A tribute to all of the people of the HK pro-democracy movement
(because it’s not often these days that someone stares down the dictator)
on the occasion of the defeat of fake universal suffrage in the Legislative Council on June 18, 2015
I’ll admit: When I turned up at the Civil Human Rights Front- organized march at Victoria Park last Sunday and looked around, I thought, “Where is everybody?!” There were so many fewer marchers (ultimate count: 3,500) than CHRF had said it expected (50,000) that it almost seemed as if someone was playing a trick on us. Well, I thought, it’s so hot; maybe people are too lazy and will just gather around the Legislative Council building, the march’s terminus and site of the planned encampment in the coming days, instead. But when we got there after a long hot walk, that was not the case either. What’s up? Have HK people really faltered at this last step?
Then it struck me: HK people are SO tired. HK people are so so tired. HK people are so sick and fed up with the political charade of “constitutional development” that the Communist Party and the HK government have been conducting in their city for the last twenty months almost as if they were not there, even though HK people have time and again made it abundantly clear that WE ARE HERE, WE DO EXIST, THIS PLACE IS OURS AND YOU CAN’T DO WITH IT WHAT YOU WISH.
Even in the faces of those who turned up last Sunday, I could see it: They are so tired. And it wasn’t just that the temperature was a good 35 degrees and the heat radiated off the pavement. It was a kind of spiritual tiredness, deep in their bones. They had fought so long, so hard. And not only that: Their struggle was a defensive action: to prevent the worst from happening as opposed to working toward achieving the best.
It was not only that they were tired. Most HK people, and especially young people, had ceased to believe in the efficacy of these marches from Victoria Park to the Liaison Office, to HK government headquarters. You go out, you spend your day in the heat, and what good does it do? We’ve done this for years, and where has it gotten us? If the CCP and HK government won’t listen to 79 days of occupation, then what good is a march going to do? The days of the march may be numbered.
And it was only that they were tired and had ceased to believe in the efficacy of marches. They were by that point quite confident that the 28 Legco members who’d vowed to vote against the HK government proposals to introduce fake universal suffrage in the “selection” (it’s not for nothing that the HK government is addicted to the “s” in front of “election”) of the Chief Executive in 2017, thus defeating the proposals, would indeed do so. In that sense, the motivation to come out and “support” or “threaten” them, depending on how you looked at it, did not seem so urgent. In a strange sense, the low turnout exhibited a faith in those members of the Legislative Council who’d said they would vote the proposals down.
Still, I thought, given all that, they still should have been there. I could just imagine the media having a field day: They said 50,000 would be here, and there are 3,500. The vast majority of the media, largely because of their lack of understanding of the pro-democracy movement (or, in HK, because of self-censorship and/or a pro-CCP editorial stance) had time and again counted the pro-democracy movement out. It had failed to achieve anything concrete out of 79 days of occupation, it had fractured, it had “descended” into localism, it was ultimately powerless to exert its will upon the HK government and the CCP.
There were several things that most media narratives failed to comprehend: 1) After 17 years of postponement, once the CCP decided to shove fake suffrage down the throat of HK, the introduction of fake suffrage became a cornerstone in the CCP end game to exert nearly complete control over HK long before the 50 years of ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law were due to end in 2047, and it really really wanted it. 2) After the publication of the White Paper in June 2014 and the August 31, 2014 hardline decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee that virtually stripped away the last vestiges of HK autonomy, at least as far as making electoral arrangements was concerned, the basic stance of the HK pro-democracy movement was defensive. The occupations originally happened by accident: They were at first a spontaneous reaction against the decision of the HK government to use the HK police as a private militia to protect itself by attacking its own citizens. They were a big NO: NO, WE WON’T BE INTIMIDATED BY YOU! NO, THIS IS OUR CITY; NOT YOURS. Even once they’d settled in to stay for the long haul of 79 days, they were still a big NO: HANDS OFF OUR CITY, CCP! NO, WE WON’T ACCEPT FAKE SUFFRAGE! Yes, we want genuine universal suffrage, and yes, that has been the main slogan of the of the pro-democracy movement, but we all knew that given the August 31 decision, genuine universal suffrage was the longest of long shots, at least in the short term. Therefore, the objective of this phase of the pro-democracy movement has been to defeat fake suffrage and the CCP imposition of its will on the HK political system. (if you think I’m rewriting the narrative now that fake suffrage has been defeated, go back and read my essays ever since June 2014.) If you don’t acknowledge that the CCP really really wanted fake suffrage and the HK people were set on denying them that, then you will really have great difficulty understanding the dynamics of the political situation in HK.
So, standing there in front of Legco with my 3,499 counterparts last Sunday, I was disappointed and I feared the media would have a field day, until I thought, Wait a minute — give them a break, give the HK people a break. Nowhere else in the world that I can think of off the top of my head have so many turned out over the past year to demand democracy, nowhere else have such large numbers come out to so many pro-democracy events. The number surely runs in the millions. And I did a quick tally in my head.
June 4, 2014 candlelight vigil 180,000
June 22 to 29, 2014 referendum on genuine universal suffrage 800,000
July 1, 2014 march 530,000
September 28 to December 11 occupations 500,000
June 4, 2015 vigil & other commemorations 138,000
That’s 2,118,000 participants. And that’s just the massive events. There were plenty of others with numbers in the tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, dozens. So a fairly conservative estimate would place the number of participants in pro-democracy events in HK over the past year at 2.2 million. That’s astounding; that’s 30% of the HK population of 7.188 million, 44% of the 5 million or so HK people eligible to vote, 62% of the 3.5 million people registered to vote in HK. Of course, there are overlaps. For example, I participated in every one of those events, so you’re counting me multiple times. A good core of that number is people who came out time and time again. But even taking that into account, it’s a lot, especially taking into account that HK has a low unemployment rate of about 3% along with amongst the longest working hours in the world. It’s not as if HK people are sitting around with nothing to do but protest; just the opposite: they made a concerted effort to take time out from their often overly busy lives to stand up for their rights, often substantial time, often at a substantial sacrifice of other areas of their lives.
Looked at that way, I thought, looking at the 3,499 people arrayed in front of me at Legco, give these people a break; give HK people a break. What else do you expect a people to do? How else can they go about expressing their will, their clear demand for real democracy, real autonomy, that HK people choose their own government, their own legislative representatives, that HK people have full political participation and a real say in running their city? (Of course, there’s a lot more we could do, and we could do a lot of things better, but you get my point.)
And thinking of the millions who had come out over the past year to demand their basic right and that we were on the brink of succeeding in denying the CCP its desire to infringe that right in a way that would be legally decisive (with the implementation of “universal suffrage”, the CCP would be under no legal obligation to change the political system further, and HK would essentially, legally speaking, be at its mercy, never a good position to be in with a dictator), my eyes were almost filled with tears, and I felt great love and respect for those 3,499 gathered around me and the millions of others who had raised their voice and spoken out over the past year. They had shown tenacity, perseverance, courage, integrity, principle, morality, creativity, discipline, determination, dedication, commitment to nonviolence, diversity, joy, audacity, humility, community-mindedness and collaboration, anarchy (in the best sense- ability to live and work constructively together without government), the ability to endure suffering and face the truth head-on, great care and responsibility for their society and future generations and a vision for that society based on equality, freedom and real democracy. And at least in that moment I thought, Yes, perhaps there is still some hope yet for HK. It is not a thought I always have.
When I speak of my love and respect for the pro-democracy movement in HK, I must emphasize that I mean everybody in the pro-democracy movement. Everyone has played a role. While we may often appear disorganized and divided, our diversity is also a strength. The diversity produces new ideas, new actions, new initiatives. The movement does not hang its hat on a single peg; it does not become stagnant and stale. It has the ability to re-energize, re-generate. There’s always something new coming at the HK government and the CCP — they never know quite which way to turn. They attempt to isolate, suppress, harass, intimidate, imprison, demonize this mole, and another mole pops up there.
There are the pro-democracy political parties, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China and a few other groups which are amongst the oldest elements in the movement, dating back to the 1980s. They have often been criticized over the past year, for being the old guard, for having failed to achieve much, for having ceased to develop, expand, grow the movement, for being stale and just doing the same thing over and over again, for having been co-opted by the establishment, for having lost their way. Much of the criticism has more than a grain of truth to it. And yet, these people have stayed the course. In the moments when the chances for real democracy in HK appeared most remote, they persevered, often, it seemed, without a great number of people supporting them. They kept the flame alive. They have been constant. They have stayed the course. And of course, in a very real sense, the defeat of fake suffrage depended on them. People (myself included) feared some might bend or break under the pressure. But they didn’t. And when push came to shove, every one of the 28 voted their conscience, voted as they had vowed to do, and defeated fake suffrage. Not only that, but in the eleven hours of speeches in the Legislative Council leading up to the vote, in their 15-minute speeches, one after one they spoke truth to power, telling the dictator to go stuff it. It is not often in formal politics these days that you see politicians standing up and saying it like it is, so freely, so eloquently, speaking both from their heart and from their head. People say words don’t matter; only action. But words do matter, and not only their vote but their words were inspirational on the day they defeated fake democracy, June 18, 2015.
Much of the credit for promoting the concept of civil disobedience as a means of confronting the denial of a basic right must go to Occupy Central with Love and Peace. The three co-founders shared, in age, in outlook, in temperament (especially the inclination towards moderation) much with the pro-democracy political parties. Especially after the amazing success of its referendum from June 22 to 29, 2014, when 800,000 voted decisively for genuine universal suffrage, OCLP was criticized for its limitations, and indeed, its limitations were significant, especially in terms of strategy, leadership, mobilization and growing the movement. But it put principled, nonviolent civil disobedience on the map in HK. The actual way in which the occupations eventually occurred was something that virtually no one could foresee, and when they did occur, OCLP was essentially along for the ride, no longer in the driver’s seat, but without OCLP, it’s hard to imagine that the HK people would have been intellectually and psychologically prepared not only for civil disobedience in a one-time-only, one-off sense (as on July 1, 2014 when 511 people were arrested for a sit-in in Central, a kind of precursor to the occupations) but for the grueling months of occupation. The OCLP co-founders left the scene early, but by that point, they had already passed on their baton to others, having done indispensible service to the movement.
Then there are the young people, the students, the magnificent young people and students. They are the age group most staunchly opposed to the CCP trampling on HK. They are the age group that appears to best understand what’s really going on here, and the age group most willing to do something about it. With the onslaught of CCP-directed mainlandization which will continue apace regardless of the defeat of fake suffrage in the Legislative Council yesterday, the people under 30 are perhaps HK’s best hope for the future. If they stay the way they are now and maintain their opposition to their rights being trampled, the future of their city being taken away from them, then there’s a chance. Of course, it was the young people who triggered the occupations with their class boycott of September 23 to 27 leading to a small number of them occupying Civic Square on the evening of September 27, people coming out in their thousands to support them the next day, the 28th, the police responding with pepper spray and tear gas, and the people responding to that with occupations. And with the occupations, their leading groups, Scholarism and the Hong Kong Federation of Students, came to the fore. Previous to that, they’d been forced to take a backseat in the triumvirate of OCLP, pan-democratic political parties and student groups, but now they were in the lead. That, of course, was a very difficult position to be in, to be leaders of an essentially leaderless occupation, but they pulled it off with magnificent energy, verve and maturity. Even if we can discuss the tactical mistakes they might have made, it’s hard to hold them solely accountable for those: they had to contend with the weaknesses of the movement, for example, its inability and/or unwillingness to escalate to the level of general strikes and boycotts outside of the zones of occupation. It’s also the young people who are perhaps the most disenchanted with traditional ways of doing things in the pro-democracy movement — the low number of young people at last Sunday’s march was notable. Whatever means they decide to adopt instead, whatever positions they decide to take will to a great extent determine the direction of the movement in the future.
Then there are the so-called “radical” groups. First of all, I hate the way the term “radical” is used in HK and elsewhere — it is used to dismiss, to denigrate, to marginalize, to suggest that a group is beyond the pale, not serious. “Radical” comes from the Latin “radix”, which means “root”. So “radical” etymologically means “getting to the root”. If you take “radical” to mean someone or something who gets to the root of things, then I consider it a term of approbation, and it’s in this sense I use the term. Some of the groups, such as Civic Passion, pre-existed the occupations. Others, such as HK Indigenous, emerged from the occupations, as a reaction against the perceived failings of the occupations, and to assert more strongly a HK identity as distinct from and in opposition to the mainland, especially the mainland under the dictatorship of the CCP. Apart from their direct actions after the occupations, in particular, the anti-parallel trade demonstrations in the New Territories and their support of hawkers in Kowloon during Chinese New Year, these radical groups have been very influential, again especially amongst young people, in putting this assertion of Hong Kong identity on the map. What they say is, yes, genuine universal suffrage in formal politics is important, but in addition to CCP attempts to bring the political system under its full control, one of the greatest threats to HK is mainlandization, which occurs in a variety of ways (a far from exhaustive list can be found in this article) and is the CCP’s surreptitious way of subordinating HK. They are also changing HK for the worse, are powerful forces, and need to be combatted. It remains to be seen how effectively these groups will be able to play a role in combating them, but they have at least succeeded in putting the issue firmly within the sights of the general populace and media, and in this sense have done a great service to HK and acted indirectly as a support to the struggle for genuine universal suffrage, even as some “moderate” pan-democrats sought to distance themselves from their perceived “radicalism”. To draw a semi-lame analogy, they are Malcolm X (and the eventual Black Power Movement) to OCLP’s Martin Luther King, Jr., also in the sense of taking direct actions that are more confrontational. The CCP has to see that if they continue to refuse to address the legitimate democratic demands of HK people, they will face not acquiescence but greater opposition and disillusionment with their rule over HK amongst a growing number of people. In numbers, these “radical” groups are small, but in influence large. The referenda to dissociate from Hong Kong Federation of Students and the decisions by the HKU student union and HKFS not to take part in the June 4 candlelight vigil this year are largely a result of this influence. Many see it as pernicious, and indeed, if it basically turns more “moderate” allies into enemies it could prove to be so, but a lot of this is the fall-out from the occupations and represents a transformation of the movement which may be painful but necessary. At any rate, the contribution they have made to a stronger assertion of a separate HK identity and stronger opposition to mainlandization is salutary.
Besides these, there are many other groups who have contributed to the pro-democracy struggle. Indeed, since the occupations, they have proliferated. Professional groups, youth groups, cultural groups, rights groups, groups to contest upcoming District Council elections. I know the movement fairly well, but I still come across groups I haven’t encountered before. For example, at the march last Sunday, I met Cooks for Universal Suffrage (their banner said, CY Leung should be fried like a squid- a Cantonese idiom meaning he should be fired), Radiographers for Universal Suffrage. And on and on and on it goes. The society is in ferment. The roots of the desire for genuine democracy, genuine autonomy are spreading and deepening.
Then, last but first are the people of HK. Without ordinary HK people, the occupations would never have occurred. They are the ones who came out to support the students surrounded by police in Civic Square on September 28. They are the ones who stayed on and demanded their rights once the students were removed and arrested. They are the ones who burst into the street when their numbers became too many to be contained on the sidewalks. They are the ones who stood up to gratuitous police attacks of pepper spray and tear gas. They are the ones who spread out and occupied different parts of the city. They are the ones who remained for seventy-nine days. They are the ones who have turned out to events and activities in their thousands again and again and again over the years and in the past year in particular. At the height of the occupations in October, Ming Pao conducted a survey of occupiers which showed that only 26% of them were students. Most of the occupiers were ordinary people, ordinary working people. It was truly grassroots citizens movement, largely leaderless, though various groups, especially the student groups tried to mediate and provide some modicum of necessary leadership.
Out of these millions of people, there are too many stories to tell, and many have been told well elsewhere. To me, at the moment, four come to mind in particular, all from the assembly outside of Legco on Wednesday evening, after the first day of speeches in the Legislative Council and before the momentous defeat of fake universal suffrage the next day. On that evening, we were not many — again, not nearly as many as I thought there might be, perhaps 3,000 to 4,000 and most of those went home early, before 10 pm. But there was a special feeling that evening, a feeling that something was coming to an end, a stage in the struggle for democracy. On the one hand, we felt gratified because we were about to accomplish something we’d fought hard for for over a year, the defeat of fake suffrage. On the other hand, there was melancholy about the end of this stage, and relief, and uncertainty about the future. There was again, as many times before in the last year, that feeling of being part of history, of being part of something larger than ourselves.
One of the people I met Wednesday evening was a fifty-something taxi driver. He’d been with the movement since the beginning of the occupations. An image of him from September 28 became infamous for gratuitous police violence: he was pepper-sprayed directly in the face by a police officer though he stood a good distance from the barrier separating demonstrators from police and was making no aggressive action toward the police. Once the police started tear-gassing the people, he stood amongst the several hundred young people most directly defying the police. After the end of the occupations, once his taxi-driving shifts were finished, he would come to Tim Mei Village, the small occupation that continued at Legco long after the main one was cleared, park his taxi there, and sleep in it at night. He would often ferry occupiers to places they had to go, or bring take-out dinners to them. That Wednesday, he said: “We are at the kindergarten stage in the struggle for democracy. We still have a long long way to go.”
Another person I met that Wednesday was a middle-aged member of the Progressive Teachers Alliance, one of the groups to emerge from the occupations. The Professional Teachers Union is the largest pro-democracy union in HK, but it’s been pretty lame in the past year. After the police tear-gassing, the PTU called for an indefinite strike, but there wasn’t much response, and since then, we never heard from them. Some teachers became frustrated with the sluggishness of the PTU and set up the Progressive Teachers Alliance. I asked her what she thought about opinion polls that consistently put support for the HK government’s fake universal suffrage proposals at 40 to 50%. How can that be? I wondered. Do you think they’re accurate? “Well,” she said, “most HK people deep in their hearts want democracy, want freedom, don’t want HK to become more like the mainland, don’t want more CCP influence over HK. Polls over the last decades have consistently shown that 60 to 70% of HK people want democracy. That is clear. But then there’s greed, ignorance, political apathy. You have to remember that political awareness and involvement in politics are relatively new phenomena in HK. Then there’s the relentless government propaganda, from both HK and Beijing. There are people who just want a quiet life, don’t want any trouble, and think the best way to keep out of trouble is to just go along with what Beijing says as long as it lets them lead their day-to-day lives. Then there are the people who have the illusion that they can just stay out of politics. They don’t realize that politics affects them whether they like it or not. Then there is the minority of people at the top and those on the bottom who think their interests are best served by allying themselves with Beijing. The people on the bottom are deluded; the people on the top may be short-sighted; their alliance with Beijing is one of convenience, not of ideology or love. So when you take all these factors into account, maybe it’s easier to put those polls into perspective.”
The official program of the assembly ended around nine that evening. Very quickly, the stage was taken down, the floodlights turned off and disassembled, the sound system carted away. In the darkness left in their wake, one of the famous “mobile democracy classrooms” sprung up, with about twenty-five people taking part in a discussion that mostly revolved around looking past the vote of the next day to what the future held and how to carry on the struggle. Off to the side of it, two people, a man and a woman, had set a big battered metal pot. From it, they ladled a sugary lemony very cold drink into small cups that they went about offering to the discussants and passers-by. The drink was very refreshing on that hot night when even long past daylight you could feel the heat radiating off the pavement. They told me they had often done this during the occupations; it was their small way to contribute. The earnest sweetness of their act of gratuitous kindness was a characteristic I have often come across in pro-democracy activists, and is why I’ve said time and again that the pro-democracy movement shows the very best side of HK.
Then there was the most startling, surprising encounter of the night. It occurred as I was leaving. Way back in September, I was leaving the student class boycott, whose activities for most of the week were centered around Tamar Park, where they had a big main stage. Near the harbor, I passed a young man off by himself strumming guitar. He looked up at me, and I stopped to talk. I asked him what he was singing.
He said, “I’m composing a song for when we get democracy.”
“When will that be?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said, “maybe a long time,” and smiled.
“Can I listen?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said, and I sat there listening while staring out across the water over to the Kowloon side. The music sounded very soft, wispy. I don’t remember his words, but I remember thinking they sounded earnest, idealistic. I’d since thought of that guitarist occasionally, but never saw him again.
Until Wednesday evening. I was coming across Tamar Park, where that evening the pro-CCP contingent was headquartered. But they’d departed punctually at 9- rumor had it they’d gone to tour buses at Central ferry pier 8 to collect their money for the day and get a ride home. They’d left all of their things behind, including chairs and tents. A few pro-democracy young people had moved in, to talk and enjoy the view; amongst them, my guitarist. He was playing his guitar and joyfully making a huge racket. Rather than soft, earnest music, this was punk, hardcore. And the words weren’t idealistic but in-your-face:
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
HK is mine, mine, mine
HK is not yours, it’s mine
HK is mine
His friends were laughing and helping him to improvise:
CCP, you can stick it up your ass
UK, you can stick it up your ass
EU you can stick it up your ass
Whole goddamn world you can stick it up your ass
HK is mine is mine is mine
HK is not yours, it’s mine
HK is mine
How’s that for an alternative ‘national’ anthem?
After the song ended, I applauded and asked if he remembered me.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s been a long time.”
“So long. Do you remember the song you were composing? You said it was for when we get democracy.”
“Yes,” he said.
“What ever became of that?”
“Well, we haven’t gotten democracy yet, but at least we’re about to stop the fake kind. I think I still have a while to finish that song.”
In such a short time, we’ve come so far, so much has changed. And yet so much remains the same.
Across the broad spectrum of the pro-democracy movement, one of the few things we all agree on is that we don’t know what the future holds. I ask people that question all the time. More often than not, the response is a shrug: Who knows?
We’ve fought so hard to gain so little. Indeed, at most, with the defeat of fake suffrage, we’ve prevented the worst, and only for the time being, in a most provisional way.
We live in limbo under a creeping shadow and will continue to do so into the foreseeable future. There are 32 years to go before the end of the 50-year one-country-two-systems period, but the CCP is trying to end the game long before then.
Joshua Wong has set the tone in saying the defeat of fake suffrage is not really a victory and not cause for celebration. (He’s right, but, c’mon, Joshua, we have to at least congratulate ourselves a bit after all that resistance.)
He goes on to say that we need to be thinking about what happens after 2047. Again, I concur. It is essential to have a long-term perspective, to think in terms of what our ultimate goals are, and to devise a long-term strategy accordingly. We can’t just keep dealing with matters as they arise. While we are indeed in an era of resistance, we have to also think about how to aim for what we really want. That’s certainly what the CCP’s been doing all along, and so much of our work up to now has concentrated on reacting against the CCP or calling for ultimate demands to be met, such as genuine universal suffrage, without having a clear long-term strategy for advancing that cause.
And what do we want? Well, of course, different people in the pro-democracy movement want different things, including some who say their ultimate aim is independence, but it’s safe to say that there is general consensus on the desire for real democracy and real autonomy. In addition to that, it is safe to say that there’s agreement on the aims of greater economic and social justice.
It is also very difficult to strategize in the long term with such a shifting array of characters. The people in the Legislative Council who blocked fake suffrage are the old guard, and they will be moving on before long. The people outside the Legislative Council demonstrating are the ones who represent the future.
Outside of Legco, people, young people, were holding debates on revising the Basic Law or drawing up a whole new constitution. It’s important to stress that this is the extent to which the CCP’s refusal to honor its legal obligation to HK or address the demands of the people of HK in any serious way has essentially torn up the implicit social contract between the CCP and HK. People are now saying 1) the CCP simply didn’t honor the Basic Law, so why should we? 2) Anyway, it’s proven deficient in protecting the interests, rights and autonomy of HK. 3) And on top of that, we never had any say in it anyway. So either you amend the articles that are sticking points in fulfilling the rights of the HK people and guarding HK’s autonomy, or we go back to the drawing board and we draw up a constitution that is the people’s constitution and we put it to a referendum.
Indeed, one of the basic issues of debate within the pro-democracy movement at the moment is whether to work within the current system or reject it. Those who say we should work within the system say the problem isn’t the Basic Law per se as the CCP’s attitude. We won’t get a better deal than the Basic Law, at least in the short term, and in many ways, it has worked effectively to protect the interests of the HK people most of the time up to now. The response to that is that the recent debacle has shown clearly the limitations of the Basic Law. Up to now, HK people have patiently abided by the Basic Law, though they had no say in drawing it up and have never given any formal approval of it. They did so in the expectation that one day, their demands for rights promised in the Basic Law would be met, but they have not, and with the social contract represented in the Basic Law broken, it’s time to start all over. Anyway, the whole system represented by the Basic Law is rigged, and the CCP has shown no inclination to begin un-rigging it any time soon, by allowing universal suffrage for Chief Executive and the Legislative Council. So we should start on that process ourselves, not in the expectation that the CCP will suddenly see the light before long but with the understanding that we must first articulate our goals and then work toward them over a longer period of time lasting probably decades.
Much of how the pro-democracy movement develops from this point on will revolve around how this debate plays itself out.
It’s worth noting that most of the political parties represented in Legco — with the exception of People Power, the independent Wong Yuk-man, and possibly the League of Social Democrats (a total of five of the 27 pan-democratic legislative councillors) — have affirmed allegiance to the Basic Law even as they voted down fake suffrage. They basically say the Basic Law is o.k. but the interpretations of the provisions related to universal suffrage by the CCP and the HK government are incorrect. (A very good example of this is the excellent speech against fake suffrage given by Civic Party member and representative of the law functional constituency, Dennis Kwok).
Meanwhile, outside of formal politics, it appears more and more opinions are drifting toward less acceptance of the Basic Law as a sufficient basis for the governance of HK. Joshua Wong of Scholarism raised eyebrows when he spoke in favor of re-examining the Basic Law and the need for amendments of those parts of it which the CCP and HK government have interpreted in such a way as to deny HK people the basic right to be elected. This appeared to be a departure from the position held by Scholarism up to then. If indeed it is, that means that most of the leading pro-democracy groups which don’t participate in formal politics and contest elections are taking a far more skeptical attitude toward the Basic Law. Even the relatively mainstream Civil Human Rights Front is jumping on the “amend the Basic Law” bandwagon, making that demand one of two key themes of the upcoming July 1 march (the other being restarting the electoral reform process after the defeat of fake suffrage).
Upcoming District Council elections in November and Legislative Council elections in 2016 will likely sharpen the point of these differences. Do you take part and strive to do as well as possible, or do you say, That’s a rigged system and I refuse to legitimize it by taking part in it?
There have been many small pro-democracy movement that have arisen to contest the District Council elections. Up to now, they don’t seem to be gaining much traction, though perhaps it’s too soon to say. Because the pro-#CCP parties are so much better funded than the pan-democratic parties, they have fared much better at District Council elections in recent years. They have a permanent presence in many parts of the city and are hard to unseat without a very well-coordinated, well-organized mobilization effort that the pro-democracy movement hasn’t been able to pull off up to now. Anyway, the argument goes, District Councils are not where the battle should be fought; they don’t do much anyway. Will the pro-democracy movement participate wholeheartedly in the District Council elections; will it not? How well will it do? The fact that there are reportedly 391,277 young people between the ages of 18 and 30 not registered as voters with a deadline of 2 July to register does not bode well.
Then, of course, the Legislative Council elections of 2016 will be as rigged as ever, since the CCP refused to entertain demands to abolish functional constituencies in 2016, saying first fake suffrage for Chief Executive in 2017 had to be passed before reform of Legco elections in 2020 could be entertained. So, again, do you participate in a rigged system or not? There’s probably a stronger argument for doing so. Pan-democratic parties have not done spectacularly well in recent Legco elections, but 2016 represents a real opportunity for them to substantially improve, capitalizing on their success in defeating fake suffrage. If they can’t do better in 2016, then it’s doubtful they’ll ever be able to increase their representation significantly in subsequent elections.
But they’ll have to be much better prepared and, in particular, put up much more appealing candidates than they have recently. The thing is, many of the more charismatic figures in the pro-democracy movement have shown little inclination to enter into formal politics. Even those who believe it’s still possible to work within the system think they can accomplish more personally outside of Legco than inside it.
The pan-dems currently have only 18 of 35 seats in the geographical constituencies (those elected in accordance with the principles of genuine universal suffrage). And with the resignation of Ronny Tong, that number drops to 17, exactly half. That’s hardly an impressive record, and the pan-dems’ underwhelming performance in recent Legco elections is one reason so many pro-democracy activists have started looking elsewhere for initiative, energy, new ideas and leadership and turning their backs on the formal political process. In that sense, 2016 is really a make-or-break election. All of the pro-democracy movement, regardless of attitude toward formal politics, needs to firmly support the pan-dems’ campaigns, but if they don’t manage to substantially improve on their current record, then exactly how the pro-democracy movement participates in the formal political system needs to be re-evaluated. By the same token, the pan-democratic political parties need to be much more willing to listen to their pro-democracy allies than they have been up to now.
The pan-dems hold 9 of 35 seats in the largely rigged functional constituencies. The pro-democracy movement should continue to call for the abolition of all functional constituency seats, but in the meantime, it should hotly contest all where it stands a chance. That means also identifying the currently pro-CCP functional constituency seats that are vulnerable. Because of the Democratic Party’s bone-headed compromise with the CCP on ‘reform’ of Legco elections starting in 2012, functional constituencies are arguably even more deeply entrenched, and we’re stuck with these five weird ‘super seats’, according to which District Councillors elect candidates to five seats in Legco. It’s a terrible set-up, but also one of the main reasons- whatever else you may think of the pro-democracy movement putting its energies into District Council elections or not- the pan-democratic camp needs a savvy and well-coordinated strategy to contest DC elections.
It’s important to remember just how little power Legco has in our so-called “executive-led” system. Legco members can’t even initiate new legislation (unless it costs nothing). That means the best Legco can do is thwart the efforts of the Chief Executive, a role which it has often played well, but which falls short of actually “doing anything”. Indeed, one reason for the support of pan-democratic parties remaining rather limited is that some people look at them and say, What have they done? Of course, the system is designed in such a way that there’s little they can. That goes for the pro-CCP parties as well, but the latter have a better track record of taking people to snake feasts and the like, which perhaps makes it look as if they “do something”, at least in the eyes of some.
At any rate, there’s little that can be accomplished in Legco in terms of fighting for democracy beyond the rearguard actions such as blocking fake suffrage that we have just seen. For precisely this reason, it’s tactically important to do as well as possible in Legco: If the pro-CCP side attains a two-thirds majority and can thus pass constitutional amendments, HK is as good as dead, at least as far as hopes for a more democratic, fairer society go.
Outside of the system, there is discussion of setting up a whole shadow or parallel political system. This could include drawing up a new constitution, holding a parallel election for Chief Executive under rules of genuine universal suffrage in 2017, forming a shadow/parallel government, and so on. There are many interesting possibilities here
Apart from politics, there are many social, cultural and economic issues to be addressed. The anti-parallel trade demonstrations set a good template for that, but keep in mind that parallel trading, as annoying as it is in many places in Hong Kong, as much as it negatively affects the quality of life, is but the tip of the iceberg when it comes to mainlandization. Could an overall plan be drawn up by groups across the pro-democracy spectrum to combat mainlandization in its myriad manifestations?
One of the most positive aspects of the occupations was that it sowed the seeds for many cultural initiatives. Developing a culture that is independent and promotes self-confidence and strengthens HK identity as separate from that of a mainland under CCP dictatorship is to be encouraged.
In general, there are two particular opportunities for the pro-democracy movement: 1) strengthen a sense of HK identity and 2) point out the connection between lack of democracy and crony capitalism, on the one hand, and the fact that HK is the most unequal developed society in the world in terms of income distribution.
Probably one of the effective bulwarks against mainlandization is the development of an HK identity as distinct from that of the mainland. It is already clear that most young people, especially, think of themselves as first and foremost HK people and identify very little if at all with the CCP-dictated mainland. Many recent controversies, in particular the decisions by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Hong Kong University Student Union to not participate in the June 4 candlelight vigil, are about this. And this, in return, is a reaction against efforts by the CCP and the HK government to inculcate a stronger sense of “national identity” in secondary students and universities. To the extent that HK people think of themselves as HK people first, that sense of identity can be a strong basis of resistance.
Traditional elements of the HK pro-democracy movement, in particular, the formal political parties, have been weak at communicating the connection between lack of democracy and income inequality. They’ve sought to improve recently, but they still have to get much better at it. This is a key opportunity to strip away support for pro-CCP parties, especially in the many low-income areas of HK where the latter have a strong presence.
But this means going to those areas, having a consistent presence in those areas, and communicating effectively to low-income people how the pro-CCP parties and the HK government are actually and effectively opposed to economic and social justice and are largely involved in preserving the vested interests of the elites. The HK government and pro-CCP parties give the pro-democracy movement plenty of easily available ammunition, such as the argument of CY Leung against genuine universal suffrage to the effect that it would give too many poor people equal voting rights.
Generally speaking, pro-democracy parties and groups have a fairly strong record in supporting measures that would lead to greater social and economic justice, such as laws on minimum wage, maximum work hours and mandatory overtime pay and the right to collective bargaining, but they need to improve and promote these more strongly, making them a cornerstone of their programs, and developing a fully coherent and and comprehensive agenda (that would, among other things, involve a sane housing strategy that would contrast sharply with the HK government’s).
If the pro-democracy movement can collaborate on a program of promotion of 1) HK identity and autonomy, 2) social and economic justice, and 3) genuine universal suffrage, and constantly stress the ways in which these issues are inter-related, then I am quite confident they will continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the foreseeable in future.
In terms of techniques, after low turnouts for marches on February 1 and June 14, the line goes that many people in the pro-democracy movement don’t believe in marches anymore. That’s fine. But then, what do you believe in? What is more effective? That question remains to be answered. Ideas for general civil disobedience campaigns such as refusal to pay taxes or rent on public housing apartments have not met widespread acceptance up to now. Likewise, there have been few to no labor actions related to the pro-democracy movement, though many have organized professional groups supporting universal suffrage. Ideas for economic boycotts have not really been realized up to now either. That’s not to say there aren’t ways to go about these things; just that not much work has been done on them up to now and there’s not a general cultural climate of acceptance or experience of such techniques. This proved to be a significant limitation on the effectiveness of the occupations when the question of escalation arose.
We return to the fact that perhaps the number one signal failing of the pro-democracy movement in the past year is that it didn’t get any of the regime’s allies — tycoons, the business community in general, the largely pro-establishment or acquiescent media, the police — to defect. Are there any strategies of eventually getting them to calculate that their interests will in the long-term be more aligned with the pro-democracy movement than with the regime? This is a key question that is hardly being discussed at the moment, precisely because virtually everyone finds it hard to envision any of those entities defecting or, at the very least, withdrawing their active support of the regime.
Still, where opportunities arise, the pro-democracy movement should work to develop effective channels of communication with these elements. It’s important to remember that, deep down, few of them are fervent supporters of the CCP; it’s a marriage of convenience.
Many tycoons have resented getting roped into the CCP’s anti-democracy propaganda campaign and being made to publicly declare their loyalty. Morale within the police force is low due to its high disapproval rating among HK people. It’s hard to imagine any of them suddenly changing sides and declaring their fervent belief in democracy, but it’s not as hard to imagine them cutting their business exposure in China (especially if the Chinese economy and business opportunities continue to slow down) and gradually moving some of their business out of HK to less uncertain markets, as people like Li Ka-shing have already been doing. In their place will perhaps gradually arise a business class that is not as beholden to the political powers that be (and the favors they can bestow or withhold) for its profits.
There are many decent police officers who are disgruntled at being co-opted as the guard dogs of the regime. They are aware that the public approval rating of HK police is at an all-time low. Among other things, they see it in people’s eyes on the streets every day. HK remains one of the safest, most orderly and most law-abiding societies in the world, first and foremost because it is self-policing, because HK people are highly disciplined and law-abiding. The most lawless elements in HK society, such as the triads and other forms of organized crimes, are without exception more closely allied with the regime. As with the business class, the police are hardly going to suddenly switch sides and begin to disobey political orders, and the leaders of the HK police will most likely continue to have the least scruples when it comes to developing ever-closer relations with mainland counterparts, but more and more HK police see that various forms of smuggling and trafficking are far more damaging to law and order than the pro-democracy movement, regardless of CCP and HK government propaganda to the contrary. The aim should be to split the HK police rank and file from the HK police leaders, so that the latter, in order to maintain good relations with the former, will have to track closer to them in practice and away from using the police to conduct surveillance and monitoring and generally persecuting the pro-democracy movement, which is a trend at the moment. Right now, the police leaders think the way forward is to develop “crack units” for online surveillance, covert monitoring, and street policing, but a potential weakness of this strategy is that it will create a rift within the ranks between the absolute loyalists and the vast majority who are really just interested in traditional policing. Isolating and combating the units that engage in what the police consider “preventative” policing (ie, keeping an eye on and pursuing even potentially “criminal” elements) should be a priority of the pro-democracy movement.
For the most part, trying to change the editorial line of the establishment media is a lost cause, but it’s important to remember that what will hit them hardest is loss of revenue. Viewership of free t.v. and readership of print news continues to hemorrhage, especially amongst young people. Indeed, to a large extent, a parallel system of information gathering and dissemination, of opinion formation is already growing up around social media and online media upstarts such as InMedia, SocRec, Stand News, Passion Times, and HK Free Press. This trend will most likely continue, given that it is young people driving it. It is striking the extent to which the editorial position of South China Morning Post, for example, is almost diametrically opposed to the views of its readership when it comes to democracy. SCMP supported fake universal suffrage, but a (thoroughly unscientific but suggestive) online poll conducted of its readership found that nearly 80% were happy that fake suffrage was defeated. For both business and ideological reasons, it can be said the pro-CCP and/or self-censoring media don’t have time on their side, and their main purpose will continue to be to “divide” society, to shore up support amongst the 20 to 30% of the population that can be relied on to support CCP policies, however passively, a percentage of society which, due to its age, could be slowly dying out.
My advice is, try everything that you have the capacity for, everything that stands a chance of working and even a few things that don’t. The future really is wide open. We need to try new things. It’s hard to know what will work and what won’t. It’s a problem that we don’t know where we’re going, but it’s also an opportunity. The open-hearted and adventurous spirit of the pro-democracy movement over the past year must be retained and cultivated. We must continually search for ways to give a young people a real stake, a real voice and real power in pro-democracy institutions, something we haven’t been good at up now. Groups that are youth groups, such as Scholarism, need more support. Scholarism has operated almost in isolation when it comes to outreach to secondary school students. It needs to continue to operate according to its own agenda but help in matters such liaising with progressive teachers and school administrators, contacts, networking, and material help such as support in printing leaflets and lending venues for events would all go some way in helping to develop one of the more promising organizations.
Indeed, one of the main things the pro-democracy movement should be considering at this point is setting up an overall coordinating body as a platform for identifying common opportunities and needs and ways in which we can help each other. It should not “centralize” or be a decision-making body, but it should bring the various elements of the movement into better communication with one another.
We are tired. We need a break. But there is much work to do. And the clock is ticking. The CCP will redouble efforts to rapidly mainlandize with a vengeance after the humiliation of the defeat of fake suffrage. The people of the HK pro-democracy movement have been magnificent up to now, but that doesn’t mean we will continue to be so in the future. As ever, it all depends on us.
19 June 2015