October 1st is the People's Republic of China’s annual National Day holiday. It is a time when the Government in Beijing is usually eager to see Chinese in all regions join a celebration of patriotism, national pride, solidarity, and faith in the Party. This year, the celebrations for many in the higher echelons of China’s ruling elites will be somewhat spoilt by the Occupy protests in Hong Kong, which they would probably describe as nothing less than outrageous and intolerable insubordination. Dubbed the ‘Umbrella Protests’, a large number of young Hong Kong’ers began a campaign of civil disobedience last week by refused to go to class. It was followed by attempts to occupy Government offices, and finally, other active citizen groups building on the momentum and occupying the Central District. Their dispute is fairly uncomplicated for the most part. They want: 1) a direct vote for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and 2) a free choice of who gets to run for the office. Constrained by fears of the wider impact of giving ‘special treatment’ to Hong Kong might have on the Government and Communist Party’s absolute authority in other areas of the country, Beijing agreed to the former but categorically ruled out the latter. This response became widely perceived as an act of brute force disenfranchisement, one designed to smash the desires and expectations of minimum democratic freedoms demanded by democracy advocates, who then organized and worked with other like minded active citizens in Hong Kong to escalate their protests, current at the time of writing.
But there are also other issues that are causing considerable concern for many residents of Hong Kong. Chief amongst them is a widening wealth gap and pattern of income distribution, an ever more pronounced ‘M’. Rents and the strength of the economy are examples of primary issues that people in Hong Kong are seeking transparent and fair leadership on from their Hong Kong Government. Whilst the city retains its international reputation abroad, it has produced less GDP almost year on year since the handover. Shanghai is now a larger economic hub and a prospering key competitor, somewhat eclipsing Hong Kong and leaving it look more like a quaint play town for the northern rich than an indispensable part of the Chinese economy. For its part, when Beijing assumed administration in 1997 they could not be blamed for thinking they were getting a Crown jewel. Now many in Hong Kong feel they are treated liked a faded and scratched gemstone thrown in the box with the other common adornments. The integration of Hong Kong into the PRC - economically, politically, and culturally - hasn’t been entirely smooth over the past seventeen years either. There has been a growing undercurrent of tension, of frustration, and impotence in the city. The longer Beijing has stalled on the issue of democracy, the more Hong Kong residents have begun to suspect that the ‘special’ component of its formal name has lost its shine. If Beijing won’t help the city prosper, they should be left to run their political economy by themselves.
Despite a media blackout of the story in mainland China, the protests in Hong Kong have drawn considerable attention across traditional and digital platforms such as CNN, The Guardian, Twitter, Facebook, and Taiwanese student-run PTT. What has become clear is that the scale of the protest is unprecedented, and that the Government of Hong Kong and its Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, have severely underestimated how symbolically important universal and free suffrage is for the people of Hong Kong. Of course not everyone in Hong Kong is protesting or even sympathetic but a sufficient number seem to have mobilised to successfully halt traffic and economic activity in the heart of the city - the first protest in the city to do so. It doesn’t appear that there is a plan amongst active citizens and organising groups for the occupation to last anywhere near the length of time the historic Taiwanese Sunflower Movement held the Legislative Yuan, but both movements are still closely related. They are both ultimately concerned with what they regard as a growing, obvious correlation between the rise of China’s influence and an erosion of the integrity and independence of their democratic institutions. Neither want any part of a quid pro quo in which they are being forced to passively accept exchanging democratic freedoms for ephemeral economic benefits, substance-less promises of autonomy, and crude censorship. Hong Kong’ers are not yet ready to fully integrate into the PRC, and the Taiwanese don’t want to integrate at all. The frog has jumped out of the pot, or at least, its attempts to do so have been noticed.
In such a situation, depending on the state of the frog of course, the merciful thing to do would be to scoop it out of the pot and straight into some water to a temperature more of its liking. The problem for Hong Kong is that it knows it can’t get out of the pot entirely, but at the same time, it nevertheless demands that its living environment meets a minimum level of comfort. There is no magic hand which can scoop the city away and protect it from sliding into direct administration from Beijing either. This is a defining moment for Hong Kong, a fact not lost on Beijing, which will be very aware of the symbolic power of the Occupy protests to act as a catalyst for other outbreaks of ‘disloyalty’ and ‘separatism’. From their perspective, they have to deal with terrorism in their western provinces and separatism in “their Taiwan Province”. If Hong Kong’ers can bully their way to special treatment, what’s to stop Macao, Tibet, and Inner Mongolia? Democracy is an infection you get when you spend too much time with Westerners. No doubt there are more than a few calls being made to ask about ‘humanely’ sending in ‘reinforcements’ to ‘help’ the ‘local authorities’ ensure ‘normal operation’ of the city.
Despite being aware of this, protesters in Hong Kong have nevertheless mobilised at numerous critical places and times across the city over the past week, a feat of great bravery. Their protests have included elements learnt from the Sunflower Movement and the ongoing protests in Ferguson, in the U.S. Hands aloft, some covered with rudimentary glasses and cling film, many using umbrellas to redirect tear gas and pepper spray away from faces, these protesters are employing a strategy of polite disobedience. Knowing that the authorities will seek to brand them as ‘irresponsible’, ‘violent’, ‘irrational’ and ‘dirty’, the protesters have kept confrontation to a minimum and left very little waste on the streets.
Like the Sunflower Movement they have used a minimum of force to establish the protest with sufficient momentum to make people take note not just of what they are doing, but more importantly, also what they want. The transmission of the message tells of a fact on the ground that they are asking other people to recognise. Their goal is to win the moral high ground not only in Hong Kong, but also abroad. And they are winning, for now.
A famous person once said, “appeals to conscience only work if the person you are appealing to has one.” The protesters in Hong Kong are facing down a newly risen President Xi whose leadership has become associated with purging major rivals in the party and military, stamping out dissent in Tibet and East Turkestan, and employing a policy of petulance and provocation in China’s international relations, especially with its near neighbours. Under Xi’s leadership, Beijing declared there would be no choice of candidates for Hong Kong, and no legal challenge to the fait accompli. If the Hong Kong example of ‘one countries two systems’ is supposed to be a model for the peaceful annexation of Taiwan then the PRC is currently far from winning Taiwanese ‘hearts and minds’, especially when Taiwanese can clearly look across the strait and see the way Beijing handles its peripheral regions.
Ultimately, the heart of this dispute lies in a lack of economic confidence in both Beijing and Hong Kong, and a conflict between the city’s colonial legacy and mainland China’s expansionist nationalism. In 1964, Malcolm X went on TV and stated that “If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there's no progress. If you pull it all the way out that's not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made. And they haven't even pulled the knife out much less healed the wound. They won't even admit the knife is there.” For many people in Hong Kong, the Qing Dynasty giving the British the run of their city stuck the knife in nine inches. The gradual opening of freedoms under colonial rule pulled it out six inches. The withdrawal of the British in 1997 ostensibly removed the blade all the way, but the return to PRC administration over the last seventeen years, and especially this year, has failed to heal the wound. Hong Kong wants the right to decide - the citizens demand the right to be trusted to know what is good and bad for them and to exercise direct democracy as a way to exercise control of their economy and living environment. They don’t want to separate from China and neither do they seek independence - they want to govern themselves within the nation, truly as a special autonomous region. But whilst Beijing can admit a knife had been there before it now adamantly denies the existence of a gaping wound, even as it slowly pries it ever more open using blunt forceps marked nationalism and party authority. How this confrontation between Beijing and Hong Kong ends, and what impacts it has across the country and the region, has yet to be seen. Whilst the world flirted with interest during the momentous Taiwanese Sunflower Movement protests, #OccupyHongKong has its full attention.
Now is a perfect opportunity for Beijing to employ a more shrewd and flexible strategy, one that shows it trusts its citizens to retain their national loyalty whilst acting semi-autonomously. It would behove East Asian specialists, experts, and other authorities in the US to pay very close attention to the events in Hong Kong. Returning to my analogy, the frog is not exactly drowning, but it’s very uncomfortable and in some distress. Words of encouragement from friends abroad would serve to let Hong Kong’ers know they are not alone, but unambiguous words should also be expressed to remind those with the most power to wield at this time ensure that history doesn’t repeat itself, and the penalties that would be incurred should it does. For their part, Western and other interested countries might consider whether there is any evidence left to support the idea that politics and economics can be separated in international relations, or that economic freedoms generate political freedoms. In Hong Kong, the protesters don’t seem very interested in such artificial dichotomies. For them, their identity as proud Chinese citizens but also distinct Hong Kong’ers appears intimately connected to the value they place on both their political and economic freedoms. The ability to exercise relative sovereignty over their own political economy, along with basic freedoms of speech, are both equally embedded in the fabric and the DNA of what it means to come from the city. In allowing an extraction of wealth and business from out of Hong Kong, replaced by waves of mainland tourists coming in, Beijing has already mishandled its jewel, failing most glaringly of all by projecting it merely as a symbol of national territorial integrity rather than studying, understanding, and asking Hong Kong’ers what their city means to them. If it had done so, then perhaps Zhongnanhai wouldn't now find itself facing a city proudly taking back their streets in acts of open civic disobedience. It wouldn't now be facing a constant battle to censor and erase the dissenting voices of informed, very well connected, and organized active Hong Kong citizens, directly and unequivocally challenging the Beijing approved leadership of their city under the full glare of the international spotlight.