Hong Kongers Demand Self-Determination—Will Beijing Listen?

The July 1 demonstration may be a mere overture to a larger dispute over the territory's future.


Hong Kong natives braved typhoon rains to march in support of full suffrage on July 1. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

HONG KONG -- Last Monday marked the 16th anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule after more than 150 years of being a British colony. Official and unofficial events here attempted to present a cheery picture of Hong Kong's relations with the mainland.

One event that focused on growing discontent with Hong Kong's current state of affairs, however, underlined just how upset many Hong Kongers have become with what they perceive as an unrepresentative local government primarily concerned with pleasing Beijing.

For more than six hours, a steady stream of protestors ignored typhoon rains and marched from Victoria Park to Central, the city's central business district. The number of participants in the annual march was disputed, with organizers at theĀ Civil Human Rights Front estimating 430,000 people while the police saying only 66,000.

Aside from the pet causes of a rainbow of social groups such as gay rights advocates, free speech activists and Falun Gong adherents, the focus of this year's march was the issue of universal suffrage for Hong Kong's millions of registered voters in the 2017 chief executive election and 2020 legislative election.

The march also highlighted the unpopularity of embattled Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also known as CY Leung, who has just begun the second year of his five-year term. Marchers mocked Leung as a puppet of China's ruling Communist Party and called on him to resign. Data from the University of Hong Kong's Public Opinion Programme collected in mid-June show the public support rating for Leung has reached an all-time low -- bad news for a chief executive who was met by tens of thousands of protesters demanding his resignation on the day he took office last July 1.

After the march ended in Central's Chater Garden, a small group of protesters calling themselves the Anti-CY Alliance announced they would go on a one-month hunger strike in 50-hour shifts -- a move that should make some leaders in Beijing recall the hunger-striking students of Tiananmen Square in 1989. The hunger strikers, who are calling for Leung's resignation and universal suffrage, have already attracted support from legislators and media personalities.


The common thread uniting the demands for universal suffrage and displeasure with Leung is the growing feeling that Beijing will never let Hong Kong be the master of its own house. Currently, the chief executive is selected by a committee of 1,200 prominent political and business leaders who choose from Beijing-friendly candidates. Of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo), Hong Kong's legislature, 30 are selected by "functional constituencies" composed mainly of individuals and (typically pro-Beijing) corporations from varying economic sectors.

Pan-democrat legislator and Civic Party founding member Claudia Mo said Hong Kongers are acutely aware of how much less democratic their elections are compared to neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Philippines. This is no accident: The Communist Party is concerned that losing the influence it has over Hong Kong via the current system could negatively impact its control over the mainland, Mo added.

"They're terrified that Hong Kong will become too democratic an example for cities on the mainland," she said. "It's a parental mentality. They've got this attitude, 'I'm a loving dad, you're an unruly teenager or spoiled child, you don't know what you need or want in life -- let me tell you,' that kind of attitude, when we're actually rather mature."

Mo, who worked as a journalist prior to entering politics, has followed Beijing's plans for democratic elections in Hong Kong closely since the 1980s, when the territory's mini-constitution known as Basic Law was being negotiated by Beijing and London.

"When the Basic Law was first drafted, I interviewed a top Beijing official and asked him when Hong Kong would be able to have real democracy -- one man, one vote. He said: 'Ten years -- ten years after the handover.' That would be 2007 for the Chief Executive election, and 2008 for the Legislative Council election. It all went by and the NPC [National People's Congress] reinterpreted the Basic Law and said we'll have it 2017 and maybe 2020. That's kind of a promise from Beijing, and we take it seriously."


Hong Kong democracy activists have been marching on July 1 for a decade now, but what makes this year's demonstration significant is this: It was the opening salvo in what could become the largest civil disobedience campaign on sovereign Chinese soil since 1989. In theory, at least 10,000 people will occupy the city's financial district in July 2014 if no mechanism is in place to guarantee direct elections in 2017. Organizers say they have yet to decide what form their civil disobedience will take, but a real movement is gaining momentum.

Known as Occupy Central, the movement is potentially serious enough to provoke a military response if Beijing senses a threat to its national security. Recent moves to rezone a substantial portion of Central's waterfront for use by the People's Liberation Army Navy are but one development suggesting that Occupy Central may have to deal with more than the standard police supervision of the July 1 protests.

On June 19, an unknown man driving a stolen car rammed into the home of Jimmy Lai, owner of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, leaving a machete and axe in Lai's driveway. Days later two, masked men threatened two workers who were delivering a truck full of Lai's newspaper, proceeding to torch the papers after the workers abandoned the truck. Lai said he believes both incidents were politically motivated, and he wasn't the only one: In addition to Lai's claims, activist/legislator "Longhair" Leung Kwok-hung said he received a threatening phone call from an unidentified caller two days before the march, which he attended.

Indeed, an Anti-Occupy Central movement has also sprouted, under the auspices of the organization Voice of Loving Hong Kong. The organization's convener Patrick Ko said he aimed to fight the pan-democrat camp, which he characterized as a "dark force that has motives for unspeakable acts." At a press conference in late 2012, Ko, who has ties to the Communist Party in neighboring Shenzhen, said in reference to the opposition pan-democrats: "We are an anti-opposition force. If they step up opposition, we shall step up opposition [to them]. If they turn more radical, we shall turn even more radical."

Since the announcement of the Occupy Central movement, Ko has vowed to counter Occupy's 10,000 protestors with 10,000 equally committed government supporters. Both sides have pledged nonviolence, but shoving between anti-Occupy protestors with signs who showed up toward the end of Monday's demonstration and those supporting Occupy indicate that emotions are already running high.


Hong Kongers taking to the streets to oppose their government is nothing new, but the most notable change in the activist culture has been the willingness to target the local economy. Largely composed of a disappointed middle class and disaffected youth who often accuse the increasing number of mainland Chinese in Hong Kong of pushing up rents, reducing the availability of good jobs and "diluting" the local population, these activists are beginning to view big business as an Achilles' heel of the establishment.

This spring, when laborers at Hong Kong International Terminals, a major container port operator, went on strike to demand better pay, a small army of young volunteers collected donations, many from middle class office workers. These funds enabled the strike to last 40 days, during which neighboring Shenzhen's ports began to attract cargo that would have normally gone to Hong Kong. The end result was a 9.8 percent raise for dock workers -- short of their goal, but a moral victory nonetheless -- corporations with operations in Hong Kong certainly took notice of the strike's strong grassroots organization and effectiveness.

Should Occupy Central disrupt business activity in downtown Hong Kong next summer, it is difficult to predict the economic consequences. But the potential for the local economy to take its biggest hit since the SARS epidemic of 2003 does exist.

Regina Ip, a former security secretary for Hong Kong who is currently a legislator, member of CY Leung's cabinet, and chairwoman of the pro-Beijing New People's Party, said that Occupy Central, were it to occur, would be "highly destabilizing and damaging to business confidence" in Hong Kong.

"I've already received quite a lot of expressions of concerns from the business community, whether local or foreign investors," she said. "I do hope the government will be able to unveil its consultation proposals early next year so it can engage the different stakeholders actively."

Ip said she agreed with recent comments by property tycoon Ronnie Chan, who suggested that regional economic rival Singapore might end up the big winner if Occupy Central does take place.

"I read a U.S. geopolitical analysis which said that increasing antagonism between Hong Kong and China and the rising wave of nativism is already affecting Hong Kong's appeal to outside investors," Ip said. "And Singapore has always been targeting our business. They also want to be a premier international financial center -- so I think Ronnie Chan has a point."

It does seem that if the impasse over universal suffrage is not remedied within the coming year, both Hong Kong and Beijing could end up losers. A sustained disruptive event in Hong Kong would have significant economic and political ramifications at the very least. A detente in which Beijing and Hong Kong's chief executive -- which may or may not be Leung, as he looks increasingly unlikely to last another year at the helm -- provide the universal suffrage that Hong Kongers have been waiting for, could neatly eliminate the problems posed by Occupy Central.

"In a nutshell, the appropriate electoral system for Hong Kong, whether for electing the chief executive or the legislature, cannot be decided by mass protests," Ip said. "We need consultation and consensus between the different parties in LegCo."

Claudia Mo emphasized that this time around, direct elections with no screening for candidates based upon loyalty to Beijing must be granted before July, otherwise the pan-democrats would be forced to act.

"Forget about discussions or consultations, we'll have to take to the streets and we actually will occupy it. Get arrested? Fine, I'm prepared for it." Mo said. "Democracy is not a panacea, but it's something to start with. With democracy you have transparency, you have people's wishes and real public opinion in play. People's self-determination, in the end, is what democracy is all about."