Hong Kong: The Unexpected Revolutionary

Ryan Tang argues that the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong are long overdue

Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr

Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution. Photo by Pasu Au Yeung via Flickr

Of all the places in the world associated with political instability and popular revolution, Hong Kong probably comes quite far down on the list. Until recently, the city had developed a reputation as ‘apolitical’ and heavily materialistic. Behind the imposing skyscrapers lining Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong has become a seething cauldron of anger directed against the gradual erosion of its autonomy and staggering levels of income inequality.

In just over a decade, Hong Kong politics has become increasingly polarised, with young people feeling alienated from Mainland China and the values of the Communist Party. Pro-business moderates are finding themselves marginalised by hardline neo-Communists who fervently believe in an ‘ever-closer union’ between Hong Kong and the Mainland. The city’s insular politics have long been divided into two main camps known as the ‘pan-Democrats’ and the ‘pro-Establishment’, both of which are broad coalitions incorporating a range of political parties from across the conventional left-right spectrum. Ever since the Governorship of Lord Patten in the late 1990s, the primary debate in local politics has been that of universal suffrage and the degree of influence that Peking ought to have over Hong Kong’s internal affairs. Technically speaking, the city is a ‘Special Administrative Region’ of China enjoying full autonomy over all aspects of its affairs except for foreign policy and external defence. In reality, both the legislature and executive are controlled by the Communist Party in defiance of popular opinion, since a consistent majority of 60% of the population have supported the pan-Democrats in every election since the late 1980s – an appropriate parallel would be to imagine David Cameron granting Scotland total autonomy but reserving the right to appoint 55% of all Members of Scottish Parliament as well as the entire Scottish Executive.

Yet, truly worrying is how C.Y. Leung’s administration is using the protests as an excuse to move the city closer towards a police state. Apart from using tear gas against domestic protestors for the first time since the riots of 1967, during which pro-Communist terrorists (some of whom are now prominent members of the government) launched a bombing campaign against the colonial government and local moderates, extrajudicial beatings and unconstitutional strip searches have been systematically carried out by the police over the past few days. The last remaining pan-Democrat newspaper was physically blockaded earlier this week, damaging its commercial viability, especially as leading firms (including British banks such as HSBC and Standard Chartered) have already been pressured into pulling their advertisements. Pan-Democratic lawmakers have been arrested for bringing equipment back to their offices purely on suspicion of ‘abetting illegal behaviour’, while student leaders were kept in solitary detention without just cause. Instead of responding to the legitimate grievances of peaceful protestors, the government has resorted to bribing Hong Kong’s powerful triads and persuading them to attack protest encampments in full view of the local and international media. The apparent frontrunner to succeed C.Y. Leung is a former Security Minister notorious for her hardline approach towards protestors and avid peddling of conspiracy theories.

The room for consensus is shrinking by the day as China seeks to evade its legal obligations towards the people of Hong Kong, who have been repeatedly promised genuine universal suffrage. In recent weeks, a handful of moderates have called for protestors to return home in exchange for beginning negotiations with the government, which were abruptly cancelled a few days ago. Put bluntly, Hong Kong’s youth have had enough of a deeply corrupt status quo whereby a handful of pro-Chinese businessmen reap monopoly profits through vast conglomerates permeating every aspect of daily life in the absence of meaningful competition laws. – the city currently sits atop the Economist’s crony-capitalism index, ahead of Russia, Ukraine and Mexico. Indeed, Chief Executive C.Y. Leung openly declared his opposition to universal suffrage on the grounds that it would grant excessive power to the bottom 50% of the population, for which he has been compared to Mitt Romney by Paul Krugman.  It is to their immense credit that the protesters thus far have remained essentially peaceful and have carefully calibrated the demonstrations in such a way as to maintain pressure on the government without actually disrupting the daily routines of most citizens. With only three (normally congested) tunnels and two underground lines connecting the two main parts of the city, it would have been all too easy for students to totally shut down all business and trade if they really wanted to do so.

However, the Chinese government is in no mood for any sort of compromise, and negotiations will achieve, at best, cosmetic concessions. The student protestors and their supporters across Hong Kong should maintain their resolve and reject any proposal that will restrict electoral choice. Universal suffrage and regular elections are meaningless in the absence of genuine competition – President Putin was ‘democratically’ elected, but hardly anyone considers his Russia to be a truly democratic country. Ever since 1997, Hong Kong has lived under an abnormally tolerant authoritarian regime, but for all its glamour and civic liberties, it remains at its core a dictatorship, its leaders lacking any kind of popular legitimacy. With the legislature powerless and marginalised by the current series of events, the students on the street represent the city’s last and perhaps best hope. The moderate opposition has tried to negotiate with China for the best part of 30 years, and all it has to show for its efforts is a continuous erosion of the city’s civic liberties and autonomy.

When Britain handed back Hong Kong to Peking in 1997, it did so based on the belief that it had constructed a system of legally binding guarantees that would ensure the city’s freedom for at least 50 years. Instead, the Chinese Communist regime has systematically broken these promises to the point that an overwhelming majority of Hong Kong’s people are now demanding their rights. With 60% of the city’s population rejecting Peking’s proposal, the only way forward for the protestors and their allies in the legislature is to ride this wave of popular anger and veto any proposal that fails to comply with international electoral standards. By ensuring that any future government in Hong Kong will lack popular legitimacy and reminding the international community of this fact, the youth who continue to bravely resist an increasingly violent police are able to cause China a considerable degree of embarrassment. Already, there are growing signs of popular dissent in China’s teeming cities as workers protest against a unaccountable government and staggering levels of income inequality. Hong Kong might once again be able to play its historical role as the incubator of revolutionary ideas for the rest of the country. As long as the protestors are able to keep up the  momentum, time and history is ultimately on their side. Accepting a deeply flawed compromise will only strengthen the Chinese leadership and consign Hong Kong to political, social and economic oblivion.