Asian Conversations - an online magazine to explore Asia's future

Pride not prejudice
in Hong Kong stand

Students, and citizens, step out with umbrellas to voice their displeasure at being faced with a Hobson’s choice for the chief executive election in 2017. SLIDESHOW

Hong Kong, October 2014

Occupy Hong Kong - the Admiralty protest site turns into a tent city

The Admiralty protest site becomes a tent city. - Photo: Vijay Verghese

AS THE UMBRELLAS unfurled around Hong Kong and colourful tent cities sprang up in the key commercial districts of Admiralty, Mongkok and Causeway Bay bringing the city to a juddering halt, it was clear that at the end of a long summer of discontent, the city had finally found its voice. Dubbed the Umbrella Revolution by the media, this has been no essay in Marxist-Leninist strategy or a goose-stepping March on Rome. The peaceful and orderly civil disobedience campaign run by student groups and Occupy Central late September to help the city take control of its political destiny, has had all the elements of a primetime TV serial – drama, dreams, passion, pathos, force, and farce. Yet, it is no revolution and has been played largely by ear, unscripted, its rhythm rising and falling with news of each new police outrage and promise of negotiation.

As the peaceful street protest unfolded on 28 September, 2014, the police cracked down with unusual force, galvanising a reluctant city. The government clearly believed its swift and decisive action would nip things in the bud. It had the opposite effect. The sight of helmeted riot police with shields, pepper spray and tear gas ploughing into skinny kids with hands raised and just umbrellas and swimming goggles for protection proved too much for many and instantly garnered citywide support even from obdurate backbenchers and political fence-sitters. Office workers and academics came out on the streets, swelling the crowds on evenings and weekends. Admiralty became a rallying point. Everyone’s protective instincts had been aroused. As one lady fervently said to me, “I am here to pray for the kids.”


Vijay Verghese

Vijay Verghese

China can hardly consign the former British territory to the scrapheap of history to prove a cynical point just as no one would ever suggest a strong Los Angeles weakens New York or vice versa. Strong cities create powerful countries. And China desperately needs a healthy Hong Kong.

When all the gnashing of teeth and drying of eyes is done, it will be wise to remember that while ground may have been surrendered both physically and emotionally, all is not lost. The street closures that hugely inconvenienced a large number of people who for the most part exhibited unusual patience in gridlocked traffic, have served to insert an emphatic semi-colon, to briefly pause an otherwise well scripted transition of Hong Kong’s democratic process to full Chinese control.

However, what many fail to appreciate is that Hong Kong is incontrovertibly part of China and draws great strength from this. It has a hinterland, unlike Singapore. And it has no desire for independence. It never did. Indeed, as the British withdrew from the colony on 1 July, 1997, the erstwhile ‘occupiers’ were hailed as heroes, their departure mourned by a great many even as others felt a sudden twinge of national pride at the motherland’s long delayed embrace. This was as much a testament to the high quality of British administration in the territory as to the deeply apolitical nature of Hongkongers.

China too draws strength from Hong Kong, especially when it comes to trotting out the benefits of the ‘one country two systems’ policy to quietly woo Taiwan – the bigger and more contentious prize – and generating useful PR as it attempts to build soft power in a region riddled with border animosities and simmering conflicts with a perceived Big Brother. President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan will have touched a raw nerve when he spoke out in favour of the democratic movement in Hong Kong and urged Beijing to adopt democracy, during a National Day speech.

An oft floated canard is that Hong Kong will lose relevance speedily with a coddled Shanghai on steroids. This is gobbledegook. Growth is not a zero sum game. Hong Kong, along with Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Shenzhen, is a dynamic limb of the mother country and its wellbeing directly affects the Mainland. A bodybuilder works all parts of his body, never favouring just one muscle. China can hardly consign the former British territory to the scrapheap of history to prove a cynical point just as no one would ever suggest a strong Los Angeles weakens New York or vice versa. Strong cities create powerful countries. And China desperately needs a healthy Hong Kong.

The umbrellas have meanwhile transformed Hong Kong in unusual ways. For one, the protests have created a sense of broad inclusive community, an outpouring of ‘togetherness’ in an urban version of Woodstock that clattered on the doors of the establishment for a brief, poignant moment, gone but not forgotten. Any visitor to the protest camps cannot fail to have been touched by the youthful sincerity, pluck, passion, and even naivety of the students. They have largely been a disciplined and peaceful lot – many doing homework and listening to lectures, squatting on the streets. This would be unthinkable elsewhere.

The frank, open and friendly atmosphere on tented streets where people spoke with random strangers and shared support, water, food, photos and scrawled messages, is in stark contrast to general lifestyles where many return home each day to small apartments, unwilling to make eye contact with or talk to neighbours. This extraordinarily private – and divided – community has showed it can come together. At the same time, worrying fault lines have emerged separating the old from the impetuous young, the moneyed elite from the less well off, and the Beijing leaning from the proponents of full democracy. These gaps must be bridged with vision and vigour.

Hong Kong is a vibrant international city and a financial powerhouse. Yet it is seriously hobbled by an inward looking, Cantonese-speaking culture that has remained tremendously vibrant but at the cost of declining English proficiency and even school level general knowledge – a decline the government has done little to arrest. The immense support that the city has received from well-wishers, the local media and the international press has made it look ‘outwards’ to reach out to make new friends. It has been a valuable lesson. Hong Kong’s future strength and survival lies in growing outwards, armed with language skills and intellectual capital, not shrinking inwards to old comfort zones. The property game is a one trick pony that has outlived its allure.

Beijing may raise the spectre of Perfidious Albion meddling in its internal affairs and will invoke history to stir up domestic sentiment, but the Sino-British Joint Declaration, registered at the United Nations, is an international covenant co-signed by China and Britain. Both are thus accountable for the welfare of Hong Kong. Says Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong, “It is ridiculous to suggest that British ministers and parliamentarians should keep their noses out of Hong Kong’s affairs. In fact, they have a right and a moral obligation to continue to check on whether China is keeping its side of the bargain – as, to be fair, it has mostly done so far.”

Any pragmatic elected politician has to work in concert with Beijing. Economic engagement with China is the key to Hong Kong’s survival, not its London-facing glitterati. And he or she would serve to work in Hong Kong’s best interest as this is in Beijing’s best interest. The CE must love and serve Hong Kong.

The protests have also created a sudden, and immense, political awareness in a city not given to ideological discourse with its single-minded pursuit of money. What many pooh-poohed as a hormonal harangue by misguided youth turned into a symbol of the city’s strength, resolve, and compassion and it has forced many to confront issues and relearn the facts.

Now, suddenly, names like Joshua Wong (the painfully diminutive young man who heads the student activist group Scholarism), Alex Chow (secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students), and Benny Tai (the Hong Kong law professor who masterminded the Occupy Central With Love & Peace exercise) have become household words. And everyone has had his say. At one erstwhile protest staging point in Mongkok, a hard edged district favoured by triads, old ladies berated students, demanding an end to disruption, while thuggish characters with tattoos, seemingly in concert with the police, attempted to storm barricades and batter and badger the demonstrators. It was a modus operandi repeated in other districts to grind down resistance and soften things for the eventual police clean-up.

From overreaction on 28 September, the police then moved into low gear and masterly inaction, pulling all officers off the streets, the government calculating, astutely, that Hongkongers have little appetite for civil unrest, and would slowly turn against the demonstrators. And so it played out until the early hours of Wednesday 15 October when the riot police returned in force to the Lung Chung Road underpass behind Government House, spraying pepper and carrying a trussed up Ken Tsang from the Civic Party to a dimly lit side alley where he was beaten and kicked by half a dozen policemen. The entire incident was caught on camera. Once again the city was wringing its hands in despair at this outrage and this time the police acted swiftly to first transfer and then suspend seven officers pending investigation.

Tear gas and broken heads may be the norm at protests elsewhere, but in Hong Kong, tear gas was last used in December 2005 against militant South Korean farmers who staged an aggressive protest outside a WTO meeting venue. Before that it was only seen in 1966 during a civil protest against Star Ferry fare increases, and in 1967 during the violent communist-driven labour union riots that drew their inspiration from the Cultural Revolution.

What underlies this protest movement? A worsening economic situation with a growing squeeze on the middle class, a growing disparity in wealth distribution (by some estimates the city has a more unequal distribution of wealth than Rwanda), the prohibitive cost of housing, a young population that has suddenly become aware of its own destiny, and a reneging on an international deal that promised Hong Kong full autonomy in attaining universal suffrage. This last simple fact has now been obfuscated by the introduction of several red herrings ranging from ‘love of the motherland’ and ‘patriotic education’ to whether a future Hong Kong head of government should ‘love’ Beijing or not. These are all non-starters but have increasingly served to sideline the key issue of the people’s ability to choose their own leader. If they did so, any pragmatic elected politician would have to work in concert with Beijing. Economic engagement with the Chinese hinterland is the key to Hong Kong’s survival, not its London-facing glitterati. And he or she would serve to work in Hong Kong’s best interest as this is in Beijing’s best interest. The CE must love and serve Hong Kong. He will have to take tough and unpopular decisions. He will be mocked and pressured and may find himself faced with yet another ‘Occupy’ movement, but that is the slow, incremental, sweaty way of democratic societies. Rome was not built in a day and, as Chairman Mao put it, ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.’

Fuelling the general sense of disenchantment have been the 2003 anti-subversion National Security Bill (a botched legislation attempt that brought half a million people on the streets to prevent Hong Kong turning into a China-style police state); the July 2012 announcement of the introduction of ‘patriotic’ education in schools (that was rightly squelched as a crude attempt at mass indoctrination); and the June 2014 White Paper from Beijing establishing its authority over Hong Kong, demanding all citizens – and, later judges – be patriotic and love the motherland.

What next? Beijing could quietly remove CY Leung after a face-saving cooling down period and promote him to some important Central role, replacing him with a more palatable face. Dubbed ‘Mr 689’ for the number of votes he garnered from the 1,200-member election committee in March 2013, C Y Leung – clearly an intelligent man and a cunning tactician – appears to have lost his touch or, more ominously, has simply been asked by Beijing to do its bidding. This would seem to be the case with the sudden volte face by Chief Secretary Carrie Lam on negotiations with students on 10 October, 2014. Despite Beijing’s hard line stance on the protest, which it has described as “illegal”, negotiations were eventually put back on the table. Leung echoed the sentiments of the older generation, when he told CNN, “Raw emotion – for or against the proposed political reform – will get us nowhere.” He then poured fat on the fire, stating there was “almost zero chance” of Beijing changing its mind on the matter of electoral reform. The writing was on the wall.

The current chief executive of Hong Kong is chosen by a 1,200-strong election committee while the future CE is to be selected by an enhanced, “broadly representative nominating committee.” The catch? Candidates who stand, up to a maximum of three, must be acceptable to Beijing (and each must win the backing of at least 50 percent of the committee). Naysayers assume the committee will be stacked with pro-Beijing loyalists. Leung argues, “Such claims are unfounded as we have not even started to discuss the detailed but crucial aspects of the nominating process for potential chief executive candidates.”

The city has failed to keep pace with the aspirations and needs of its increasingly youthful population, the economy largely controlled by a few property tycoons. Housing is beyond the reach of average folk – with Mainland purchasers sending rates soaring for everything from flats to infant milk formula.

Beijing is clearly miffed at Hong Kong’s ‘teenage’ reluctance to follow parental bidding. And its response towards the territory has been as with a spoilt child. The miscalculation in all this is that Hong Kong is not a child but a sophisticated international city with a quality of life second to none. It has two things even the most impressive Chinese cities lack – a free press and the rule of law. It is expensive, but so are New York and London. The city has a buzz. This is what brings in the investors, multinationals and shopping-mad tourists.

But the city has failed to keep pace with the aspirations and needs of its increasingly youthful population, the economy largely controlled by a few property tycoons. There is little diversity in the economic landscape and not much thought has gone into future planning. Housing is beyond the reach of average folk – with Mainland purchasers sending rates soaring for everything from flats to infant milk formula. For many, this is an intolerable situation.

Whether Hong Kong gets true democracy or is forced to sign up to a sham version after which everyone who votes will be a ‘guilty’ participant in a Beijing-managed show, remains to be seen. Some argue that universal suffrage, albeit limited to candidates handpicked by Beijing, is better than nothing. Indeed, Beijing has seemingly stepped far out of its comfort zone to make this accommodation. However, this ‘accommodation’ is less than what was agreed to at the outset. Just as you cannot be half pregnant, you cannot have half a democracy and the students are right to oppose this. Democracy stillborn would be calamitous and take events into the realm of full-blown farce. The argument that democratisation should happen incrementally is fine as long as the train is headed in the right direction.

It could be splitting hairs, but maybe it is time to change the awkward and dubious title of ‘chief executive’ with something more appropriate, like ‘chief minister’, or even ‘mayor’. A chief executive is appointed top down by a corporate board, while a mayor might be elected ground up. Grassroots symbolism is important and the CE cannot be seen as a stooge.

And what of the students? On 11 October, 2014 in a joint ‘Open Letter To Chinese President Xi Jingping On Hong Kong People’s Well-Being’, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, tried to define their movement, stating it was “definitely not a colour revolution” but a “movement for democracy.”

It claims “Leung’s report to NPCSC failed to account faithfully Hong Kong people’s wishes” and “manipulated” the truth and ignored points of “disagreement”. It then delivered the coup de grace, noting the Chinese president’s laudable efforts at fighting corruption and comparing this with C Y Leung’s “unfettered” privilege despite his having failed to disclose a HK$50m payment from Australian company UGL as reported by Fairfax Media. It concluded, that “genuine universal suffrage” should not be equated with “subversion.”

It is an open, heartfelt and sensible appeal that should have come much earlier, to define the movement and educate the city. It will likely fall on deaf ears, but the world has listened and Beijing will certainly take note. The street protest was always at best a symbolic gesture. Now the city faces its biggest test yet as its freshly energised citizens decide how to use their newfound voice.

Vijay Verghese started out as a reporter for the Times of India, a national daily, in 1979. He moved to Bangkok and thence to Hong Kong in 1984 as editor and publisher of a range of news, business, travel and lifestyle publications including Business Traveller, HOLIDAY Asia, and Asian Business. He launched Dancing Wolf Media in 2002 and runs the online magazines and when not dabbling in avatars, music and virtual guff.

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Bowen C. Chow (2 November, 2014) – Hong Kong
The author has touched on most of the key areas of the topic. I'll just make a couple of points regarding the 4th, 11th and the last paragraphs. First, what has happened in Hong Kong in the last 17 years is proof that just as written constitutions often do not represent what really go on in many parts of the world, what was intended to be a written arrangement between 2 sovereign countries alone is not and cannot possibly be the last word of what will take place in Hong Kong. The formal framework needs to be fleshed out and supplemented by, among other things of course, the values and aspirations of the people. Second, Hong Kong's stereotype as a city which cares solely about money-making and "not given to ideological discourse" is one which has actually become obsolete a long time ago
Ranjan Pal (23 October, 2014) – India
Very thought-provoking and poignant piece. Exciting and very sad at the same time to see Hong Kong's constant struggle to maintain its shaky equilibrium with China. In fact the analogy of an authoritarian parent and a defiant teenager is absolutely accurate and unfortunately is having the same disastrous outcome. It is the parent that has to back down but for China "saving face" is most important. Interesting to see the emergence of new leaders on the democracy side - when I lived there from 1989 to 1997 the heroes of the movement were Martin Lee and Christine Loh – This comment has been edited
Tim Galbraith (21 October, 2014) – Hong Kong
Well said. The students have made an emphatic point and are clearly supported by large parts of the population. The others who simply moan about the inconvenience are missing the bigger picture.
Peter Chan (18 October, 2014) – Singapore
Has anyone assessed the business loss the city has suffered with the closing of all these major streets in Hong Kong?
CK Chan (18 October, 2014) – HK
I think the students are fighting for what's right and I support them completely. They are fighting for all of us in Hong Kong.
Jerome Simmons (18 October, 2014) – United Kingdom
This is one of the most lucid and balanced pieces of analysis I have read on this subject. As a former Hong Kong resident I have followed these events with keen interest. While I wish the students well, I fail to see how shutting the city down is going to achieve more than a sharp rap on the knuckles. But's just one view.
Bina Jang (17 October, 2014) – Hong Kong
Very well written. Lots of good sense and good emotion. I completely agree with you. I wanted to hug those students - their passion and caring for their city is remarkable. – This comment has been edited

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