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  Making Sense of Hong Kong Pro-Democracy Protests   

D.S.Rajan, C3S PaperNo.2080

As on today (24 November 2014), the current wave of Pro-Democracy protests in Hong Kong, one of the biggest   to be organized since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) attained its sovereignty over the former British Colony in 1997, is seven weeks old.   They began on 28 September 2014, when about 100,000 protestors  came out in streets to oppose the 31 August 2014 decision of the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) to appoint a Committee to select  Hong Kong Chief Executive candidates in the 2017 election; instead they made a three-point demand to   Hong Kong and central governments – (i) implement “universal suffrage” ( one person- one vote) principle for the 2017 Chief Executive election and for the 2020 Legislative Council (LEGCO) election, (ii)  stop civil liberty encroachments like curbing media freedom and (iii) remove mainland intrusions into Hong Kong’s economy which are resulting in adverse impact  like real estate price hike, loss of educational opportunities to local youth  etc .  The Police used tear gas to disperse the crowd. The protests which continue mark a civil disobedience movement; being called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, it is asking the demonstrators to block roads and paralyze Hong Kong’s financial and central district. “Umbrella movement “is its other name, derived from the yellow umbrellas carried by the protestors in 2012 while pressing for direct elections.  About 93 of the protestors have reportedly been arrested or detained so far.

According to latest reports, the Central government has refused to meet a delegation of protesting students from Hong Kong and the Hong Kong authorities have rejected proposals of protestors to hold by-election to or dissolve Legislative Council. There thus seems to be no meeting point as of now between the protestors and the authorities both in Hong Kong and Beijing. Also, a protest fatigue seems to have set in and the number of demonstrators is coming down day by day considerably. A University of Hong Kong poll has said that 8 out of ten Hong Kong residents want the protests to end.  Also, the protest movement appears to face a split with hardliners including violent action in their agenda and others opposing the same. In these circumstances, the demonstrations may end soon, but    whether the fundamental issues raised by the protesters can be resolved, will remain a question for a long time. Interestingly, this point is even being acknowledged by the state controlled media in Beijing (“Hong Kong Protest Takes a Twisted Turn”, Global Times, 20 November 2014).

Pro-Democracy movement in Hong Kong is rooted in the past. It  stands for autonomy of Hong Kong and one should not confuse it with the reported existence of groups favouring Hong Kong Independence, about which available information are scarce.  Pro-democracy demands have been appearing since later half of eithties.1000 activists protested in November 1986 asking for direct elections to the LEGCO. This led to introduction of 18 directly elected LEGCO seats in 1991. There was then a hunger strike outside Xinhua office in Hong Kong  in 1988 against  a government proposal to postpone direct Chief Executive election until 2012. In 1996, there were two protests – one led by pro-democracy lawmakers   against Beijing’s appointment of a body to replace the partially elected LEGCO, and the other against the selection of Chief Executive Candidates done by a 400-member Committee chosen by Beijing. In July 2003, there was a demonstration against the government’s Anti-Sedition law and in July 2004, about 450,000 came out against Beijing’s April 2004 directive ruling out direct Chief Executive and LEGCO elections.  In 2012, protestors demonstrated against the government’s “moral and national education plan”, which introduced pro-China education syllabus in schools.

Factual data helpful to understand  the developing situation in Hong Kong, are provided below ( see Annexure);  they pertain to land  mark events,   prominent leaders, personalities and  organizations involved in the protests and  Beijing’s responses noticed so far.

Assessing the emerging situation on Hong Kong, the fact that protests have happened regularly signify  that Beijing’s efforts to assimilate Hong Kong with the national mainstream under the “One Country- Two Systems” principle are yet to succeed. Secondly, it is clear that Beijing has gone back from its assurance to introduce direct elections in Hong Kong in 2017 and shows no signs of any positional relaxation.  This could be due to Beijing realization now that conceding to democracy demands in Hong Kong will have repercussions on its already restive Xinjiang and Tibet provinces.  In the final count however, it is probable that Beijing may show some flexibility as   issues raised by protestors are popular in Hong Kong and will continue to be alive, increasing pressure on it in the run-up to the year 2017.   At the moment, the PRC appears to be confident of successfully dealing with the with the protest situation. It may in particular feel encouraged over lack of any real International pressure on China with respect to protests. The US State Department only made a reference to Hong Kong peoples’ aspirations for universal suffrage.  No outside power has so far mentioned about human rights situation in Hong Kong. It is true that Beijing has orchestrated well its campaign against the West’s alleged use of Hong Kong to interfere in its domestic affairs, but the same so far seems to be pro-forma in nature, similar  to what was seen at the time of past Chinese allegations against the West for involvement in Xinjiang and Tibet unrest.  Lastly, there seems to be no substance in speculative stories ( Epoch Times) that Beijing’s 31 August 2014 hard line decision on Hong Kong may reflect a power struggle between the NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang, a Jiang Zemin loyalist, and President Xi Jinping. According to them, the former through the decision liked to provoke a Tian An Men incident in Hong Kong warranting a heavy crackdown of protestors, which can make Xi unpopular, leading to his stepping down.

(The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India. This formed the basis of his talk at the Observer Research Foundation, Chennai Chapter, on 15 November


Land Mark Events

The land mark events relating to Hong Kong situation in chronological order are as follows:

1842:  Hong Kong ceded to Britain in perpetuity

1984:   Sino-British Joint Declaration issued. Britain agrees to return entire Hong  Kong colony to China in 1997; China, in return, under “One Country-Two  Systems” policy, pledges to maintain the territory’s legal, political and   economic autonomy for 50 years, i.e by 2047.

1997:   Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Constitution, known as Basic Law, with the stated ultimate aim of “Universal Suffrage” comes into   effect.

2007:   China’s National People’s Congress rules that “Universal Suffrage” could  be adopted in Hong Kong as early as the Year  2017 for Chief Executive  election and the Year 2020 for Legislative Council election.

2010:   Amendment to Hong Kong Basic Law comes into effect. It restricts the law making powers of the Legislative Council . Out of its 70 members, 30 are to be elected by a “ functional constituency”, representing business and  social sectors and the rest by direct elections. For Chief Executive Election, an Election Committee with 1200 members is to be  formed out of whom 900  are to be elected by the “functional constituency” and 300 by Legislative Council members.

2013:   In September, Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong rejects open nomination  of candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive Elections.

2014:  10th session of 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee meets in Beijing on 31 August. It decides to form a “broadly representative  nominating committee”, which “in accordance with democratic procedures”, would  nominate 2 or 3 candidates for the Chief Executive  Election in 2017, out of whom one would be elected by all eligible electors  of HKSAR. The Central People’s Government would finally appoint the  Chief Executive to be elected in this way.

Responses from Beijing (in chronological order)

10 June 2014:  The PRC State Council Information Office issues a White Paper on  “One Country-Two   Systems in Hong Kong”. The

 White Paper says that in implementation of “One Country- Two Systems” principle in Hong Kong, ‘’ new circumstances and new problems” have   emerged. Wrong political views have come to prevail in Hong Kong. It adds that the “the   central government has the power of  oversight over Hong Kong’s  high degree of autonomy , which is  not an inherent power but one that comes solely from the  authorization of the central leadership. The HKSAR’s   high degree  of autonomy is not full autonomy, nor a decentralized  power”.  It accuses “outside forces as attempting to use Hong  Kong to interfere in China’s domestic affairs”.

14 Aug 2014:  China Daily accuses Jimmy Lai, owner of the anti- Beijing Apple Daily in Hong Kong of making payment to democratic  law makers  in Hong Kong.   ( Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung identifies Mark  Simon, a former submarine analyst  and  right hand man of Jimmy Lai, on the same day as an external force meddling in Hong Kong protests. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao highlights  the  demonstration that took place in front of Jimmy Lai’s Next Media Limited office. Other Hong Kong media report that Hong Kong’s anti-graft agency is investigating payment of US$ 1.3 million by Jimmy Lai to democratic law makers. They also reveal  that Jimmy Lai met Paul Wolfowitz, former US Deputy Defence Secretary on 14 May 2014 and   that Anson Chan, Chief Secretary during final phase  of British Rule and Martin Lee, leader of Hong Kong Democratic  Party met US Vice-President Joe Biden and were hosted by the US  Agency,  National Endowment for Democracy- NED).

31 Aug 2014: 10th session of 12th National People’s Congress Standing Committee meets  in Beijing on 31 August. It decides to form a  “broadly representative  nominating committee”, which “in  accordance with democratic   procedures”, would  nominate 2 or 3 candidates for the Chief Executive  Election in 2017, out of whom one would be elected by all eligible electors  of HKSAR. The Central People’s Government would finally appoint the  Chief Executive to be elected in this way 28 Sept 2014:  PRC President Xi Jinping issues order to Hong Kong government  (leaked by the media in Hong Kong).  The order asks the Hong Kong  authorities not to carry out violent crackdown on protestors, not to  open fire on the demonstrators, learn lessons from Tian An Men incident, win public support and negotiate with Hong Kong people.

1 Oct 2014    :   People’s Daily editorial entitled “Cherish Positive Growth, Defend  Hong Kong’s Prosperity and Stability” appears. It warns protestors  of ‘unimaginable consequences’.

First week Of Oct 2014 :   President Xi Jinping addresses National Security Commission  Meeting in Beijing. Says that China will give no ground to pro-  democracy  protests in Hong Kong  to avoid setting precedence for reforms  on the mainland (as reported in Hong Kong press ).

 9 Oct 2014:      NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang  and the PRC Vice-Premier Wang  Yang tell Hong Kong law makers that protests in Hong Kong are a  “color revolution  manipulated by foreign  powers”.

11 Oct 2014:    People’s Daily alleges that protest leaders met Louisa Greve, Vice-President, National Endowment for Democracy (NED) of the USA. Accuses the US of “color revolution “bid in Hong Kong . US State Department promptly rejects the allegation.

14 Oct 2014:    The theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party ‘Qiu Shi’ makes indirect reference to Hong Kong.Says that copying Western  style democracy can only bring disaster  and that Western style democracy has no “ universal value”.

 12 Nov 2014:   President Xi Jinping, says at a joint press conference with his US counterpart Obama, held in Beijing after the APEC  summit that foreign governments should not meddle in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and that  foreign journalists should  obey the law. Adding that Hong Kong protests are “illegal”, he remarks that “we resolutely support the HKSAR to handle the crisis according to law so as to uphold social stability in Hong Kong”.

Leaders, Personalities and Organizations

 The leaders of the protests in Hong Kong are (i) Benny Tai Yu Ting, Associate Professor of Law, University of Hong Kong, (ii) Jospeh Cheng, Convener, Alliance for True Democracy and (iii) Martin Lee, Founder of   Hong Kong Democratic Party. Organizations supporting the protests are (i) the Hong Kong Federation of Students (General Secretary- Yvonne Leung, Activists- Alex Chow Yong Kang, Nathan law and Eason Chung), (ii) “Scholarism”, a student body led by Joshua Wong who took part in the campaign against pro-Chinese education school syllabus in 2012 and Oscar Lai Man Lok and (iii) the radical “Civic Passion” group led by Wong Yeung Tat. Involved from the Hong Kong government side are (i) Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying and (ii) Chief Secretary –   Carrie Lam. Pro-Beijing    organizations in Hong Kong relevant to the protests are (i) Xinhua Liaison Office,  (ii) the Democratic Alliance for Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong and media like Ta Kung Pao.

( The writer, D.S.Rajan, is Distinguished Fellow, Chennai Centre for China Studies, India. This formed the basis of his talk on the subject at the National Conference of Indian Strategic Thinkers on “India’s Foreign Policy and its Strategic Stance in Present Global Security Scenario”, held at New Delhi on 25 and 26 October 2014, under the sponsorship of Centre for Policy Analysis, Patna in association with the Ministry of External Affairs.

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