Present Outlook, History, and Prospects

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Internet Meme

THE UNTHINKABLE has happened. Where just a month ago, it seemed as though Occupy Central was on the decline, that Hong Kong would see no mass protest over China’s refusal to permit free elections for Chief Executive, the highest leadership position within Hong Kong’s government, Hong Kong’s student activists have seized the day. The week-long student strike culminated in student activists attempting to storm government headquarters, then surrounding the compound after a failed attempt at occupation. In the days subsequent, a series of standoffs between protestors and police gathering around government headquarters and tens of thousands of citizens gathering in the area in and around Admiralty, one of Hong Kong’s financial and economic district has galvanized Hong Kong society. Occupations continue to take place and now have expanded to areas including Central, the original target of the protests, and beyond.

It would seem the existential condition of East Asian politics is a lack of concern by western media until far after the fact, despite the global significance of East Asia economically and sociopolitically. For a long while, it made little sense. Even in purely economic terms, Hong Kong is of great importance to the world economy, after all. Why had the world paid such little attention to date?

While it was never a question that there would be protest regarding China’s refusal to permit free elections, it was previously a question as to what effect protest would have, if at all. Yet one would have thought there would be more attention paid to Hong Kong in tracking the development of popular unrest by international media by dint of Hong Kong’s status as a global economic and financial center. Likewise, any potential outbreak of social unrest would have sweeping implications for China in the present, not to mention upon the shifting tides of present-day political order in East Asia.

So it is only now with the explosion of violence and the use of large-scale riot police that the world’s eyes are focused on Hong Kong now. The effects of the outbreak of violence have already been enormous. What began as a student movement has morphed into a movement that spans all parts of society. To the extent that China, whose expansion casts a large shadow across world politics, was intent on settling it’s so-called “internal” problems—accordingly, that Hong Kong would erupt into its conflagration in the present will have ramifications across the board.

China drew Hong Kong near, making it an “internal matter,” in order to squelch Hong Kong’s democratic proclivities before it materialized. Having failed that that, it’s now awoken to realize it’s carried a ticking time bomb into its den—it’s brought the possibility of democratic revolution to its doormat. Yesterday was the most censored day this year on the Chinese Internet. The reason why? Pictures of regular people in streets being gassed by police, but fighting for what they believe in nonetheless. An internal matter gone wrong. China will have little way of sweeping its internal contradictions under the rug now.

What follows is an overview of the current set of events in Hong Kong, the historical roots, current situation, and future prospects.

Divisions from Within

JUST A MONTH AGO, Occupy Central’s Benny Tai declared that Occupy Central had already lost, that the “pragmatism” of Hong Kongers had won out against the struggle for freedom and democracy. But with the actions of student protestors, most prominently the Scholarism group and its convener, Joshua Wong, it would appear now it is the students who are leading the Hong Kong democracy movement. That may not be surprising, as within social movements, it is quite often the young who lead the charge, forcing their older, more institutionalized cohorts to follow in their wake. And when the young take the lead, sometimes suffering unfortunate consequences, they provide martyrs for the rest of the movement; certainly, the recent arrest and detainment of Joshua Wong during a protest action has served as such.

Though the Hong Kong democracy movement was previously at risk of a premature demise through public apathy, it has now taken center stage where Hong Kong society is concerned. As the prominence of social movements in East Asia usually goes ignored in western media, the student strike of the past week has received little attention abroad. It is only when stalwarts as Occupy Central joined in that Hong Kong is starting to receive attention of international media. Indeed, while students have spent the week posted on hot concrete or dodging gas canisters, Benny Tai spent the week on a media bonanza, granting interviews to all interested outlets.

Whereas outside media has been slow to catch on to the distinguishing features between Occupy Central and student protestors, it does not ignore the fact that the current set of events were motivated by student activists driving the movement forward. Accusations against Occupy Central leaders of attempting to co-opt or being willing to abandon student activists have been long standing. Likewise, criticisms have followed from Occupy Central leaders’ emphasis that participants of Occupy Central abide by the law and by principles of non-violence, which critics suggest may prematurely defang the movement or merely the attempt of Occupy Central to impose their wills upon all Occupy Central participants.

While the internal tensions between student demonstrators and Occupy Central leaders will not fade away and the suggestion that Occupy Central and students should simply sweep their differences under the rug ignores more substantial differences of orientation. Student leaders have been more willing to take on aggressive protest tactics aimed at public agitation, whereas Occupy Central leaders have emphasized the need for peaceful protest.

It is of note that international media pays attention more readily to the established voices of Occupy Central rather than student voices to the extent that international media has not marked the outgrowth of student activism in Hong Kong over the past two years as closely it has the formation of Occupy Central. If the movement is at a critical point, internal divides may be dangerous in the present, and the people Hong Kong will need the capacity to leverage as much international press coverage as possible. Thus, cooperation between these may be of necessity in the present, even if the call for “unity” needs to grasp what is at stake with in the contestation between Occupy Central and those voices critical of it.

Hong Kong after British Colonialism

THE INTRODUCTION of “democracy” into Hong Kong dates to the withdrawal of Britain from Hong Kong pending the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British control to China. While the British handover was foreseen and inevitable, given that the agreement for Britain to turn over control of Hong Kong to China was long set in stone, the unexpected element which was introduced into Hong Kong politics was the introduction of elements of democracy into Hong Kong government during the final British colonial administration of Hong Kong, the Patten administration.

While it has become a popular trope within Hong Kong political discourse to cite the British as having introduced democracy into Hong Kong because of British acknowledgement of Hong Kong as “ready” for democracy whereas Greater China was apparently not, the introduction of democracy into Hong Kong has to be attributed to a number of factors. For one, with the dismantling of the British empire in the latter half of the twentieth century and the expiration of British sovereignty over Hong Kong, that the British would be forced cede the relatively free Hong Kong to communist China led to an international outcry. For Britain to gracefully retreat from its history of empire, it was of necessity that Britain takes certain measures to avoid the appearance of throwing Hong Kong to the wolves.

In regards to the current situation of Hong Kong, one can point quite directly to the inheritances of the colonial period on both sides of the fence. For one, that the British introduced “democracy” into Hong Kong has allowed for the legitimate demand of Hong Kongers that China has gone back on its promises in dismantling the structures which allowed provided for the introduction of democracy into Hong Kong after the handover; what is perhaps forgotten is that direct elections for the Hong Kong legislature were only introduced under the British in the early 90s, after so many decades of colonial rule, never mind the eruption of unrest against colonial rule in earlier periods as the 1967 Leftist riots, although that series of events certainly was wedded to the expression of pro-China sentiment at the time. Suggestions that tear gas has not been used on such a large scale in Hong Kong since 1967 may not be without resonance.

However, that the current controversy is over the position of China’s refusal to permit democratic elections for the position of Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s top governmental position, we can also point to that as a colonial inheritance. Fear of China’s control of the Chief Executive position is not unfounded on the basis of the disproportionate executive power of the equivalent position of Governor of Hong Kong under colonial administration and the continued power of the Chief Executive position, as succeeding the functions of Governor of Hong Kong after the 1997 handover, although certainly not without institutional constraints. [1]

From British Colony to Civil Society

THE RISE OF Hong Kong civil society as a force outside of purely electoral politics can also be dated to the 1997 handover. To the extent that negotiations between China and Britain over the status of a future Hong Kong under Chinese sovereignty began in the 1980s, at risk of simplification, one can also trace the emergence of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement to concerns about the future of Hong Kong in this period. It was then that the discourse of government “accountability” was introduced into Hong Kong, which can be seen as a contributing factor for citizens making certain demands of government outside of the system of electoral politics. [2]

Though during this period, the expression of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement was through the form of political parties, the turn towards civil society groups after 1997 can probably be tied to the disproportionate power of the Chief Executive position as compared to legislative positions and the failure of political parties to institutionalize after the handover. After the handover, political parties were unable to accommodate to the new status quo in which the specter of Beijing was ever prominent. After that point, political parties were defined by two vectors: of being oppositional or accommodating to Beijing, and of being pro-business or critical of business.

And, indeed, it is not as though the two can be parsed out so easily. Given the inevitability of Hong Kong having to draw closer economically to China, post-handover, it would be of necessity that Beijing dictate economic policy. That is to say, the system of “One country, two systems,” provided for the sustainability of capitalism within socialist China in order that Hong Kong capitalism might benefit socialist China, but with the expectation that Hong Kong would not deviate from the greater rule of China. While Hong Kong differed from China in maintaining a capitalistic socioeconomic system, it was only for the benefit of supplementing the mainland Chinese economy.

Accordingly, there was a shift in the Hong Kong political spectrum. Hong Kong had been previously defined by “Leftist” pro-China forces as contesting those who acknowledged the claims of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or KMT, and thus veered in a “Rightist,” pro-Taiwan direction. Yet with the transformation of the Hong Kongese political spectrum following the handover, the issue of democracy came increasingly to define the political spectrum attendant with the rise of news publications for whom the issue of democracy was a central plank, as Next Media and Apple Daily, both funded by media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

With a series of factors including the growing stultification of party politics in the early 2000s and continued government blunders after the 1997 transfer such as the mishandling of the SARS crisis, slow economic growth, increasing economic inequality, and the explosion of real estate prices in Hong Kong in the early 2000s, civil society would burst onto the scene with the unprecedented march of 500,000 against Basic Law Article 23 on July 1st, 2003, which not even the organizers anticipated. Indeed, this makes the first manifestation of the issue currently at hand in Hong Kong in which the issue of Hong Kong’s democracy and sovereignty vis-a-vis China took center stage regarding the strict security and national loyalty measures posed by Basic Law Article 23, but also in which many other social issues were made manifest in the issue of Hong Kong’s democracy and the broad rubric it offered. As ossification amongst political institutions and political parties only continued from then on, with the continued inability of the government to find any means of intermediating with the public, civil society would only grow in strength from that point in time until the present.

The Struggle of Hong Kong’s Young Against “Pragmatism”

THE STEREOTYPICAL IMAGE of the Hong Konger following the 1970s onwards was of the “pragmatic” individual who primarily considers the world in terms of economic interest; the Hong Konger as “economic animal”. [3] Indeed, relative to a mainland China which claimed itself to be communist, it may be Hong Kongers could only appear especially driven by capitalistic self-interest.

And the image persists. When Benny Tai cites the “pragmatism” of Hong Kongers as a reason for his apparently premature declaration of Occupy Central’s defeat, he is referring to the image of Hong Konger as “economic animal”. The problem is not that Hong Kongers are apathetic; it is that they are cynical in thinking of the world solely in terms of economic interest. This would be the struggle of Hong Kong activists to win over the pragmatic Hong Kong homo economicus. But perhaps what is happening now would seem to be proof that the economic interests of Hong Kongers are not their only concern—or would it?

Benny Tai and Occupy Central previously backed down in fear of driving away Hong Kongers who would resist the occupation of Central, Hong Kong’s business and financial district and the disruption it would pose to their everyday lives in declaring that Occupy Central would only carry out its occupation on a day chosen not to disrupt business activity. However, what students, led on by Joshua Wong and the Student Union Federation, have accomplished is to take the struggle to the government in attempting to occupy government headquarters, and by doing so driving Occupy Central to declare prematurely that it would not occupy Central, but instead government headquarters. Though Central would have proved a more controversial target in affecting the Hong Kong economic sector, the Hong Kong government seems a less morally ambiguous target. Yet regardless of whether Hong Kongers have come to the realization that their freedom trumps economic considerations in importance in this or not, a possible limitation for future action, it has been the young who have led the cause.

What Hong Kong’s young people have accomplished is the transformation of political apathy into commitment. A generation ago, political education in Hong Kong in school systems under the British colonial administration was largely apolitical in order to maintain the semblance of public order under British administration marked more and more by the ambiguities brought about by the lingering of colonialism in an era when the British empire had long since expired. By contrast, after the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese control, political education was marked by the attempt to instill Chinese nationalist and patriotic values in young Hong Kongers.

Yet the Scholasticism group, which has taken the center stage in leading the student movement, comes directly out of the resistance against Chinese political education within secondary schools. What is truly remarkable is their ability to work themselves out of the indoctrinatory frameworks imposed upon them by authority figures and, even then, to not just subordinate themselves to preexisting oppositional figures but in fact to force those oppositional figures to follow their lead. If Hong Kong’s young are possessed of such remarkable leadership skills, perhaps there is some hope for the apparently bleak future in which Hong Kong can only acquiesce to inevitable Chinese economic and political control.

The Beginning of an Era of Civil Disobedience?

TO TAKE A LONG TERM view of events, the current series of events in Hong Kong is the unfolding of a larger, historical logic. Part of the controversy over Hong Kong’s refusal to permit Hong Kongers to choose their own Chief Executive, given that China will only permit “patriotic” candidates; i.e., candidates pre-approved by China.

But the language by which only the “patriotic” will be permitted to take key Hong Kongese government posts dates, in fact, as far back as to statements by Deng Xiaoping in 1984. [4] One can find any number of past precedents. It is just that in the present, what was previously just words and phrases demands realization.

Thus, the current events in Hong Kong are only the unspooling of a broader, historical logic by which historical ambiguities last so long, but are in the end forcibly clarified. Hong Kong existed for so many years under the ambiguous status of a British colony in the face of a fading British empire. When control of Hong Kong fell under China, Hong Kong assumed another historically ambiguous status via the system of “One country, two systems” in its grafting to China. These ambiguities cannot last forever.

It may not do to pose possible scenarios for Hong Kong’s future. For policy commentators are right to point out that, even with the controversy over the election of Chief Executive, the state of affairs in Hong Kong will not be settled until 2017. Even after 2017, it would be unlikely that this controversy sees complete resolution, or simply fades away. And whereas one might pose scenarios as some negotiable position for Hong Kong that allows for further leeway under Chinese rule, or even the possibility of some form of independence, speculation of possible scenarios from afar may be a self-undermining endeavor at best.

Nonetheless, in acceptance of that the ambiguous, liminal state of Hong Kong cannot forever last, here we might also point towards the unintelligibility of Hong Kong’s future—but also the importance of what happens in Hong Kong from here on out. Hong Kong has, perhaps, gone too long ignored as a potential flashpoint of Asia, because while no other power apart from China has any claim to territorial sovereignty over Hong Kong—as we see with Taiwan, or the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, say. Nor does it face the threat of military encroachment by China, as Japan or Korea might.

But we now face the Hong Kong people, vested with their own independent sense of identity, asserting their self-sovereignty. Whereas the status quo of East Asia from the Cold War to the present has lasted so long, the past several years have strongly suggested the overturning of the previously existing order of affairs and the outbreak of mass social movements as a response to chronic social instability and a shifting geopolitical order. Hong Kong is yet another example. The die is cast. The fate of Hong Kong is in the hands of its people.

[1] Ma Ngok, Political Development in Hong Kong: State, Political Society, and Civil Society (Hong Kong University Press: 2007), 59.

[2] Kit Poon, The Political Future of Hong Kong: Democracy within communist China (London: Routledge, 2008), 1-21.

[3] Francis L.F. Lee and Joseph M. Chan, Media, Social Mobilization and Mass Protest in Post-Colonial Hong Kong: The Power of a Critical Event (London: Routledge, 2011), 1, 74.

[4] Deng Xiaoping, “On one country two systems, June 22 and 23, 1984”, in Deng Xiaoping on One Country Two Systems (Hong Kong: Joint Publishing Company, Ltd., 2004), 11.

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