Hong Kong’s democracy movement is back from the brink. The next question is, after the explosion of political energy the anti-extradition bill campaign has produced during the last two months, how can all the new momentum be put to the best possible use. It can go either way: consolidate gains and move forward, or sink back into the doldrums that have overtaken all of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy causes during the past two years.
It has begun already. “Despair…” proclaimed a headline in early July. It had all been for nothing. Tens of thousands, probably millions of Hong Kongers – too many to count – protesting for days, week after week, ultimately invading Hong Kong’s Legislative Council itself and trashing the main chamber. It was something unheard of in all of Hong Kong’s history including both British colonial before 1997, and the 20 years since. That day was July 1st, a public holiday and the twenty-second anniversary of Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese rule.
The invaders also left behind a clear message lest anyone misinterpret the events of June and July 2019, spray-painted in huge Chinese characters for all to see: “You have taught us that peaceful protest is useless”. Another message painted on legislators’ desks: “Abolish the Functional Constituencies”. This reference was to 30 of the Legislative Council’s 70 seats that are not directly elected by universal suffrage.
These 30 seats are reserved for mostly pro-government, pro-Beijing representatives, and were supposed to be phased out. This reform was among the formal promises, written by Beijing into Hong Kong’s new post-1997 Basic Law constitution. Article 68 promises a Legislative Council wholly elected by universal suffrage.
But all reform initiatives at the Legislative Council level have been blocked by the central government since 2014, which is the basic grievance underlying the current explosion of anger. With a wholly-elected legislature, the government might not have been so cavalier about trying to force passage of the bill.
The current upsurge of violence actually began on Wednesday, June 12, when the council had scheduled another reading of the bill preparatory to imminent passage. The young protesters had tried unsuccessfully to storm the building but were turned back by police. The message that day: “We will not let you pass that bill.”
It would have allowed the transfer of fugitive criminal suspects to China, as well as other jurisdictions with which Hong Kong has yet to conclude formal extradition arrangements.
Yet despite the opposition that had been building since February, Chief Executive Carrie Lam has actually still refused to formally withdraw the extradition bill. She has declared it a “failure” and dead-in-the-water due to the opposition it provoked – but she is still trying to detach herself from responsibility. Somehow the fault is still not hers but lies instead with the bill’s many misguided opponents.
The bill, she insisted at her June 15 press conference, is a good bill and sooner or later Hong Kong must see to its passage even if now is obviously not the right time.
So, nothing has changed, say despondent young activists. We have failed again. Hundreds of arrests, injuries, four suicides even. The movement finally has its martyrs. Yet still, nothing to show for all the effort and pain. Really? Nothing? Failed again?
They are wrong on every count. They didn’t fail the first time, in 2014-15 after the Occupy Umbrella Movement for universal suffrage elections. And they haven’t failed this time… unless they themselves succumb to the logic of defeat.
The most immediate benefit is that Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s plans for “calming social tensions” now lie, along with her extradition bill, on the cutting room floor. Why is this an accomplishment? Because she thought she was working to calm social tensions and thereby create the favourable conditions necessary for what she saw as her ultimate challenge: reintroducing Article 23 national security legislation.
Unless Beijing decides to step in and impose some sort of draconian rule mandating forthwith an Article 23 revival, that idea is now as dead as Carrie Lam’s extradition bill… even if she won’t formally kill it. Assuming that some minimum basic sense of reality prevails, much time will have to pass before any Hong Kong leader tries to revive either of these two pieces of legislation.
Without even realizing it, Hong Kong protesters have bought themselves some time, a reprieve from a legislative agenda that held out even more danger for the future of local rights and freedoms than the rendition of criminal suspects to China.
But how could they not realize it? Has Carrie Lam not said many times since taking office on July 1, 2017, that she saw it as her duty to create the favourable conditions necessary in order to reintroduce the old national security bill?
This has been languishing on the shelf since the protest against it erupted in a sudden burst of energy, on July 1, 2003. For those with memories that extend back that far, it was much like the extradition bill outburst last month. Activists had all but abandoned hope when the public suddenly came out en masse, half-a-million-strong, and said “no” by voting with their feet.
Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law mandates passage of legislation to criminalize acts of treason against the central people’s government, as well as of secession, sedition, subversion, theft of state secrets, and foreign force interventions
The legislation has since been left sitting under a cloud of constant reminders from Beijing officials and pro-government commentators here, that Hong Kong’s “constitutional duty” is at stake. Indefinite procrastination is not an option.
During a question-and-answer session in the Legislative Council on May 22, Carrie Lam was asked by pro-government Legislative Councilor Junius Ho Kwan-yiu why she was focusing on the extradition bill when Article 23 legislation was also pending and more important. She answered as she had many times previously, that favourable conditions are needed before the Article 23 mandate can again be addressed.
She said that since taking office, she had been striving to create such conditions. But ‘unfortunately, this objective is moving further and further away.’ The context of her remark was the developing row over the extradition law. Nevertheless, she had mentioned and would continue to refer to the calming influence she thought she had succeeded in achieving… if fugitive extradition… Now for sure, she knows otherwise.
Re-cap: Carrie Lam’s political pacification campaign, 2017-19
In fact, until the unexpected backlash created by her attempt to introduce the fugitive extradition law, the Chief Executive felt she was well on her way to succeeding… due to the sorry state of Hong Kong’s democracy movement. It was sorry by any measure but actually a great success in terms of the calm she sought to achieve. She has more recently referred to democrats as “listless,” adrift, directionless… and she was right.
So demoralized were they that voters actually sat on their hands and refused to come out for two special elections held last year. They were needed to replace two Legislative Councilors from the Kowloon West constituency who had been disqualified in the oath-taking sage of 2016-17. It was an unprecedented humiliating loss for pro-democracy candidates in the district, with both seats ceded to their pro-government rivals.
The Chief Executive also knew exactly what she had done to achieve that result and was well on her way to chalking up more victories. They had included, since her time in office began on July 1, 2017, the disqualification and removal of six pro-democracy Legislative Councilors in the oath-taking saga.
Her Justice Department pursued these cases with all due prosecutorial diligence. Judicial deference to the executive was in evidence throughout multiple judicial reviews that were allowed but to no avail, as far as the disqualified legislators were concerned.
Prospective candidates were disqualified from contesting the special elections that followed, due to their advocacy of self-determination. This was decreed by Carrie Lam’s officials and by Beijing to be on par with the subversive Hong Kong independence advocacy… a threat to national security, public safety, and the like.
One small political group, the Hong Kong National Party had actually been banned on those grounds and a foreign correspondent expelled from Hong Kong for inviting the party’s leader to give a luncheon talk at the Foreign Correspondents Club.
Article 23 legislation would have made all these manoeuvres easier to finesse- as a matter of degree but not of kind. Or as Carrie Lam has learned to say: “Talking about independence has nothing to do with free speech.”
Asked why voters had stayed home on the two Election Days in Kowloon West, sympathizers said because everyone knew they were “fake” elections – sham democracy masquerading as the real thing.
Hastening to exploit the democratic vacancies in the Legislative Council, pro-government legislators had rushed through a change in the rules of procedure, thereby minimizing democrats’ disruptive delaying tactics.
But in the end, this measure wasn’t really necessary to push through the controversial “co-location” arrangement for Beijing’s cross-border high-speed rail project. Beijing took care of the honours on this one by issuing a simple special decree from on high – carrying all the weight of “nine imperial tripods,” and making a mockery of the Basic Law’s safeguards. Carrie Lam’s dogged pursuit of perfection – her much-touted “three-step” procedure – did the rest.
Co-location allows mainland customs and immigration control personnel to work in Hong Kong, thereby openly flouting Beijing’s pre-1997 promises about not allowing mainland law-enforcement authorities to work on Hong Kong soil.
Mainland political authority Tian Feilong actually expressed the impact on Hong Kong’s democracy movement better than anyone else. In a sarcastic commentary two years ago, he wrote: “The co-location plan is provocative precisely because, in one strike, it allowed the state power that had always been kept outside the SAR’s borders to legally enter its domain. The plan thoroughly ruined the opposition camp’s idea of an imaginary, fully autonomous Hong Kong, and suggests what it will become — a city increasingly integrated with the mainland”.
Carrie Lam, her advisers and pro-establishment legislators took special notice of the co-location “success” story. She emphasized it during her June 15 press conference where she announced a suspension but not a withdrawal of the bill.
After close to a decade of legal challenges and protests, the Kowloon high-speed terminus went into operation on September 23 last year. It has been transporting cross-border travellers without incident ever since. And democrats have stopped protesting the presence of mainland authorities working in the terminal.
Carrie Lam and all those around her actually thought the reason democrats had stopped protesting was because they now accepted the violation of Basic Law Article 18 that says: “national laws shall not be applied in Hong Kong.”
That was why officials kept saying the best way to win acceptance of the extradition bill is to pass it and prove to the naysayers how harmless it would be – just like co-location! It seemed preposterous at the time but does make sense from the official co-location perspective when all others are filtered out.
Finally, in April this year came the high-profile guilty verdicts in what looked like Hong Kong’s first ever political show trial. It involved the Occupy Nine, leaders of the 2014 Occupy Central/Umbrella Movement organized to promote the long-running cause of universal suffrage elections. Four of the nine are currently serving prison sentences including Professors Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chan Kin-man.
It seemed a fitting tribute to them that the first anti-extradition bill protest march on Sunday, April 28 – with a way better than expected turnout – was actually a duo combination protest. It marked both their prison sentences that had just been announced, on April 24, and the new extradition bill that was opening what seemed like a Pandora’s Box of unwelcome uncertain associations with the mainland legal system.
By that Sunday, the surprise turnout was already signalling that the public had had enough. But it seems safe to speculate that if Carrie Lam had succeeded in pushing the extradition bill through the Legislative Council in the same way she orchestrated the co-location exercise, she would now be planning the final Article 23 achievement of her first term in office and anticipating a second one to follow.
Another indicator of the public’s exasperation with Carrie Lam’s achievements appeared in the form of an unremarkable sidewalk stall vying for space amid the impossible crush of hot sweaty tired people. They were heading toward the government headquarters rallying point in Admiralty at the end of the Sunday, June 16 anti-extradition bill march.
The stall seemed oddly out-of-place amid the clutter all around. Piles of voter-registration forms were stacked up neatly on a table and eager young people were reminding passersby to be sure to register for the elections coming up later this year. The registration deadline was July 2.
The reminder provided a sudden snap back to reality. Protesters were marching against a piece of legislation that, as of June 16, had been expected to pass because democrats didn’t have enough seats in the Legislative Council to block it.
But elections were coming up this year, and next, when the protesters walking by might actually be able to do something about the problem. If only they still had the heart and the hope that voting might make a difference, despite all the disappointments.
Although no names were anywhere in evidence, the stall was also a tribute to Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting, sweltering miles away in his unairconditioned maximum-security prison cell. He had spent much time during the past two years trying to organize and publicize and remind people that voting does still matter.
The District Councils election would be coming up later this year. The date is November 24. He would be out of circulation by then. He anticipated the guilty verdict and prison sentence for his role as the key figure in the Occupy Movement. But he tried to ensure that people remembered and carried on his work while he was away. He called this effort Project Storm.
And sure enough, people remembered. When the government announced the new voter registration figures on July 11, a record 350,000 new voters had signed up ahead of the coming November District Councils poll. In recent years, the number of new voter registrations annually has been in the region of 80,000.
Professor Tai’s idea was that pro-democracy candidates should aim to capture as many as half the 431 seats on Hong Kong’s 18 District Councils. Having failed in the 1980s and 1990s to focus on grassroots organizing when this council system was being created, pro-democracy activists had their eyes set on bigger things. They essentially ceded this field to their pro-Beijing pro-establishment rivals. They and their allies moved in at the neighbourhood level with unlimited resources and public service skills, and now have majorities on all 18 councils.
Probably, it is too late for pro-democracy candidates to make a serious impact at the District Council level. But the surge in voter registration figures suggests the possibilities. They call to mind a similar sequence in 2014 -16.
It is true that the Occupy/Umbrella Movement of 2014-15 was a “failure.” It had failed to win any election reform concessions from Beijing, either for the Chief Executive or Legislative Council levels.
Nevertheless, student leaders themselves had said – probably with false modesty – that they knew they could not change Beijing’s August 31, 2014 directive on reform, which had just blocked all of Hong Kong’s electoral reform proposals. But the purpose of their September classroom boycott, as they explained it to sceptical sympathizers, was conscious-raising, to promote the cause of genuine universal suffrage elections and alert the wider public to the issues at stake. And this they did, although they couldn’t be sure at first.
Young post-Occupy candidates out on street corners ahead of the 2015 District Councils election were at first hesitant to talk about their role in the disruptive 79-day street blockades. These had continued from late September to early December 2014. But the young people needn’t have been so diffident. Voters everywhere remembered and rewarded them, and pro-democracy candidates did much better than expected. The wave carried on through the 2016 Legislative Council election. Again, young post-Occupy candidates did better than expected.
But then they overreached. They used the Legislative Council swearing-in ceremony in October 2016 to declare their new awareness and loyalty to Hong Kong, “not China,” and the rest has been downhill for Hong Kong’s democracy movement ever since, written in the court judgements of Carrie Lam’s relentless pacification campaign.
If only they had waited until they were sworn in and seated, Legislative Councilors cannot be prosecuted for anything they say in the chamber (Basic Law, Article 77). But they had not yet been sworn in when their declarations to a new localist anti-Beijing Hong Kong identity began.
So, the way forward can now go in either direction – either better than expected, or worse. There were similar surges of voter registration and interest in 2003, and again in 2015. With the public now once again engaged and energy levels high, the next phase will be about candidate selection, policy options, and election strategies.
The challenge is how to use the strengthening localist Hong Kong identity without the disastrous Beijing-baiting that marked the oath-taking saga of 2016. It began in earnest when newly-elected legislators declared their loyalty to Hong Kong and thumbed their noses at the central government.
The political drama then unfolded as the new generation of post-Occupy activists ultimately spent as much time challenging each other’s localist credentials as arguing the case against Beijing’s ongoing interventions that was the common point of agreement among them all.
The damage to Hong Kong’s democracy movement has been immense. But the losses are not necessarily irreversible… unless Hong Kong democrats persist in their self-destructive logic of defeat.