On Scene: China's 'No' to Hong Kong

On Sunday, a crowd gathered at the vast Hong Kong government complex in Tamar in the central district following Beijing’s brusque refusal to grant the territory universal suffrage. Intermittent rain ensured that only a small group of people of no more than 2,000 to 3,000 sat on the soggy lawns. Many thousands more filed by, standing on the paved walkways to experience a slice of the action before returning to the shelter of the malls that crisscross Admiralty.

An elderly woman asked one of the 5,000 additional policemen deployed to police the event how to get to Tamar. The policeman replied only by saying “I don’t know what is Tamar.” Another protestor, a younger woman, offered to show her the way.

“Are you not scared of coming?” the elderly woman asked. While her family all supported the protest she had told her children and her husband not to come. “I’m old and I don’t work,” she said, “I’ve nothing left to fear.”

This fear was again apparent among some student communities. “Many of my friends have been arrested before, or have had to support friends who were arrested,” I was told. “We are tired of being arrested, and of giving our families reason to worry about our future.”

In June, Occupy Central was a mass movement straining to hold together very different pro-democracy factions representing a broad swathe of the city. Beijing’s proposal may have united the democratic camp, yet on Sunday the crowd whispered when once it had roared. Standing at the back, looking at the small gathering against the immensity of the harbor and the skyscrapers that define this city to so many, the event felt insignificant and isolated, a final cry by a dedicated core.

The crowd bellowed, “Enough talk!” as organizers spoke. “Always talk, never action,” said the man standing to my left. He was not angry, nor did he shout. Like everyone else I met, there was a strong sense of resignation in his posture and tone of voice. The crowd still called their approval, but no longer with the sense that they could make a difference.

The students got the greatest cheer. They spoke repeatedly of “our hope” and of this city being “our home.” A crowd devoid of hope cried out in support each time the word was said, as if clinging desperately to a fading dream.

There was very little said to suggest the path to be taken. Veteran democracy icon Martin Lee, referencing slogans on the nearby CITIC Pacific Tower, spoke of the need for a new chapter in the democratic story, reminding the crowd that at 76 he was an old man. How this chapter would be started, and what it might entail, were left to billow in the wind. Occupy Central’s statement of a “wave” of protests was not elaborated upon. Many in the crowd seemed disappointed – promised a landmark event for democracy, many felt short changed.

It was left to the Scholarism pressure group to again galvanize the crowd into action by leading a march to the Grand Hyatt hotel in hope of confronting Basic Law Committee Chairman Li Fei. An exhausted crowd set off at 9.30pm, surrounded and heavily outnumbered by the police. They camped outside the hotel until midnight. Joshua Wong and two students who had previously reserved a room at the hotel were forcibly evicted, carried out by the police and hotel security guards, though it remains unclear on what grounds the police had acted.

The sit in was peaceful. There was no fighting. As a friend remarked, “These are not the angry young people I was led to believe”.

The majority of Hong Kong people, whether or not they support Occupy Central, want democratic reform. They want the right to vote, and also for their votes to count in the way in which Hong Kong is run. To have a government that carries greater legitimacy among the people is what this city desperately needs. Former civil servant Rachel Cartland is right in saying that Hong Kong is becoming ungovernable not because of a lack of ability, or that the wrong people are running Hong Kong. Every democratic government suffers from these ills; it is because the government lacks legitimacy in the eyes of the people. But has Beijing addressed this?

The changes that are afoot in Hong Kong must not be underestimated. Freedom of the press, rule of law and a clean business environment and civil service safeguarded by the anti-corruption agency are not the only legacy of this city’s history.

Since June’s pro-democracy referendum, which garnered 800,000 signatures calling for universal suffrage, people have changed. In the name of “patriotism,” we have been made to fear. In the name of “harmony” we fear expressing our opinion. In the name of “public order” we have been made to feel suspicious of a police force who have served us with distinction for a generation, and who along with a civil service are increasingly seen as no longer ours.

My generation of Hong Kong people did not know this fear. This has been Beijing’s gift. We had embraced a return to China as the righting of a historic injustice against our motherland, only to sit by helplessly as our motherland, in the name of the selfish interests of an elite few, wrought new injustices on its newly returned peoples. Rather than embrace our city, your gifts have been to the benefit of a tiny elite - the same elite who, a generation ago, kowtowed to a different colonial master. No wonder the crowds at Tamar clung so desperately to hope.

By taking such a hard line Beijing is forcing the democrats to unite behind a more radical position. Beijing may hope this corners the democratic camp into an unelectable position, but have they considered the alternative, that this posturing may in fact push the people of Hong Kong further away?

Evan Fowler was born in Hong Kong