Beijing Rescues HK’s Occupy Central Movement

Just as the Occupy Central movement was collapsing from lack of public support, Beijing gave it a powerful shot in the arm with the release of its ill-timed White Paper on June 10, asserting the mainland’s power over Hong Kong.

That was followed by a massive denial of service attack on June 13 in an apparent attempt to disable the servers for an online referendum on direct elections called by the Occupy group. The non-binding referendum has enraged Beijing. The attack was contained and the referendum period extended to June 29 with polling locations increased.

The renewed energy behind the Occupy Central movement coincides with a planned protest march for July 1, the annual celebration of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997. The day has become a yearly target for protesters, whose numbers rise and fall depending on the level of public anger at Beijing.

The provocation has reignited the spirit first seen on July 1, 2003, when more than 500,000 Hong Kongers protested against the Article 23 Security Bill, which would have prohibited a long series of supposed transgressions against the government in Beijing including treason, secession, sedition and subversion. By June 29, some 780,000 people had voted in Occupy Central’s mock referendum on electoral methods for the 2017 chief executive election. The organizers were hoping for 800,000 by the close of the referendum.

It had not been going well and the Occupy Central leaders were already preparing to give up, lowering their voter target to just 100,000. Their referendum, which offers three different plans for electing the chief executive, who is currently appointed by an election committee of 1200 people controlled by Beijing, would likely have sunk with little notice until Beijing listened to some bad advice, as it did in the 2003 Article 23 mess. The arrogance of the White Paper has triggered massive defiance across Hong Kong society which until recently has seemed resigned to Beijing’s election distortions.

Direct election 2017

Since the handover of Hong Kong by the British in 1997, which mainland propaganda calls the “liberation from 150 years of shame,” Beijing authorities have been putting off the day when the territory's residents could elect their own leaders. That promise is enshrined in the mini-constitution called the Basic Law, which has a shelf-life of 50 years until 2047. After stalling for 10 years, in 2007 Beijing kicked the can forward to 2017 for direct election by universal suffrage of the chief executive and 2020 for the Legislative Council.

The people of Hong Kong had little participation in politics under British rule but enjoyed personal, press and free speech rights protected under exemplary rule of law – all still denied to their compatriots on the mainland after 65 years of communist liberation. Hong Kong citizens take these rights for granted. That is the supreme irony in this elaborate charade.

Trust deficit leads to Occupy Central

Occupy Central, modeled roughly on other "occupy" movements worldwide, was created as a grassroots movement for the right of the territory’s citizens to stand for election and have a direct vote for their leaders, not just a percentage of the Legislative Council as it is currently. Law professor Benny Tai Yau-ting of Hong Kong University first raised the idea of non-violent civil disobedience if the government fails to provide a framework for “true” democracy in a Jan 16, 2013 article for the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

Tai, the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming and Chinese University sociology professor Chan Kin-man jointly lead the campaign. None of these men have any history as political agitators or as agents for foreign powers out to sabotage China – as some Beijing partisans allege.

The Occupy Central leaders reject as “fake” a democratic process that fails to meet the criteria in Basic Law Article 45 for the Nominating Committee to be broadly representative in accordance with “democratic procedures.” In the Occupy view universal suffrage is meaningless if voters are preempted by a stacked Beijing rubber-stamp body like the Election Committee which has selected three chief executives since 1997. It subverts the will of the electorate and defeats the purpose of an election.

White Paper shuffle

The White Paper reminded Hong Kongers that the handover pledges of “high degree of autonomy”, “one country two systems” and “Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” are all subject to the whims of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The message in essence was that the Basic Law will be interpreted and re-interpreted at will, so just shut up like the 1.3 billion people across the border.

For good measure the White Paper also requires the chief executive, in addition to taking his oath of office, to be a “patriot” who does not oppose the socialist dictatorship. Judges are also required to be "patriotic" administrators of the state. Much of the language is seen as code for guaranteeing the political monopoly of the CCP. On June 27, retired judges joined lawyers for a silent march from the High Court to the Court of Final Appeal to protest the re-definition of judges as tools of the state.

“We want to send a very clear message to the central government: Don’t interfere, don’t damage the rule of law; it is too important for Hong Kong,” said Dennis Kwok Wing-hang, legislator for the legal sector.

Twice Betrayed

Hong Kong residents were first betrayed by the UK government in 1984 when Margaret Thatcher bartered them for China trade without prior consultation. They now feel bitterly betrayed again by Beijing reneging on its handover promises. They are angry. It feels increasingly like a new colonization rather than the liberation touted in 1997.

Beijing’s mishandling has moved Occupy Central’s demand for true democracy from the margins to the very core of Hong Kong concerns, like the Article 23 Security Bill did in 2003. In all likelihood the July 1 march will again overflow with dignified anger and defiance involving a wide cross-section of ordinary folk. The moral high ground is with the people, not the government in Hong Kong or Beijing.

Earlier dark warnings about aggressive policing and using the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to crush any “rioters” implied a possibly engineered scenario to give the authorities the excuse to crack down. It is unlikely that the Hong Kong Police or the PLA will be directed to unleash state terror given the public mood.

The police can and will remove squatters from Central to clear the roads, assuming Occupy Central makes good on promises for non-violent civil disobedience. Prisons have been prepared to hold them. But the bigger issue is that Occupy Central's call for direct elections has become the elephant that cannot be ignored.