Questions Confronting Hong Kong’s Demand for Democracy

by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Citobun/WikiCommons/CC

Rain Clouds over Hong Kong

AT THE START of this week, it seemed that the situation with Occupy Central had reached a height of utmost tension. Protest leaders from Occupy Central and student leaders alike were calling for protestors to withdraw as far back as Sunday, after the brutal use of police force and fear that subsequent violence might prove deadly.

When protestors refused to withdraw, the situation grew ever more tense. The situation was becoming disorderly, with protestors dispersing far outside of the originally planned occupation sites and generating blockages in traffic.

This drew concern in particular from Occupy Central leaders, who have thus far tried to keep proceedings as much within the bounds of public order as possible, and have been criticized for their fixation with maintaining public order. Having previously refused to launch Occupy Central on September 26th, on the initial night of clashes between students and police, Benny Tai would declare the launch of Occupy Central during the early morning hours of September 28th, even as Tai also urged that demonstrators, particularly the young, retreat. Yet while student groups as Scholarism have oriented themselves towards more confrontational protest tactics and won public approbation in doing so, even Scholarism’s Joshua Wong and the Hong Kong Federation of Students alike were calling for temporary withdrawal on the night of the 28th during the height of police violence.

It would appear that in the face of a public which refused to stand down, protest leaders were driven on to continue. As the week dragged on, in the face of a lack of response from government leaders, Hong Kong Federation of Students Vice-Secretary Lester Shum would declare on Wednesday that if the Chinese central government refused to negotiate and current Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chung-Ying did not resign by the end of Thursday, student demonstrators would escalate by attempting to occupy government buildings. Scholarism also backed the planned escalation attempt and, it is known that Scholarism has at least discussed with Occupy Central organizers as to the possibility of building occupation as an escalating tactic, even if Occupy Central leaders’ position on escalation is less clear given that it is students who have predominantly been the militant forces of the Hong Kong democracy movement.

A revelation which was somehow utterly failed to be picked up on in western media was that Hong Kong police had text warning of the threat of opening fire on the back of banners warning of the firing of tear gas. While one may take the warnings of old China hands whose analysis of the CCP is conducted through the lens of Cold War Kremlinology with a grain of salt in a world a quarter century after the end of the Cold War, there were warnings that the CCP rhetoric was escalating to a severity reminiscent of immediately before Tiananmen Square. The situation was volatile.

A relieving of tensions was achieved with the opening of negotiations with the government. Despite the refusal of Leung Chung-Ying to step down, he indicated the Hong Kong government’s willingness to negotiate with students, and a meeting was set up with Hong Kong Chief Secretary Carrie Lam.

But rain clouds have descended upon Hong Kong for the past several days. Ironic as it is for a movement which calls itself “the Umbrella Revolution,” the movement seemed in danger of being washed away. Compounded by heavy rain, followed by a series of brutal attacks by thugs likely operating under the blind eye of the government that led to the suspension of negotiations, the internal tensions within the movement have now come to the fore. In the face of the suspension of negotiations to protest police inaction against the assault of pro-Beijing mobs, Leung Chung-Ying now declares that protestors have until the early morning hours of Monday to withdraw. As protestors refused to comply, the coming hours will prove decisive for Hong Kong, with the threat of violence once more on the table. Will Hong Kong’s democracy movement be able to weather the coming storm?

Yet no doubt, the future course of the movement, if it is to have one, will depend upon how these internal tensions are resolved or fail to be resolved from this point onwards. In reflection upon the last few days, we might turn towards a consideration of the internal tensions of the movement which the past week has brought out.

Three Questions Confronting the Umbrella Revolution

PERHAPS ONE can find symbolic resonance that the day in which the internal tensions of the Umbrella Revolution first came to the fore was October 1st, Wednesday of this week, and the the day celebrated as Chinese National Day in marking the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Movement leaders, including Occupy Central leader Benny Tai and Scholarism convener Joshua Wong, stated that while it was important for there to be protest, such protest should be respectful.

It was foreseen that the world’s eyes would be on Hong Kong that day, given the significance of the holiday to Chinese national identity and Hong Kong’s struggle being that of resisting the sovereign domination by China. As a result it was understood that it was of necessity to protest. Yet student movement leaders as Wong stated, “No matter how much you dislike a country, disturbing its flag-raising ceremony will only be disrespectful.”

Likewise, in a significant public statement which largely failed to be picked up on by western media, Occupy Central leader Benny Tai stated in an interview that Occupy Central was not opposed to the Communist Party in and of itself, did not demand democracy for anywhere other than Hong Kong, and still sought to negotiate within the framework. Tai is now insisting that the movement is not a “color revolution” in another attempt to placate the CCP.

It was feared that public backlash would ensue from actions which would cause Hong Kong to be viewed as anti-China and that this would have ramifications both in regards the future of the movement. We can understand this decision in light of that the movement was making certain demands of the Chinese government, that Hong Kong society is sometimes pigeonholed in the international sphere as prejudiced against Chinese, and that this might cause controversy in Hong Kong itself, given the large mainland Chinese population that resides in Hong Kong, elements of which have been less than happy with the current civic uprising.

FORCED TO CONFRONT the reality of China on the day China celebrates its founding, October 1st was a day which compelled movement leaders to take more conciliatory stances. While backlash within the movement followed suit, in particular regarding Tai and his history of statements alienating of movement participants, it must be remembered that Tai was not actually saying anything he had not said before; when China publicly announced its refusal to allow non-vetted candidates to run for the position of Hong Kong Chief Executive, Tai declared “Today is not only the darkest day in the history of Hong Kong’s democratic development, today is also the darkest day of one country, two systems.”

Once more, the demand for democracy for Hong Kong was made within the rubric of, once more, “one country, two systems.” Tai’s statement points at the limitation of such a demand for democracy.

Yet, importantly, we can draw out three central questions present within the Hong Kong democracy movement and it’s current expression in the “Umbrella Movement” from recent events:

1) The question of confrontational tactics:
It is up for debate whether protestors should use escalatory tactics or seek to maintain public order as much as possible in protest actions for fear of alienating the notoriously fickle Hong Kong public and for fear of provoking an belligerent response from the CCP.

Namely, it is feared that the Hong Kong public will turn upon the democracy movement should its actions prove too disruptive to daily life and the economic sustainability of the city.

And protestors and movement leaders are understandably cautious of the CCP’s nature of violently overreacting to non-existent perceived threats, of which Tiananmen Square is probably the best example.

2) The question of democracy for Hong Kong:
The call for democracy is made within the framework of Hong Kong continuing to be part of China but attaining greater democracy than the rest of China, but there are obvious contradictions manifest within this position.

What is at question the actual possibility that China would permit Hong Kong to operate according to a different set of principles of governance than the rest of China. While Hong Kong was permitted to operate under different socioeconomic principles because of the benefit this would bring to the rest of China, if Hong Kong were to successfully realize the demand for a different set of conditions of governance, that would be disruptive to the CCP’s current enterprise aimed at settling China’s “internal questions” of separatist movements in outer China and regarding Taiwan’s de facto but lack of pro forma independence.

Depending on the circumstances in which it is made, the call for democracy can be a maximalist or minimalist set of demands. But as the appeal for greater democracy for Hong Kong is made on the basis of an underlying appeal to the central Chinese government which may be untenable, the call for democracy in the movement is always at risk of becoming a empty signifier.

3) The question of what underlies the call for democracy:

Though the call for democracy is the factor unifying the disparate participants in the Hong Kong democracy movement and the Umbrella Revolution, what the present assault of pro-China thugs upon participants and occupation encampments is bringing out an ugly side to the movement whereby blatant anti-Chinese sentiment is brought to the forefront of the movement. Namely, with the economic encroach of China, the increased presence of Chinese tourists that blatantly disregard common mores of society, the infractionary actions of nouveau riche Chinese, or growing Chinese economic control of Hong Kong, anti-Chinese sentiment has been on the rise in Hong Kong in the past several years.

The outburst of anger against pro-Chinese forces as a reaction to recent assaults, as attackers are often evidently not Hong Kongers, has been expressive of a face of the movement previously unseen.

We might attempt to think through these three questions.

The Uses and Abuses of Militancy

TO BEGIN WITH the question of confrontational tactics versus maintaining civic respectability in the Umbrella Revolution, this has been a divide within the Hong Kong democracy movement from the beginning. In the past, student groups have generally oriented towards more confrontational tactics, whereas Occupy Central and other established, adult movement leaders coming from professional backgrounds have been intent on maintaining civic order.

One can suggest that the structure of Hong Kong student groups is also relatively top-down internally, with the formalized organizational structure of the Hong Kong Federation of Students and leaders holding organizational positions as Vice-Secretary  Lester Shum and Secretary-General Alex Chow, and the clear presence of charismatic leader figures as Joshua Wong within Scholasticism; what has been controversial in particular, however, is Occupy Central leaders’ demands of obedience. Namely, Occupy Central leaders demand of participants the authority to order the dispersal of protests when necessary and strict agreements to forswear the usage of violence.

Not all have been happy with this. Yet student leaders are clearly working together with their counterparts in Occupy Central in present, even if one can expect some tension between both sides. Splitting the movement seems too risky at present—especially in the face of possible crackdown from the CCP.

This may be logical. Given the more institutionalized nature of Occupy Central, it is Occupy Central that initially attracted media attention from the outside. International media is only beginning now to recognize the significance of the student leaders who have been so prominent within the movement, or Joshua Wong anyway, despite that Joshua Wong and his cohort have already been highly visible for several years in Hong Kong.

Indeed, Occupy Central just has more brand recognizability. It still happens that the name of this present manifestation of the Hong Kong democracy movement is thought of as being “Occupy Central” and not the “Umbrella Revolution” very often, and there has been no-one who has sought to rebrand the movement in the name of the student activists who have nonetheless been the primary cause for the Hong Kong democracy movement’s resurgence in their unexpected attempt to seize government headquarters which was the direct impetus for the present civic uprising.

IN THE MOMENT before the present attack of pro-China forces upon Umbrella Revolution participants, it looked as though there was a possibility that the Umbrella Revolution might just tear itself apart because of its inability to settle the next step once negotiations within the government had opened up.

As the planned occupation attempts had been called off to make way for negotiations, some protestors had taken to surrounding buildings that were slated targets of occupation in order to prevent other, more militant protestors from carrying out attempts to occupy. Conflict raged across Hong Kong about whether to maintain or dismantle certain barriers on occupied streets so as to allow for traffic. Given the opportunity by dropping crowd numbers because of rain and undoubtedly exhaustion, police had taken the chance to dismantle road blockades as crowds thinned out.

It was known then that police were stocking up on rubber bullets and tear gas in preparation for a possible crackdown. As such, while the threat of occupation prompting police reprisal seemed to have been averted with future negotiations, there were still some ambiguities as to whether the threat of violence was truly off the table or not.

The elements of the movement intent on the maintenance of public order seemed to desire to use the moment as a chance to deescalate. Benny Tai declared publicly that the “first stage of victory” has been attained in an apparent effort to draw the current period of protest to a close.

But in this brief moment, it looked like the movement might disintegrate on the basis of whether now was the time to declare victory and withdraw, the movement having been already too disruptive of the daily lives of Hong Kong residents, or whether to stick it out until a point of clearer resolution. That this internal conflict was suddenly so visible in the blink of an eye is evidence enough of how the question of militancy has yet to be settled in the Hong Kong Umbrella Revolution.

Hong Kong’s Demand for Democracy

AS PROTESTORS HAVE had to endure the assault of pro-government gangsters upon occupation encampments from Friday onwards, there is a backwards, one can suggest that they were reinvigorating of future protest. While negotiations with the government broke down as a result of these attacks, protestors once more refused to back in the face of a renewed government demand for withdrawal. But, as we already know that the police were preparing for fresh assault, the stakes are quite high right now—perhaps more than ever before in the short history of the Umbrella Revolution.

Yet if it has been a question as to what the future direction of the movement will be, we might take the present moment immediately before what is probably a storm on the horizon as a opportunity for reflection. And here we might turn towards a consideration of what is probably the most important question of the movement: what future does it seeks to realize for Hong Kong? Democracy is the bottom line. Regardless, the call for democracy can be quite empty of content, indeed.

In the face of Hong Kong’s demands for greater democracy for Hong Kong, what is crucial if for one to asks oneself whether the demands made are possible within the discourse of social activists. Is it really possible for Hong Kong to demand greater democracy for itself in the face of a CCP which is so unwilling to compromise on the matter of democracy for China writ large?

Once more, in the worldview of the CCP, no doubt it would be that a freer Hong Kong would always suggest to the rest of China that an alternative to the socioeconomic status quo mandated by the CCP is possible, giving rise to potential dissidence, whether or not this is actually just in the imagining of the CCP or not. The paranoiac worldview of the CCP finds uncanny symmetry in the naive imagining of western liberals that Hong Kong will be inspiring of greater democracy for China through domino effect, never mind it is a question as to how much the populace of mainland China is in fact paying attention to Hong Kong.

But while the question as to whether Hong Kong can in fact realize even a form of minimal democratic demands is an opaque one, it is this call for “democracy” which has allowed for disparate social forces to join together in the Umbrella Revolution. It may, after all, the opacity of “democracy” allow for such wide-ranging cooperation. If democracy means whatever you call it, then anyone can participate in the movement.

Nevertheless, if even the basic underlying demands of the Hong Kong democracy movement are already impossible to begin with, one wonders as to why they are already made on such constrained, limited grounds bent on appealing to China. More significantly, confrontational student groups do not have significantly different end goals than Occupy Central leaders in advocating for the achievement of the catch-all universal good of “democracy”.

Paradoxically, it may be of necessity for Hong Kong to have more expansive demands regarding democracy for Greater China if it is to have any chances of achieving even limited demands. In making more expansive demands, China would be forced to push back in negotiating, and by having more expansive, maybe even impossible, demands, China would be forced to accommodate itself more—even if the total acquiescence of China to demands from Hong Kong may be impossible.

This in returns to the unresolved question of whether to employ militant tactics or tactics aimed at maintaining civic order in some sense. But the broader question at hand is what the movement can achieve in terms of the concrete. And setting the bar too low may leave you with nothing in the end.

Beneath Hong Kong’s Demand for Democracy

SO WE MIGHT consider the question of what underlies the call for democracy. In whose name exactly is it that the call for democracy in being made?

The power of the ideal of democracy lies in its universal character. Democracy calls for the representation of all peoples. And so, there are few who would oppose “democracy”.

One might note that in the confluence of forces regarding the Umbrella Revolution, nearly all sides claim to embody democracy. Umbrella Revolution protestors claim to be fighting for democracy and to embody living democracy in taking to the streets as an act of democratic protest. Where the CCP has labeled them troublemakers, in fact, undemocratic in carrying out an unlawful occupation, the CCP, too, claims to embody a form of democracy in the claim that the party-state structure for China is a form of democracy. China refers to itself as the “People’s Republic of China” officially, one might remember.

Along these lines, when Benny Tai claims that Occupy Central demands democracy for Hong Kong and Hong Kong only and not Greater China, he opens a contradiction in the notion of “democracy” he is advocating for. In undercutting the universalism of the idea of democracy, he is already weakening the validity of his claims for democracy in the name of being “realistic” in goals achieved for Hong Kong. He evinces something about the limited parameters of democratic claims made within the Umbrella Movement, even if it is correct that the jury is still out on what is “realistically” attainable in present events.

But where the assault of pro-China thugs upon protestors in the past week have led to an outburst of anti-Chinese sentiment from certain sectors of the Umbrella Movement, one might point to the resentment of many Hong Kongers towards not just the actions of the Chinese government, but the Chinese people.

Given that Hong Kong was severed from the history of greater China through it becoming part of the British empire in 1842 and large sections of its population are descendants of those who fled Chinese civil war, it is not surprising that Hong Kongers would view themselves as having a separate identity from mainland Chinese. 

While many Hong Kongers very probably viewed the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty back from Britain to China with apprehension, there was also an expectation present that a return to China might not necessarily be bad for Hong Kong, so long as the rubric of “One country, two systems,” was upheld. It is not as though British colonialism had gone without resistance or resentment from Hong Kongers either through the decades. It is only afterwards that the British colonial would become idealized after Hong Kongers came to resent the transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to China, with the Chinese government’s infringements upon the freedoms of Hong Kongers in attempts to graft Hong Kong culturally to China.

Yet with closer ties built between Hong Kong and China, Hong Kongers also came to resent not just the actions of the Chinese state, but Chinese themselves. Chinese entering Hong Kong often refused to adhere to social mores, as evidenced by highly publicized incidents of defecation on streets, animal abuse, violence or threats, the antics of the Chinese nouveau riche in flouting newfound wealth scandalously, and through displays of Chinese nationalism which Hong Kongers found odious and insulting.

Likewise, Chinese economic encroachment became increasingly visible not only with the Chinese economic control taking control media companies in such a manner that led to a decline in press freedom, but also in purchase of real estate by Chinese companies in such a manner as to massively drive up the price of real estate, affecting the ability of Hong Kong residents to find affordable housing.

In regards to Chinese National Day and Occupy Central and Scholarism’s insistence on respectful forms of protest, while part of what was at stake was the question of whether to adopt more or less militant tactics regarding China’s national celebration, also at stake was the question of whether Hong Kongers should seek to assert their independent cultural identity through denigrating Chinese identity.

In the case of recent attacks on protestors by pro-China thugs, what is very much apparent is that many of the attackers are, in fact, not Hong Kongers. There have been a number of cases in which attackers are unable to respond to inquiries in Cantonese and are only able to respond in Mandarin, or have clear regional accents indicating that they are not from Hong Kong. It seems that a number of these attackers are, in fact, mainlanders who have been paid to attack encampments and stir up trouble by pro-China interests. And this once more has brought forth a great deal of resentment against Chinese.

It is somewhat of a question as to why, with the recent opening of negotiations, that these attacks would suddenly come. While the involvement of triad groups is known, whether the attacks come from pro-China private interests, at the indirect behest of the government itself, or a combination of the two remains unknown. It may be that the aim of these attacks was to impede negotiations after a brief interlude in which the government claimed to be open to negotiations, in order that the government can justifiably claim it was open to dialogue but without having to actually follow through on making good on promises of compromise. Or it may be just coincidence that these attacks happened now through lack of coordination among pro-China forces; a case in which the left hand did not know what the right hand was doing. Without verging on the conspiratorial, these are questions worth asking.

But if questions of democracy for Hong Kong and for greater China have been in the backdrop, this raises the question of what is at the heart of the demand for democracy. Democracy, while always made in universalistic terms, oftentimes belies that democracy is not truly universal, but is only democracy for a specific social class. It is a truism, but democracy for so much of history only meant democracy for white, landholding men, after all.

If undergirding Hong Kong’s demand for democracy is just the demand for democracy in the name of Hong Kongers, to the exclusion of mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong who may consider Hong Kong their home, it is a question as to how valid the aspiration towards democracy is—even just within Hong Kong. While it is a larger question whether Hong Kong can demand democracy only for itself within the realm of the possible, these are the questions that need to be settled in the present in Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy.

Storm Clouds Over Hong Kong

FOR THOSE OF US who have been watching the Hong Kong democracy movement from the beginning, there is a sense of foreboding in the present. The situation to date has already been beyond expectations, it having looked at the start of September that Occupy Central might be the last, dying gasp of the Hong Kong democracy movement before an acquiescence to the inevitability of Chinese dominance. The students’ seizing to the day of the day through the occupation attempt that was galvanizing of the Umbrella Revolution has brought the crisis of Hong Kong to democracy to the fore. But a crisis can only last so long before it is resolved in some way or another. That can mean success—but more often defeat. It is an unfortunate truth social movements most often end in failure than anything.

At the start of September, failure of the Hong Kong democracy movement seemed inevitable in the face of the indifference of Hong Kongers. But what the Umbrella Revolution has demonstrated is the means by which widespread public apathy can rapidly transform into its opposite, with the outgrowth of widespread civic participation from all segments of society.

The fate of Hong Kong, whatever it will be, will draw a line in the sand for other countries in the region so far as Hong Kong’s present insurrection reflects the broader structural condition of East Asian countries.

Without blandly affirming “democracy” as a universal good, let it be said that the project of democracy in East Asian countries is one which remains incomplete as a result of the histories of colonialism, martial law, and one-party rule which countries of East Asia have endured in the past century. Given that in the present, Chinese expansion threatens to to disrupt the uncertain status quo of Asia which has persisted since the Cold War, it is in the present that that resistance to Chinese expansion has emerged with the outbreak of social movements as Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement or Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution.

It goes without saying that the success or failure of the Umbrella Revolution will have a profound impact on East Asia geopolitically, with the Umbrella Revolution evidencing what popular resistance to Chinese expansion may look like in the future. But the Umbrella Revolution will have an even more profound impact amongst those who seek to stand up for their right to determine their own future rather than simply bow down to autocratic rule by China as a destiny to which resistance is futile. And so it remains in the present that more is at stake with Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy than just Hong Kong, hence why there has quite justifiably been such concern with Hong Kong from people in countries across Asia.

Hong Kong’s struggle will likely be not be finished with the Umbrella Revolution, regardless of its outcome of current proceedings. There are still two more years until 2017, the date in which the election of the Chief Executive. And even if China is able to mandate the election of a Chief Executive under its rule of law, the question of democracy will no doubt persist. But here in the present, we can only watch the storm approaching Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution with a sense of anxiousness, foreboding, but also with the hope against hope that the people of Hong Kong will be able to defy seemingly inevitable fate as they have before.

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