Things have taken a turn for the quick in Hong Kong. When I was interviewing and reaching out to academics at the beginning of the week of September 22nd, which was to mark students boycotting their classes, one professor – Dr. Lam Wai-Man of Hong Kong University – described the action taken by the students as “‘expressive’ in the sense that they are not guided much by instrumental calculation of how far China’s attitude towards political reform in Hong Kong would be changed. Such expressive participation has the advantage of protecting them from getting ‘hurt’ by the response of the authorities. But the disadvantage is that expressive participation can’t be an end in itself as it needs ‘content,’ substantiation, through continuous articulation of higher goals.”
Some background: when Great Britain and China signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984, which handed over control of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, the document stated that there would be ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’ for at least the next fifty years and that the people of Hong Kong would be able to continue to live their life in accordance with The Basic Law, which guaranteed – amongst other rights – the potential to elect their own Chief Executive through – per The Basic Law itself – “universal suffrage.”
Those fifty years aren’t up yet, and yet Beijing has recently stated that anyone who wishes to run for Chief Executive in Hong Kong now has to be met with the approval of at least half of a nominating committee that is already heavily stacked in a way to reflect the interests of Beijing. Previously, the requirement had been one-eighth of the committee. This all but locks out pan-democratic candidates.
Enter Occupy Central with Love and Peace (who launched a year and a half ago, and whose “Love and Peace” – by my best guest – is tied to the name to both preemptively co-opt the idea of rhetoric from astroturf Anti-Occupy groups deeming them ‘violent’ and to make an implicit legal argument, as The Basic Law cites that groups may protest if they ‘peaceably’ assemble), which was initially organized by Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Dr. Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and Chan Kin-man. In June, Occupy Central ran a mock referendum vote on the notion of universal suffrage that – despite exceptionally aggressive DDOS attacks and heavy rhetorical pushback from Beijing, who called the poll “illegal” – 792,808 people participated, which amounted to a fifth of the electorate.
A little past two in the morning on September 28th, Hong Kong time, Occupy Central sent out a press release, not only announcing the early start of their protests (they were initially scheduled to start on October 1st) but saying that they have two demands – and I quote –
1. The immediate withdrawal of the NPCSC’s decision on the framework for Hong Kong’s political reform.
2. The swift resumption of the political reform consultation. The Leung Chun-ying administration has failed in the political reform process. We demand Leung re-submits a new political reform report to the central government which fully reflects the Hong Kong people’s aspirations for democracy. If Leung refuses to respond, the action will escalate.
In an interview, Michael Davis, law professor at Hong Kong University, one of the nine lawyers who helped spur previous protests against Article 23, puts the onus now – as it was then – with the government.
“I don’t think it was nine lawyers that brought people onto the streets [then],” he said. “I think it was government behavior,” and he saw the same holding true now, noting that after a lengthy consultation process with Hong Kong, Beijing took people by surprise in revealing the standards for the nominating committee that they did, and that business elites meeting with Xi Jinping – who promised greater input from Beijing – only further emphasized the disconnect.
That disconnect shows up in surveys and polls: not only do 54% of Hong Kong citizens think the political reforms should be vetoed, not only do half of China’s wealthy wish to leave the country, according to one recent survey conducted by Barclays, 16% citing their preferred destination being Hong Kong, but a fifth of Hong Kong residents are considering leaving Hong Kong as well.
“As Beijing has shown its attitude,” Dr. Lam Wai-Man continued, “it is likely that Occupy Central has to reposition itself as a means of articulating passion and political idealism. But what sort of passion and idealism it can offer and how far such idealism is shared in Hong Kong? These are the questions that we will have to face – of course, only if the campaigns will not be crushed.”