It has been a hot summer in Hong Kong, in every sense. Massive protest rallies have rocked the city since June; on two occasions they have involved more than a million people – out of a total population of 7.4 million. The protests have taken on a weekly rhythm, as those of the gilets jaunes did in France earlier this year, stirring up every Saturday or Sunday, spreading into the outer reaches of the territory. The face-off between protesters and police has become more and more confrontational as the weeks have passed, and protest events have been planned for every weekend in August and on into September. After that, there will be elections for the district councils, and, next year, for the city’s Legislative Council. If there is to be a showdown between political forces – the protesters, the government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), the central government’s liaison office in Hong Kong, and the party bosses in Beijing – what form will it take? Will it resemble the violent confrontation of Tiananmen in 1989, or will it be an electoral battle?
This summer’s protests were triggered by a government-sponsored bill to amend Hong Kong’s extradition law. But when I met some of the leading figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in Taiwan at the end of May, they told me that the bill was just one of several urgent issues. None of them anticipated that a new, spectacular phase of Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy was about to unfold.
We met at an international conference commemorating the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen protest. Ten years ago, I received an invitation to a similar conference, to be held in Hong Kong. I told the organiser that the Hong Kong authorities were unlikely to welcome a former Tiananmen activist blacklisted by Beijing, even if I now had a US passport: I said he had better check with the border control agency. He got back to me a few days later, having discovered what I knew already. This year, in an effort to make the event worthy of its title – ‘Value Renewal and Pathfinding for China’s Pro-Democracy Movement’ – it was decided to hold the conference somewhere beyond the reach of Beijing. Taiwan was the obvious location, not least because the notion of ‘one country, two systems’ – which holds that regions within China can retain their own distinctive economic systems – was initially aimed at Taiwan in the early 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, and reiterated by President Xi Jinping in his Taiwan policy speech earlier this year.
Two of the attendees at the conference were former chairpersons of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party: Albert Ho Chun-yan, who offered legal aid to Edward Snowden when he was hiding out in Hong Kong in 2013; and Emily Lau Wai-hing, who in 1991 became the first woman to be elected to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. They urged Taiwan not to trust Beijing’s promises, but their real worry was Hong Kong, where the political situation has clearly undergone a decisive change since late 2014, when the protesters of the Umbrella Movement occupied public spaces and streets outside the HKSAR government offices for 79 days.
The Umbrella Movement emerged during a dispute over arrangements for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. As far as Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012, was concerned, this was unfinished business. People in Hong Kong didn’t realise at the time what Xi had in mind for them. They assumed the plan was still to honour the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s constitution, promulgated in 1990, according to which the ‘ultimate aim’ is that the CE will be elected by ‘universal suffrage’, ‘in the light of the actual situation’ in Hong Kong following a period of ‘gradual and orderly progress’. The same language is used about elections to the Legislative Council. In the annexes of the Basic Law concerning methods of election, the year 2007 is mentioned as a possible deadline for procedural changes, marking the end of the transitional phase following the handover of power from Britain to China.
The main political parties, pro-Beijing and pro-democracy, all agreed that universal suffrage should be used in the election of the CE in 2007 and the legislature in 2008, but this didn’t happen. Alarmed by a surge in political protests in 2003, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), supposedly China’s supreme constitutional authority, issued an interpretation of the Basic Law which stipulated that Hong Kong would require Beijing’s approval before it attempted to amend the electoral system. Any proposed amendments must be approved by a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Subsequently, a conservative proposal put forward by the Hong Kong government was defeated in the legislature by pro-democracy members, who demanded the introduction of universal suffrage in 2007 – or, at least, a road map and timetable for achieving it.
No progress was made over the next few years, during which there were splits in the democratic camp. To allay public frustration, both Hu Jintao, China’s president at the time, and Donald Tsang, the CE, promised further reforms. An NPCSC decision reached at the end of 2007 explicitly stated that although there would be only minor modifications for the double election of 2012 – of both CE and legislature – ‘universal suffrage’ would come into force for the 2017 CE election, and would then be extended to the Legislative Council. Accepting this as the road map, the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest political party, decided to negotiate with the Hong Kong government and Beijing over a proposal for reforms to the procedures for the 2012 elections.
But by this point new factors were affecting Hong Kong’s politics. The most significant was the rise of China, which made itself felt more forcefully after 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics and the global financial crisis. In 2009, the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC, Chan Koonchung, a Hong Kong novelist and cultural critic living in Beijing, published a dystopian tale, The Fat Years, about a rising China under ironclad one-party rule. By 2012, Chan was arguing with pro-establishment Chinese intellectuals about their latest theory, according to which ‘one country, two systems’ wasn’t designed merely for Hong Kong but would bring about the wholesale rejuvenation of Chinese civilisation. This thinking connects Beijing’s rule to the concept of tianxia, or ‘all under heaven’, an idea drawn from classical Confucianism, in which the periphery subordinates itself to the authority of the sovereign centre, while the centre assumes responsibility for the periphery’s security and development. In that same year, Xi Jinping came to power. He was impatient with anyone who didn’t want to acknowledge the Communist Party’s absolute authority. The new thinking on Hong Kong, if subsequent developments are any indication, was readily espoused by Beijing. Meanwhile, in the summer of 2012, before Xi’s inauguration, Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong teenager, began a campaign against a proposed ‘moral and national education’ programme, and organised a rally attended by more than a hundred thousand people. The radical activism of Wong and his comrades announced the arrival of the younger generation as a formidable new force in Hong Kong’s politics.
As the dust settled after the 2012 elections, anxiety and frustration grew in Hong Kong over the lack of progress towards real democracy. Would Beijing renege on its promises again? Early in 2013, taking inspiration from the Occupy movement, Benny Tai Yui-ting, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, floated the idea of ‘Occupy Central’ as a way to speed up democratisation. He was joined by Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Since 2005, pro-democracy activists had organised mock referendums to demonstrate that the Hong Kong public was ready for participatory politics. They believed that the ‘gradual and orderly progress’ towards universal suffrage was being delayed on the basis of the phrase in the Basic Law that said amendments would be made ‘in light of the actual situation’ in Hong Kong.
Occupy Central tried similar tactics in June 2014. In previous years, Beijing had attacked such efforts for their lack of credibility or – when the legislators collectively resigned in order to trigger an election – for wasting taxpayers’ money. In 2014, however, Beijing turned up the aggression. The State Council in Beijing issued a white paper explicitly stating that in China’s institutional design for Hong Kong the ‘two systems’ must be subordinated to the ‘one country’, and that the CE must both ‘love the country’ and ‘love Hong Kong’. The method of electing both the CE and the legislature must safeguard ‘the security and interest of the state’ against foreign interference. On the last day of August 2014, the NPCSC published its decision – known as the ‘8.31’ decision – on the election of the 2016 legislature and 2017 CE. Technically, Beijing agreed to allow ‘one person, one vote’ in the CE election. But in reality it had shifted the focus to the issue of who should be allowed to stand. There would be no more than two or three candidates, and the bar for nomination would be very high. Candidates would be chosen by a committee sure to be pro-Beijing and pro-business.
Both the white paper and the 8.31 decision were decisive in the emergence of the Umbrella Movement in late September 2014. Together, the two documents signified, first, that Beijing had once again broken its promise to bring universal suffrage to Hong Kong. Second, that by granting a narrowly defined ‘universal suffrage’ while imposing severe limits on the selection of candidates, Beijing was closing the door to further electoral reforms. And third, that Beijing had surreptitiously changed the criteria for evaluating the ‘actual situation’ in Hong Kong. By emphasising ‘one country’ over ‘two systems’, the two documents interpret Hong Kong’s ‘actual situation’ as a matter not of how ready Hong Kong’s people are to act as politically capable citizens, or how willing they are to participate in public life, but how ready they are to follow Beijing’s orders. From now on, there would be no rules or principles to follow, no process of argument or reason to rely on. Instead, there would be the game of trying to interpret the signs made by Beijing officials. This is the new understanding that is at the root of today’s protests. In 2014, however, many were not yet fully aware of this new normal.
The Umbrella Movement was started by students like Wong. The Occupy Central trio soon joined, and their 79-day action lasted until mid-December 2014, when police removed the last protesters one by one. The occupation cost the protesters dear. One of the leading organisations behind the movement, Hong Kong’s city-wide college student union, was plagued by disputes over tactics and strategy, and saw public support dwindle. Several student union branches withdrew their membership. Young ‘radicals’ started talking of the Umbrella Movement as a ‘failure’. This may be too harsh a verdict. In the face of pressure from Beijing, several new organisations emerged, led by young people advocating self-determination or outright independence for Hong Kong. These groups launched a campaign aimed at ‘reclaiming’ (guangfu) local places. Young people who’d been involved in the Umbrella Movement began to connect social welfare issues and disputes over development projects to overall political reform. They also turned their attention to the district council elections in 2015, and a legislative council by-election and general election, both in 2016. Feeling the pressure, all the parties nominated younger candidates for the legislative election; 26 of the seventy Legislative Council members elected were first-timers. The pro-democracy camp gained seats in constituencies where elections were by popular vote.
The authorities were alarmed by the new trend. CY Leung, the Hong Kong CE at the time, put a set of new measures in place. For the first time, candidates were asked to pledge their loyalty to the Basic Law’s provisions concerning Hong Kong’s subordinate relation to the PRC and the central government. For the first time, six pro-independence candidates were disqualified by the election authorities because of their political opinions. One of the six, Edward Leung Tin-kei, caused the government particular alarm. He won 15 per cent of the votes in the 2016 legislative by-election, and a year later, was charged with ‘rioting’ after helping local food vendors resist police removal orders. He is now serving a six-year prison term. His slogan, ‘Reclaim Hong Kong, the revolution of our time’ (guangfu Xianggang, shidai geming) reappeared on the streets this summer.
Similar methods have also been deployed against people with comparatively mild political positions. A group of 13 protesters against a government-sponsored development project in the north-east of the New Territory stormed the legislative building in June 2014. They were charged in 2016 with assaulting the police and sentenced to between 80 and 150 hours of community service. The government appealed and secured prison terms, before Hong Kong’s supreme court overturned the decision in 2018. The case turned on whether or not the defendants’ intentions – to act in the cause of social justice – should be taken into account. Joshua Wong and his comrades in the Umbrella Movement were charged with illegal assembly and inciting others to take part in illegal activities. The cases went back and forth between appeal court and supreme court, and the sentences oscillated between relative leniency and prison terms that would have killed the protesters’ chance of standing for election for at least five years. Earlier this year, the supreme court reduced Wong’s sentence to two months; in the event, he was released the day after Hong Kong’s largest ever mass rally.
The court hearing the case against the Occupy Central trio pronounced their sentences, along with those of six others, in April. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, who is in his seventies, said to the court in his concluding statement: ‘I am merely the one tolling the bell, to let people know there is suffering in the world.’ Reverend Chu has spent his life helping people in need, including me when I fled China in the aftermath of the Tiananmen massacre. The first night I ever spent outside the PRC was at his home in Hong Kong. In the past thirty years, we have seen each other from time to time, in America or in Taiwan; our most recent meeting was on a snowy day in London. He was prepared to face trial and go to jail, though his wife was worried about his health. The court sentenced all three of the Occupy Central trio to 16 months in prison. Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man were to start their terms immediately; Reverend Chu was given a two-year suspension. The six others sentenced that day for their involvement in the Umbrella protests included two current members of the Legislative Council. This is another blow to the democratic camp: six legislators-elect had already been disqualified in 2016, after taking office for less than two weeks. The prison terms for participants in the Occupy and Umbrella movements were intended as a warning to the general public; the disqualification of candidates and legislators is aimed at paralysing the democratic camp’s capacity to block pro-Beijing bills.
This was the situation in Hong Kong when our conference took place in Taipei. Both Albert Ho and Emily Lau were involved in the controversial negotiations with the Hong Kong and Beijing governments in 2012. At the time, Hong Kong radicals accused Ho and Lau of being traitors. Not any longer. Hong Kong’s democratic future is in danger and desperation has made enemies into comrades.
From the government’s perspective, it appeared earlier this year as if all the leading troublemakers had been disabled or were at least under control. The democratic camp in the legislature is so crippled that the pro-Beijing camp managed to pass a procedural bill granting far greater power to the chairman of the chamber, effectively removing a filibustering instrument on which the democrats had depended to block unpopular bills. Carrie Lam, the current CE, proposed amending the existing extradition bill to allow extradition to mainland China and Taiwan. She has repeatedly cited a case in which a murder suspect couldn’t be extradited from Hong Kong to Taiwan because there was no agreement in place. Leaving only two weeks for public consultation, she repeatedly declined requests to meet with legislators, opposition parties, lawyers and the media. The only concession her government made was to business, excluding economic crimes from the bill. Even after more than a million people marched on 9 June, Lam calmly announced that the bill would go through its second reading three days later.
On 4 June, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China, of which Albert Ho is the current chairman and Reverend Chu a long-standing member, commemorated the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre with a candle vigil in Victoria Park. Two days later, Hong Kong’s lawyers marched in silence wearing legal gowns to protest against the extradition bill and the way the government had handled it. The huge march of 9 June was organised by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), an organisation whose members include nearly fifty pro-democracy NGOs and political parties. On 12 June, with the second reading of the bill imminent, young protesters gathered in front of the legislature’s main building, trying to block members from getting in. The police used 150 canisters of tear gas, and fired on protesters with bean bag rounds and rubber bullets. Almost instantly, support stations were set up and supply lines formed by volunteers, who passed water and protection gear to the front line. The protesters chose a hymn as their marching song. All of this seemed to unfold without organisational leadership. Before dusk, the police chief had already announced that the demonstration was a ‘riot’, which had legal implications for anyone involved, as Edward Leung’s case went on to show. There was public uproar at the use of this term. Lam hurriedly promised that the bill would be put aside, but it was too little, too late. The CHRF had already organised another mass rally – the record-breaking two-million march of 16 June.
Lessons have been learned from previous protests. The authorities always try to destroy a movement by identifying its leaders. The current protests have no leadership and are highly decentralised. Social media is the main vehicle of mass mobilisation. This time round, there have been no internal splits. Yet the solidarity is not rooted in political discipline: even when brothers climb a mountain together, each has to make his own effort. One action may be followed straightaway by another, or by a few days’ rest. Bruce Lee’s saying becomes a golden rule: ‘Water can flow or it can crush. Be water my friend.’
The next two weeks were calm on the surface, but the underlying tensions were heightened: several protesters fell or jumped to their deaths, leaving notes expressing their political frustration. The next rally was planned for 1 July, the date Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred from Britain to China in 1997. Beijing and Lam perhaps imagined that the protest would follow the familiar pattern: young protesters demonstrate, the police respond with force, the public rushes to support the youngsters and condemn the police, the enthusiasm soon fades. But on 1 July the protesters crashed through the glass wall surrounding the legislature building and temporarily occupied its main meeting hall, making headlines worldwide. There were no tactical splits among the demonstrators. Instead, just before midnight, the deadline police had set to clear the site, dozens of protesters who had already left the building rushed back inside, shouting ‘Go together’ in rhythm and forcefully carrying away the last four people inside.
The protests have not diminished over the last two months. They have instead become ever more confrontational, vis à vis the police, the Hong Kong government and even the central government’s liaison office. Yet public support has not waned. There is a silent consensus that the not-yet-named protest movement is a collective vote of no confidence in Beijing. Beijing must understand this, more or less, but it has not acknowledged as much. Its first press conference on the current situation in Hong Kong was given by the Hong Kong Macau Office of the State Council in Beijing on 29 July. A spokesperson reiterated the central government’s support for Carrie Lam, and echoed the Hong Kong police chief in describing the clashes of 12 June as a ‘riot’. The emphasis of the press conference was firmly on stability and economic development, reminding me of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy in the mainland after the Tiananmen massacre: ‘Stability is the top priority’ and ‘Development is the irrefutable truth.’ It reminded me too of Chan Koonchung’s conviction that Beijing wants the Hong Kong CE to be an extension of its own will, and the people of Hong Kong to be entirely depoliticised.
This last wish is remote from the reality on the ground. It also speaks to Beijing’s perception that a ‘colonial’ mindset has impeded its efforts to make Hong King a vehicle for its own interests. The crucial period in this respect, I think, was the first thirty years of the PRC, when it declined to take Hong Kong back. Hong Kong’s sense of itself began to flourish in the 1970s. Some in Hong Kong sincerely wanted to adopt a mainland view, or even a mainland identity, but identification with the mainland could never be truly be rooted in experience. The CCP’s approach means that people in Hong Kong either come to see themselves as second-rate citizens of the PRC, no matter how much richer they may be than many on the mainland, or feel ever more alienated, their sense of themselves as citizens of Hong Kong growing ever stronger.