Hong Kong’s Occupy Central: Of Democracy, ‘Law’, and Identity

Every time Hong Kong’s Occupy Central protests appear to have died down or been erased from the public consciousness, there has been a government or police action that gave it fresh life or attention. Two months after the protests started in late September 2014 however, Hong Kong police’s latest attempts to clear the protesters and the arrests of prominent leaders[1] might actually prove the beginning of end of the protests in their current phase. Indeed, this was to be expected as the protests have been losing steam, if not support, owing to fatigue, the violence unleashed by pro-Beijing elements and/or the seeming lack of progress on their demands. The problems that were the cause of the protests however, are far from being resolved.

The ‘Law’ and the Protesters

The Basic Law agreed between Britain and China became the de facto constitution of Hong Kong on its handover in 1997.[2] The Law was an outcome of the Joint Declaration of 19 December 1984 between China and Britain on the handover of Hong Kong[3] and implemented as part of China’s ‘one country, two systems’ (1C2S) concept. It allowed for freedom of speech including a free press, of assembly and of religion in addition to preserving the capitalist economic system.  To get a sense of the distance that separates the two systems, one must remember that commemorations of the anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Incident take place in Hong Kong every year.

Under Article 45 of the Basic Law, the Chief Executive – Hong Kong’s top leader – should eventually be chosen ‘by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures’. In 2007, Beijing promised Hong Kongers that they would be able to vote for their Chief Executive in 2017.[4] However, this year’s 31 August decision by the National People’s Congress in Beijing declared that each candidate for the Chief Executive election had to be endorsed by more than half of the members of a pre-selected election committee that would appoint up to three candidates.[5] Earlier, in June 2014, a White Paper on electoral issues was released by the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing that among other things stated ‘loving the country is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong’s administrators’.[6] In response, hundreds of Hong Kong lawyers marched through the city in protest.[7]

Hong Kongers were being told clearly that Beijing was supreme in its authority over Hong Kong; the stress was on the first part of the 1C2S formulation.[8] This, even as Chinese leaders declared that they were merely following the Basic Law, the point of contention being what constituted ‘broadly representative’.

The current protests, formally called Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), are run in the main by three groups comprising Hong Kong university students, the secondary school student grouping, Scholarism, and pro-democracy political parties. They were probably also emboldened by the success in 2003 against new security legislation under Article 23 of the Basic Law[9] and in 2012, in rolling back the ‘patriotic education’ campaign of the Chinese central government to make changes in Hong Kong school curricula.[10] Hong Kongers cannot also have been reassured by the continued crackdowns during the Xi Jinping tenure on dissident intellectuals, human rights activists and lawyers who stray from the line on the CPC’s supremacy. Among one such event that was keenly watched in Hong Kong was the attempt to muzzle the newspaper Nanfang Zhoumo, published across the border in Guangzhou and famed for its investigative reporting and bold commentaries.[11]

It is not, however, the case that the various sections of Hong Kong society have a uniform view of what they want to achieve through the protests. Indeed, many oppose the protests altogether not necessarily because they are against the protesters’ demands but on the grounds that rubbing the government in Beijing the wrong way could lead to still worse consequences for the citizens of Hong Kong.[12] The Tiananmen Square experience of 1989 and the satisfaction of sections of Hong Kong society with their current way of life or the desire by other sections to preserve their privileges are all among the many factors that animate the anti-Occupy discourse and protests.

Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s meeting with representatives of leading businesses and former political leaders of Hong Kong in late September[13] and the hard line against the protests in editorials in Chinese state-run newspapers only added further fuel to the protests[14] in a Hong Kong with serious economic inequalities and a simmering resentment of Chinese from the mainland.

The most likely way out for the authorities, as seems to be happening, is that C. Y. Leung, the current Hong Kong Chief Executive, and the Chinese authorities will wait out the protesters with the occasional police action. While Beijing is unlikely to bow to the protesters’ demand to fire Leung, it could well move him out on some other pretext after an interval of time – he was after all, neither Beijing’s nor the Hong Kong tycoons’ first choice as Chief Executive.[15] Further, as Hong Kong commentators have noted, the longer the protest leaders keep up with what are for now, unrealistic demands about Leung stepping down or universal suffrage, the less likely they are to get anywhere. There are other smaller issues that the OCLP could work on and new strategies that might be necessary.[16]

Beijing and the Protests

Beijing has reacted to the Occupy Central protests in a number of ways. For one, it has blamed outside forces, specifically Western countries, for funding and supporting the protests[17] and trying to foment a ‘colour revolution’ in Hong Kong.[18] The fact is however, that Western governments and NGOs have learned from experience to be extremely careful in their activities even in China and certainly know better than to get involved in something that directly challenges authority as the Hong Kong protests do.

Also part of the attack on alleged foreign sources of support for Occupy Central is the argument that since the British never gave Hong Kong democracy, why should China. Chris Patten, the last British Governor of Hong Kong who tried to introduce more democratic institutions and who roundly condemned for his efforts by the Chinese authorities, is of the course, the most famous counter to this accusation. However, as evidence from declassified British diplomatic papers show, earlier British governors too had attempted to introduce greater democratic reforms only to come up against opposition from Beijing and conservatism in London.[19]

More importantly, China has tried to portray the protests as being illegal and compromising the rule of law in Hong Kong with references to the Basic Law and the supremacy of the NPC in all matters related to Hong Kong.[20] It is however wrong to assume that Beijing has a watertight legal case with respect to the Basic Law as Alvin Y H Cheung has pointed out.[21]

It also needs to be noted that somewhat ironically for a communist party, Beijing appears to be siding with the tycoons against the common people of Hong Kong. As stated earlier, Xi Jinping met with Hong Kong’s business notables on 26 September 2014 and a Tsinghua professor even suggested that democracy was a bad idea because it was bad for the tycoons.[22]

That said, it also important not to paint Beijing as being completely without finesse in its reactions to the Hong Kong protests. Even as strong-arm tactics have been used to break the Hong Kong protests,[23] it has been practically certain right from the start that it would not repeat Tiananmen in Hong Kong.[24] Speaking at a meeting with Taiwan’s New Party Chairman Yok Mu-ming in Beijing on 26 September, Xi said the pursuit of national unification is not just a form, but more importantly the “union of minds of peoples on the two sides.” While Xi acknowledged that the Taiwanese history led to the development of a different social environment that the mainland respected its social system and living style, the Taiwanese also needed to learn and understand the feelings and mindset of 1.3 billion compatriots, and to respect their choices.[25] Clearly, whatever the goings on in Hong Kong, the Xi administration will not give up faith in the efficacy of the 1C2S formula.

Further, it must be noted that it takes a great deal of confidence to let the dialogue between the protesters and Carrie Lam, the second in command in the Hong Kong government, take place even as the Fourth Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee was on in Beijing. A parallel stands out immediately – the Zhao Ziyang meeting with the student protesters in 1989.  The differences are also evident. If the events at Tiananmen constituted a lack of anticipation, a break-down of procedures, and finally led to bloodshed, then in Hong Kong, the attempt has been strongly to stick to the ‘law’, even if there were differing interpretations of it. Credit to Beijing, then and credit is also due to the Hong Kong protesters, who have refused to scale up or be uncompromising or entertain any romantic notions of ‘victory’. In short, compared to 1989, there have been no resignations and no high profile Chinese leader in tears. However, while there is evidence to suggest that China has progressed much in the application of law since 1989, that it sees the rule of law – as the West understands it – in a far more nuanced way today, it also appears to be the case that the bandwidth of what can be discussed as feasible by way of political reform has narrowed considerably in contrast to the somewhat freewheeling era before June 1989.

Demonstration Effect?

In the short term, the demonstration effect of the Hong Kong protests on the Chinese periphery and within the country is unlikely to be significant. There have been some arrests of Chinese activists supporting Hong Kong protests,[26] and several Chinese also appear to find the Hong Kongers ungrateful for their freedoms.[27] In the long term, however, the developments in Hong Kong could form the connecting link between developments elsewhere in China’s periphery with Xinjiang and Tibet on the one side and Taiwan on the other, in a way returning Hong Kong to it traditional role vis-à-vis the PRC as a gateway to and for the outside world. Even if there are important differences between the various regions mentioned that have militated against Chinese control, collectively they present serious challenges to the CPC’s control and legitimacy, each in their own way.

Rebiya Kadeer, a prominent Uyghur leader in exile called the Hong Kong protests ‘very inspiring’ for her people[28] but the Chinese state’s actions in Xinjiang or Tibet and in Hong Kong are going to be vastly different in nature. Xinjiang is, in addition to being a political problem, also an ethnic issue and as the arrest, trial and sentencing of the moderate Uyghur scholar Ilham Tohti[29] shows, peaceful protests are unlikely to gain much traction with Beijing, even if it were to grant Hong Kong protestors some of their demands. The same is true of Tibet where over a hundred self-immolations have led to little visible change of policy. Beijing will, without doubt adopt different approaches to each area without feeling constrained to offer the same concessions or reforms to all parties.

The biggest effect of the protests, really is on Taiwan where, President Ma Ying-jeou has come out strongly declaring that Taiwan ‘[did] not accept the concept’ of 1C2S.[30] In fact, it could well be argued that the inspiration for the Hong Kong protests was the Sunflower movement in Taiwan in March-April 2014 led by students opposed to a trade pact that the Ma government was negotiating with the Chinese. In both instances, the students won wider public support and involvement when the government ordered police to take stronger physical action. This apart, both movements are also notable for their emphasis on local identity and cultural and political differences from China. This is evident, for instance, in Hong Kong, in how clean and orderly they have kept the protest areas – a direct comment on Chinese tourists and other arrivals in the city who are seen as boorish and disorderly. The important of these issues is evident from the fact that Hong Kongers are known to welcome those from the mainland who share their values.[31]

It is probably the rise of distinct identities in Hong Kong and Taiwan separate and sometimes in conflict with that of the Chinese on the mainland that has serious longer term implications for the PRC with its emphasis on such unifying markers as the rule of the CPC and now, Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’. Clearly, the OCLP will not be the last of Hong Kong protests against China and nor will Hong Kong be the only site of protests involving matters of class, inequality, identity and political rights that involves China.

India and the Protests

While Indian newspapers, especially the English ones, followed the Occupy Central protests after a fashion, there really was not much by way of editorials or commentaries that appeared that were written by Indian analysts. The Indian government for its part chose to stay silent, under the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, no doubt. New Delhi probably considered the impact on the overall Sino-Indian bilateral relationship of any active interest in the Hong Kong protests. But it is inevitable that as their economic and people-to-people linkages grow, India and China will increasingly find themselves forced to react to events in each other’s countries.

The Indian diaspora in Hong Kong was probably seen as too small and of too little importance to warrant any statement or comment. New Delhi, however, is surely not unaware of the fact that the involvement or presence of its diaspora or of its citizens is an angle that Beijing has used several times in the past to declare its position or interest on issues of some political and/or geographical distance – the latest instance being the search for the missing Malaysian airliner MH-317. Put simply, as an aspiring regional and global leader, one might ask if India could not have used the occasion to communicate to the world its position on some of the wider issues – democracy, rule of law and the sanctity of international treaty obligations for instance – represented by the Hong Kong protests. The Hong Kong protests are about both the application of the rule of law as well as the spirit of the law. These are important elements for a democracy. China appears to be following the letter of the Basic Law, not its spirit. From a wider perspective, this is of a pattern with Chinese actions in the South China Sea territorial disputes, for example, and that is a problem that directly affects India.

There is another context to an Indian intervention/statement with respect to Hong Kong. Members of the PRC’s Liaison Office in the Hong Kong SAR have visited India in the past seeking to learn best practices from India’s national elections, including the election of the President, and of city mayors and councilors. The Office was also keenly interested in the nature of relations between the central authority and local governments. The reason for the interest was of course the similar legal systems based on British common law in both India and Hong Kong.[32]

Further, Chinese scholars with a focus on Sino-Indian relations have been interested in Indian reactions to Hong Kong with questions raised about the impact on India-Hong Kong economic ties. The intent here appears to keep the focus on the economic disruption created by the Occupy Central protests. However, there are also questions asked about how India has handled protests within its polity and what China might learn from such Indian experience.[33]  Finally, it should not be forgotten that the peaceful civil disobedience approach of the Hong Kong protesters surely derives at least some of its inspiration from India’s own non-violent anti-colonial struggle.

This is demonstration effect, too, but of a different sort, and no less important.



[1] http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1649506/after-60-days-final-push-remove-occupiers-over-just-few-hours; http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1651236/huge-police-presence-mong-kok-after-two-nights-clashes

[2] http://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/images/basiclaw_full_text_en.pdf

[3] The Joint Declaration is registered at the United Nations as part of the UN Treaty Series of International Treaties. The full text can be found at: http://www.cmab.gov.hk/en/issues/joint3.htm

[4] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/30/world/asia/the-hong-kong-protests-what-you-should-know.html?_r=0

[5] http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1582245/full-text-npc-standing-committee-decision-hong-kong-2017-election

[6] http://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1529167/full-text-practice-one-country-two-systems-policy-hong-kong-special

[7] http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/08/28/in-democracy-debate-scholar-says-tycoons-control-hong-kongs-destiny/?mod=WSJBlog&mod=chinablog

[8] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/24/world/asia/chinese-president-sends-signal-against-political-change-in-hong-kong.html

[9] http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2003/07/hoko-j08.html

[10] http://world.time.com/2012/09/08/hong-kong-protests-plans-for-patriotic-education/

[11] http://www.newsweek.com/hong-kong-golden-goose-and-coal-mine-canary-278211

[12] For an idea of these and other differences within just one cohort, namely the Class of 1986 of the Faculty of Law, Hong Kong University, see http://programme.rthk.org.hk/rthk/tv/programme.php?name=tv/hkce&d=2014-11-25&p=1981&e=284794&m=episode and http://programme.rthk.org.hk/rthk/tv/programme.php?name=tv/hkce&d=2014-11-27&p=1981&e=285490&m=episode. For another sampling of the differences within Hong Kong society see, http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1645333/real-radicals-constitutional-debate-are-those-who-want-cast?page=all and http://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/1651277/students-and-pan-democrats-must-offer-effective-solutions.

[13] http://www.scmp.com/business/china-business/article/1603375/beijings-closed-door-meeting-hong-kong-tycoons-erodes-trust?page=all. See also http://sinosphere.blogs.nytimes.com/2014/08/29/wang-zhenmin-on-hong-kong-democracy-and-protecting-the-rich/

[14] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/09/29/chinese-state-media-points-to-foreign-hand-in-hong-kong-protests/;

[15] http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/03/world/asia/hong-kong-leung-profile/

[16] http://www.youngchinawatchers.com/conversations-protests-in-hong-kong/ and http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1651285/occupiers-must-retreat-and-devise-new-strategy-continue. See also, http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1649328/democracy-or-nothing-no-choice-better-hong-kong

[17] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/09/29/chinese-state-media-points-to-foreign-hand-in-hong-kong-protests/

[18] Note from Chinese Embassy in New Delhi, “What is happening in Hong Kong”, 21 October 2014.

[19] http://qz.com/279013/the-secret-history-of-hong-kongs-stillborn-democracy/

[20] http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/china/2014-10/14/c_133716546.htm See also Xi Jinping’s remarks http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/12/remarks-president-obama-and-president-xi-jinping-joint-press-conference

[21] http://opiniojuris.org/2014/10/03/international-law-case-democracy-hong-kong/

[22] http://blogs.wsj.com/chinarealtime/2014/08/28/in-democracy-debate-scholar-says-tycoons-control-hong-kongs-destiny/?mod=WSJBlog&mod=chinablog

[23] http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2014-10-03/hong-kong-protesters-attacked-at-pro-democracy-protests.html

[24] http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/14/us-hongkong-china-beijing-idUSKCN0I315G20141014

[25] http://focustaiwan.tw/news/acs/201409260020.aspx

[26] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/china-detains-activists/1391428.html

[27] http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1611427/mainlanders-remain-cool-hong-kongs-democracy-fever?page=all.

[28] http://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/asiapacific/hong-kong-protests/1392952.html

[29] http://www.washingtonpost.com/world/china-sentences-moderate-uighur-scholar-to-life-in-prison-for-separatism/2014/09/23/81bfb08c-e6a3-4c7e-ba27-78d0a1656cdf_story.html

[30] http://www.aljazeera.com/news/asia-pacific/2014/09/taiwan-leader-rejects-china-unification-deal-201492810237314786.html

[31] For more on the relations between Hong Kongers and mainland arrivals in the city, see http://programme.rthk.hk/rthk/tv/programme.php?name=tv/hkce&d=2014-02-27&m=episode

[32] http://www.icsin.org/Events.aspx?BId=86

[33] Private communication with the author

Published by Jabin T. Jacob

China analysis from an Indian perspective

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