity to “being Chinese” at 7.46 out of 10, and their identity as a “Hong Konger” at 8 out of 10 according to Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme. In June, 2014, the identifier of “Hong Konger” remained relatively unchanged at 7.99, but that of “being Chinese” had slid dramatically to 6.65. A more revealing number about the relationship between the CCP and Hong Kongers is the identifier for being a “Citizen of the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”, which has slid to a shocking 5.95 from its initial position of 7.28 in June of 2007. The numbers illustrate an important narrative: Hong Kongers are not satisfied with the direction that the PRC is leading them in.
Contrary to popular belief, the resistance against the CCP is not spontaneous combustion. Rather, it is the result of a long build up that saw trust eroding as the CCP increasingly encroached upon the lifestyle of Hong Kong. Similarly, though many analysts call the Umbrella Revolution a fight for democracy, a label that the movement itself has adopted, the term is a misnomer and does not explain why a city which has often been described as apolitical has taken to the streets en masse.
The first issue at hand is a failure of commitment. On April 4th, 1990, the PRC passed the Hong Kong Basic Law, a mini-constitution that stipulates the governance of the city. Article 45 states that “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, on August 31, 2014, the CCP unveiled its plans for universal suffrage. There will only be a maximum of three candidates; the candidates must have the support of more than half the members of a nominating committee; the candidates must “love the country and love Hong Kong”; the candidate must be appointed by the CCP upon election.
This kind of electoral procedure ensures the loyalty of any future Chief Executive to the CCP, as it has given itself the power to reject any candidate who would not appease the Central People’s Government (CPG). This position removes any significance of universal suffrage: there is no departure from the status quo where Hong Kongers have a choice only if the CPG agrees with it and where China filters candidates, giving instructions to a selection committee. More than 17 years later, Hong Kong remains a colony, simply under a different master.
When the protests started, most of the participants were students who, for their entire conscious lives, have lived under a system in which the vote does not exist. Hong Kongers, as much as they would like to deny it, are fundamentally unfamiliar with what electoral democracy means. When we look at the bigger picture, the population is a little more than 7 million. Eligible voters account for around 5.8 million people, of which roughly 3.5 million are registered voters. Of the registered voters, only 52% voted in the 2012 Legislative Council elections, which had roughly half of its 70 seats open to direct election. The conclusion is that an overwhelming majority of people in Hong Kong do not have the habit of voting, which begs the question of “why now?”
This false democracy is a symbol of the CCP’s insincerity. The island city is a prideful one, but also one brimming with integrity. In its blatant move against the spirit of Article 45, China tells the people of Hong Kong that it does not feel compelled to deliver on its commitments. But if China does not honour its promise of democracy, how can Hong Kongers trust the CPG with future commitments? This fear grips at the heart of Hong Kongers and compels them to resist. For many, China is beginning to turn its back on “One Country, Two Systems”. Lack of resistance would empower China to continue cheating them with impunity. Democracy is not the reason for resistance; it is the catalyst of a fear that the people’s future and their existence as a distinct identity will be erased.
Though this first aspect certainly captured a significant minority, enough to set up tents and barricades that would shut down several key streets, the protests did not have the momentum to last for more than a few days. Prior to the Occupy Central movement that mushroomed into the Umbrella Revolution, protests against further mainland encroachment happened regularly in Hong Kong. There are daily shows of support for the banned Falungong in Causeway Bay, and an annual July 1 demonstration. What makes this protest markedly different from the others in Hong Kong is how the movement galvanized the populace into an anger against the government never before seen. The turning point that tipped the balance of momentum in favour of the protesters and focused the world’s attention on Hong Kong was when the police used tear gas and pepper spray against the student protesters. The tremendous faith and respect for the Hong Kong Police Force was shattered overnight.
Most did not believe that the CPG would export its means of political suppression to Hong Kong until that night of chaos. In a highly uncanny display of solidarity, the people of Hong Kong rallied to protect their young, appalled at the heavy handed tactics. Incensed by the police’s threats to “fire upon the protesters” if they did not disperse, in a movement reminiscent of the French May of 1968, everyday workers abandoned their posts to join the protests. Bankers, teachers, and government workers alike joined the protests. Even auxiliary and career policemen resigned their posts to fight for a cause they believed worth sacrificing for. For a moment, it did not matter the social class or political affiliation, Hong Kongers were united by a brush stroke of yellow because they knew that if they did not defend their city, nobody else would. In the face of adversity, ordinary citizens became heroes, willing to sacrifice their lives to protect a future that they may never have because they refuse to let the CPG trample over them. Social media helped fuel the news of police atrocities, including a now-viral video in which a man who was trying to calm the protesters down, telling them to consider that the police were also doing their jobs, was tapped on the shoulder by a policeman in riot gear, held in place, and sprayed from point blank range with pepper spray. Iconic photographs of protesters using clinical masks and umbrellas to defend themselves against the terror of tear gas and riot police made headlines across the world and sparked a civic consciousness within the city’s dwellers themselves. This had evolved from a struggle for universal suffrage to a fight for freedom and rule of law: a fight against a government that sought to suppress their hopes and desires. The citizens of Hong Kong realised that if the government would oppress the student protesters, many of whom were still underage children, then this oppression could befall them too.
The government has failed to understand that, in a city of relative peace, one cannot help but be enraged into action when the source of violence is the apparatus entrusted to protect the people. The misguided attempts at dislodging the protesters with force have been met with further resistance and dissatisfaction. Over the course of the last month, government’s actions evolved from unacceptable to ludicrous, allegedly recruiting triad members to beat up protesters in the Mong Kok district, with some career policemen masquerading as gang members to participate in the violence. Furthermore, reports of uniformed policemen beating and kicking an unarmed protester, unscrupulously captured on camera, have done nothing but vindicate the protesters. The CCP’s ultimatum is also of no help to their cause, using words such as “clearing out” and “unimaginable consequences” that evoke the harsh memories of the Tian’anmen Square Incident. The protesters know that if the CCP can threaten them today, they can do so tomorrow. The desire to live free from this fear is the spark of resistance; consequence is what they struggle against. Alluding to the bloodshed of the 1989 gives the protesters strength to dig their heels into the ground.
A note that foreign correspondents always like to make is that these protesters, despite having been met with violence, remain peaceful and responsible. Signs apologizing for the inconvenience and manuals instructing protesters not to use force are ubiquitous. Volunteers are providing water and cleaning up the streets each night. Some restaurants and families are providing food for the protesters without charge. Protesters even shared their umbrellas with riot police under the heavy tropical rain. Hong Kong is not known for its friendliness, but these protesters are changing the image of Hong Kong with their acts of great kindness. The sharp contrast between protester behaviour and police actions make the pain of this protest all the more intense and heartbreaking. In any other country, a riot inevitably ends with loot and destruction when met with police brutality. In Hong Kong, the number of defaced shops and destroyed vehicles number a grand total of zero. This is the embodiment of hope in the Umbrella Revolution, a testament to the standard of integrity to which Hong Kongers hold themselves and their vision for the future.
Universal suffrage without any controls from the CCP is highly unlikely in the short term. The protesters should know that this is too much to expect. However, if the Hong Kong government wishes to regain the trust of its people, it needs to recognise that failure to acknowledge its mistakes will lead only to prolonged unrest. Current Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying’s (CY Leung) actions and failure in responsible governance has lost the faith of Hong Kongers, and the suspicion of government will linger as long as he remains in office.
His complete lack of political awareness and tact only harms the already damaged image of the government. After the most recent attempts at negotiation, CY Leung said at a press conference, “If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you’d be talking to the half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month,” and that would distort the elections. The disrespect and disregard for these people demonstrated by Leung, whose aims sound suspiciously like the perpetuation of the status quo social hierarchy by further disenfranchising the poor, is insulting to the people who work and bleed to keep the city running. Political entrenchment maintains social and economic inequality. If these are the things that Hong Kongers must look forward to, dissatisfaction brews and those who can leave will do so. Even if this series of protests end, it will be a matter of time before an explosion of emotion cripples the city again.
The CCP’s usual claims of economic advancement will not work on Hong Kongers. The average salary of a university graduate in Hong Kong was HKD$10,000 in 1997, the time of the Handover. Today, that number rests at HKD$12,000, not enough to keep up with inflation. Rent has increased, cost of living has increased, and even base taxi fares have seen a raise of more than 40% since the Handover. The economic well being of an average Hong Konger has decreased and Chinese sovereignty has not led to increased prosperity.
If China wishes a speedy resolution, oversight and accountability is a crucial first step. The police force must be subject to criminal investigation by the judiciary to preserve the perception of the rule of law so that confidence can be inspired. True consultation sessions, not the sham sessions that have been offered, need to take place, and dialogue will prove crucial to the ending of this movement. Protesters see this movement as their hope to force Beijing into fulfilling its commitments, and unless the CCP provides an alternative to show that they can be trusted to deliver on their promises, it will be difficult to end this movement.
On a final note, in the CCP’s quest to denounce and undermine the legitimacy of the movement, they call the protesters “traitors enticed by foreign subversion”; protest, revolution, and civil disobedience is not Chinese. If they truly believe that, then it is not the protesters that need a re-education in Chinese political philosophy, but the CPG. It is not the West that invented popular sovereignty, it has existed in China for millennia, driving the Chinese political engine long before the conception of European civilization as a prime principle for the basis of rule.
Sovereigns must be just and fair to maintain the mandate of heaven; this has traditionally been the cornerstone for Chinese political development. Even the CCP invokes this concept to justify their undemocratic rule, claiming that they have brought prosperity and happiness. Protest and revolution are signs that the mandate of heaven is lost, and the failing the people will inevitably and deservedly lead to a change in governance. The core of Chinese political history has been the idea that the people are central to the country’s policies, and that the sovereign must meet their needs and desires to remain legitimate. It is foolish to say that revolution and protest is unpatriotic: traditional Chinese philosophy demands the people to revolt in times of dissatisfaction and oppression as their civic responsibility. The Umbrella Revolution is the manifestation of dissatisfaction accumulated over 17 years of Chinese sovereignty in Hong Kong. If an acceptable resolution is not achieved, the hope of political change through active civil disobedience and protest is the distinctly Chinese answer.Featured Image Credit: Chin Yi Chow