Today marks the first anniversary of the August 31 decision of China’s National People’s Congress prohibiting popular selection of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive by the people in Hong Kong. This so-called “Beijing 8.19 Hong Kong political reform” package violated China’s prior written agreements promising full universal suffrage, when it acquired sovereignty over Hong Kong from Great Britain. This betrayal so outraged the people of Hong Kong that it triggered the 79-day “Umbrella Protest Movement,” or “Occupy Central Movement.”
Thanks to the momentum generated by the Movement, on June 18th of this year, a pan-democratic coalition successfully blocked the pseudo-democratic package offered by Beijing’s puppets in the Hong Kong Legislative Council by a landslide vote of 28:8. This dramatic incident was portrayed by some as the beginning of foreseeable political deadlock for Hong Kong, and the end of democratization, leaving nobody as a winner. On the contrary, we deem it a great victory of the people of Hong Kong. Certainly, things would not have been better if the package had been passed. It would have made no real progress towards Hong Kong citizens’ electing their own leaders, and would only have encouraged Beijing to further encroach on their freedoms. It also would have strengthened dominance of vested interests in Hong Kong, namely the tycoons, and further accelerate the invasion of “Red” capital from mainland China.
The issue of universal suffrage in Hong Kong is as much about the dignity of the people of Hong Kong as it is a political or legal issue. Beijing’s promise of autonomy has been just empty talk. The Hong Kong people’s basic living space is increasingly squeezed by the political and economic interventions and influx of mainlanders, who have a “different lifestyle.” Over the years, and especially last year, Hong Kong people have expressed their demands through, among other ways, free referendums and the Umbrella Movement. However, the “central government” in Beijing has arrogantly dismissed their demands and denied their dignity. The June 18th veto again reflected the Hong Kong people fighting for that dignity. It manifested both their bottom line demand for their dignity and their determination to preserve it. That ultimately is more significant than any direct political result.
The June 18 rejection of the so-called “reform package” is a great loss of face for the Chinese Communist rulers. Such loss of face is what we call the great devaluation of the authoritarian power. We should not dismiss it lightly. This is kind of loss is what the they most fear and are most uneasy about. It would not be an overstatement to label this veto as a historic setback for the CCP’s rulers.
For now, the city might have returned to normal. Traffic is flowing again, business as usual. However, if the government thought that all it took to return everything to normal was a clearing of the streets, history will prove them wrong. But we are no longer satisfied with just a march. The changed situation in Hong Kong is now requiring more creative, flexible, and deeper approaches. We once again remind readers of four important facts concerning the Umbrella Movement and its future.
First. the movement, although relatively youthful, is all inclusive, participated in by people from all ages and walks of life and not only students from local campuses. Thus, it has great potential to expand. We need to make efforts to reach out to regional civil societies and bring people together by building a consensus, through a deep-rooted democracy movement, about what is fundamentally needed to make Hong Kong a better city for its inhabitants regardless of social strata. A number of new civic and professional organizations have sprung up since the Umbrella Movement, focusing on civic education and community development. They even have the potential to get the established Hong Kong interests to realize that democratic reform is necessary and does not need to threaten their vital interests. There will be re-elections of district and city legislative councils. The June 18 Legislative Council’s veto of Beijing’s imposed fake “political reform” proposal shows that the power for real political reform will ultimately be in the hands of the voters. So helping democracy-minded candidates with their campaigns will pose other important battles.
Second. Many observers of the Umbrella Movement have attributed the movement to widespread discontent among young people over a lack of upward mobility. What had gone wrong, they said, was not the political system, but the economy. They are wrong. Rising housing prices and a growing wealth gap have indeed exacerbated discontent among many Hong Kongers. But a survey conducted during the movement last October revealed that 96 per cent of respondents ranked fighting for “genuine universal suffrage” as their number one motivation. In other words, the priority of the movement is for democracy. “If there is no genuine democracy, the government will basically ignore us,” said one respondent. “Consultation is just a waste of time. There is no way ordinary citizens can influence the government.” To achieve democracy in Hong Kong, in addition to social movements or local and city legislative elections, people need to rethink what fulfilling the Basic Law should include; How it can reflect their will; and how they should engage in policy making to protect their civil rights. What should be the true nature of Hong Kong as a city with genuine autonomy and self-determination. Otherwise, the praised concept of “One Country Two System” is dead.The way to save Hong Kong is not simply about changing the electoral system but also the mentality of people about the role of their city and their identity.
Third. Like it or not, the democratization in Hong Kong and that in mainland China are mutually supportive. Despite Beijing’s desperate efforts to curtail it, the valiant pursuit of civil liberty and democratic values in Hong Kong is well known by Tibetans, Uyghurs, Mongolians, peaceful dissidents and human rights defenders in China, as well as in Taiwan and Macau. It encourages them and gives them hope. At the same time, Hong Kong draws inspiration from the courageous determination and resilience of their brothers and sisters on the mainland. Each of these crusades must unreservedly support, encourage and assist the other. To paraphrase Dr. Martin Luther King: “Injustice and repression anywhere in China, is injustice everywhere in China.”
Fourth. We note the role of the international community, especially the United States, Great Britain, and the U.N.. Great Britain turned the citizens of Hong Kong over to the “tender mercies” of the dictators in Beijing on the explicit conditions of the “One Country Two Systems” principles laid out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and the “Basic Law,” Hong Kong’s constitution. It’s silence now in the face of China’s reneging on those solemn commitments and guarantees of autonomy and justice dishonors the country that gave birth to the Common Law and the Magna Carta. Since China sits on the U.N. Human Rights Council, China’s repression of Hong Kong citizens, like its repression of mainland Chinese, is a gross embarrassment that U.N. leaders should publicly address. The Obama Administration’s officials first said the struggle in Hong Kong was an internal matter that they simply hoped could be peacefully settled. But a worldwide outcry over China’s heavy-handed repression, and a huge public petition to the White House, caused the Administration to at least mildly take sides with Hong Kong’s thirst for democracy. The White House claims that President Obama will strongly raise human rights issues with President Xi at their impending Washington summit. Obama should add this latest outrage to the long list of glaring human rights abuses — detailed in the State Department’s own report on those practices — that he must raised with Xi, if America’s claimed fidelity to human rights is to retain credibility. He can ask Xi whether Xi’s latest effort at a “show trial” that would make Putin proud is really Xi’s idea of his “rule of law” reform.
Alex Chow (周永康) is former Secretary General of Hong Kong Federation of Students and student leader of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. He is currently being indicted by the Hong Kong government for his role in the movement. Yang Jianli (楊建利) is president of Initiatives for China, a Tiananmen veteran, and former political prisoner.