HK ‘people power’
Even assuming that the Occupy Central movement may not win everything it has demanded, it has forever redefined Hong Kong politics. Seen from a broad historical view, it has won plenty.
It has recalibrated Hong Kong’s relation to the Beijing central government. The protesters insist that Beijing respect the “one country, two systems” formula guaranteed by the Basic Law, the de facto constitution of Hong Kong today. In effect, they read “two systems” to refer not just to economics, capitalist in Hong Kong and socialist in Beijing, but likewise to politics, universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and one-party government in Beijing. They are no longer content with China’s piecemeal concessions to democracy.
But more than that, the protesters have redefined the Hong Kong people unto themselves. They negate the stereotype of a pragmatic bunch, business-oriented, apathetic to politics and, worse, led by the nose by the tycoons. The cause célèbre that triggered the protests, Beijing’s veto of the list of candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, had apparently been accepted by Hong Kong’s commercial elites, only to be rejected by the masses that gathered at Central and other key places in the island and in Kowloon.
Not only that. The past two weeks have given birth to the idea of a “Hong Kong people” distinct from the rest of China. That perhaps may be most troubling for a central government in Beijing driven by the dream of “one China,” because all over the world that is how new nations have been born. To make matters worse for Beijing, if there is now a distinct “Hong Kong people,” they are a people who have discovered their strength, who must have surprised themselves at the solidarity they mustered after the Sept. 28 dispersal.
But that identity has even newer dimensions. One, the protests that converged this week were genuinely popular, not beholden to the traditional business elites who have long ruled the island from the British era. They had been planned by three groups: Occupy Central begun by a law professor at the prestigious Hong Kong University, the Scholarism movement led by the 17-year-old Joshua Wong who in 2012 led 120,000 students to block a Beijing-sanctioned “patriotic” curriculum, and the local alliance of student councils. Yet after the violent dispersal on Sept. 28, the erstwhile organizers themselves conceded that the movement had gained a life of its own.
Two, the protesters assaulted in that historic dispersal consisted of the post-“handover” generation, young students who grew up almost completely after the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule. With this generational shift, Beijing knows that the pressure to democratize has only begun and that the sense of a separate Hong Kong identity has deep roots among the young.
What is most significant is that however proud and assertive this newfound Hong Kong identity, the protesters have confined their demands to the fulfillment of the Basic Law. This bears stressing: At no time did they demand secession. They do not reject Chinese sovereignty. They accept Hong Kong’s status as a part of China. All they ask is that China honor its word, given in the Sino-British Joint Declaration, a binding treaty that governs its transition from British to Chinese rule, and adopted by Beijing’s National Peoples’ Congress in the Basic Law. Despite that, Beijing frets at the slightest whiff of independent thinking.
Beijing seems at a loss dealing with nice enemies: what to do with these kids who clean up after protest rallies and collect their own garbage, and who do their homework while camped out in their stations. How can Beijing disparage such a show of Confucian virtue? Far easier it is to demonize capitalist roaders and running dogs of American imperialism, and hang traitors to the great crimson revolution. That Beijing tried to brand the protesters in precisely similar, though toned down, language is ominous. It portends the same kind of paranoia that drove the ruling party to unleash the tanks at Tiananmen.
The world looks at the 2014 protests under the shadow of the June 1989 massacre. The two sides are now apparently bound for the negotiating table. For the Hong Kongers’ global sympathizers, the immediate goal is to restrain the iron fist of communist discipline and deter Beijing’s capacity to crush all opposition. The long-term goal is to expand the democratic space for the rising generation of Hong Kong youth. They will need that as they grow up and hunger for more democracy.
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