Hong Kong’s civil disobedience movement is just getting started

Thousands of pro-democracy supporters gathered outside the Central Government Complex on the sporadically rainy evening of August 31, a few hours after Beijing laid out a divisive framework for electing Hong Kong’s next leader in 2017. An attendee held up a sign that says “forget your fantasies and fight for our future; Occupy Central with Civil Disobedience.” (WNV / Elaine Yu)

A pro-democracy supporter holds up a sign at Sunday’s protest for free elections that says, “Forget your fantasies and fight for our future; Occupy Central with Civil Disobedience.” (WNV / Elaine Yu)

On Sunday, Beijing officially quashed the possibilities for democratic reform and open nominations in Hong Kong, presenting the former British colony with a condescending dilemma: Have your first popular election of the chief executive in 2017 only if the Communist Party gets to choose candidates, or pass up this precious chance at universal suffrage and stick with your current system.

The Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress, or NPC, devised the strict conditions for introducing universal suffrage to the city in order to screen out pro-democracy aspirants or others who could challenge the party’s sovereignty in the nominating process. Passed with a unanimous vote, the reform plan limits the number of candidates from eight to three, and each would need half of the nomination committee’s votes to enter the election, as opposed to the previous one-eighth. The new committee would also retain the structure of the current elite, Beijing-friendly one.

To become the new law, NPC’s plan would need the endorsement of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council with a two-thirds majority. At the Occupy Central gathering on Sunday, all 27 pro-democracy lawmakers — a little more than one-third of the 70 members in the legislature — pledged to vote against the decision.

Technical details aside, some have observed that the party’s unbending posture in Hong Kong signals its continuing vision of centralized control in the rest of China. Others warn of the gradual erosion of distinctive Hong Kong characteristics such as judicial independence and press freedom. Countervailing the foreign aggression and political instability China endured in the last century, Beijing explains that the ruling serves national security and drives out meddling by foreign powers, which the authorities believe could infiltrate the Chinese mainland through a politically liberalized Hong Kong.

Tension continues to escalate as the NPC presses Britain to cancel its inquiry into the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which states that Hong Kong could keep its high degree of autonomy under Chinese sovereignty.

Benny Tai, co-founder of Occupy Central, gazes at the crowd assembled outside the Central Government Complex after Beijing's ruling was announced on August 31. (WNV / Elaine Yu)

Benny Tai, co-founder of Occupy Central, gazes at the crowd assembled outside the Central Government Complex after Beijing’s ruling was announced on August 31. (WNV / Elaine Yu)

Beijing’s decision is predictable, but Occupy Central co-founder Benny Tai surprised many in a widely publicized interview with Bloomberg.

“Up to this point, we failed,” said the law professor, who also suggested that the campaign is losing the support of the pragmatically-minded people of Hong Kong.

Occupy Central is a civil disobedience movement that proposes to block traffic and paralyze the city’s financial district, known as Central, with a mass, nonviolent sit-in — as a final resort — if the authorities reject the activists’ demand for a freer election. Organizers have repeatedly emphasized the nonviolent nature of the movement, known in full as Occupy Central with Love and Peace.

Just hours after the decision was announced on Sunday, Benny Tai said Beijing’s hard-line stance would mobilize the moderates and usher in an “era of resistance.” His later comments appear to be steering the movement in a more symbolic direction: It is more about sparking a “civic awakening,” he said. Organizers would pick a day for the sit-in that would cause “minimal damage” to the city, known for its role as a global financial capital — even though the campaign’s original intent was to leverage its ability to disrupt the economy.

In response, another Occupy Central founder and sociology professor Chan Kin-man said the takeover of Central is inevitable now that they have exhausted “all chances of dialogue” with the authorities about meaningful reform. Occupy Central organizers also released a statement to clarify that the movement is staying faithful to its intention and tactic. Meanwhile, its official Twitter page looked back on the long battles of historic social justice movements for inspiration. (One example that would have been helpful to mention was the 2003 national security bill protests in Hong Kong, where half a million people took to the streets, leading the government to repeal the proposal).

A protest sign says: "To rather stay where we are than make a step in the wrong direction." (WNV / Elaine Yu)

A protest sign says: “To rather stay where we are than make a step in the wrong direction.” (WNV / Elaine Yu)

“How can you declare Occupy Central a failure when you need it the most,” wrote Daniel Lee, co-founder of an independent bookstore in Hong Kong, on a progressive platform for citizen journalism. Although Tai has since recovered momentum, saying the fight is on “for the next five to ten years,” Lee calls for a more horizontal movement to go beyond its focus on the Occupy Central conveners — or “triplets” as locals call them, the third being Reverend Chu Yiu-ming.

“Occupy Central is in danger of regressing to yet another holiday protest,” Lee continued, referring to Tai’s hint that the sit-in might take place on a public holiday, and become like the annual July 1 marches that have long lost their bargaining powers. “Now is the time for the regular folk to step up and arouse public opinion in every creative way.”

As the school term begins — and refusing to stand by while the world outside their campuses struggles on — students are also organizing a class boycott. A number of universities where task forces are exploring organizing strategies have offered to support and work with the students. Activists from the Hong Kong Federation of Students are also bringing their classrooms to the streets with a boycott on September 22 that features lessons “by lecturers and social figures.” Echoing Lee, students at the University of Hong Kong released a manifesto encouraging all kinds of participation, from attending meetings to bumper sticker activism.

The characters for "Civil Disobedience" in brushstroke stand against Hong Kong's iconic harbor. (WNV / Elaine Yu)

The characters for “civil disobedience” in brushstroke stand against Hong Kong’s iconic harbor. (WNV / Elaine Yu)

There are already “casualties” in the pro-democracy chorus: House News, an independent and progressive website with an average of 300,000 unique visitors daily, shut down in July without warning. The weekly newspaper column of Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager and outspoken leader of a pro-democracy group of financial professionals, just got cancelled.

Meanwhile, the Chinese Central Government will be meeting representatives from political, business and professional sectors throughout the month, including members of Hong Kong’s upper crust such as business magnate Li Ka-shing and real estate tycoon Lee Shau-kee. The alleged purpose of these visits is to call on the leaders to promote Beijing’s reform plan, which is facing a possible rejection by Hong Kong’s legislature.

Some interpret this as an opportunity to revamp the movement and the idea of public engagement.

“The more political and economic capital you have in society, the more easily you are targeted,” said Daniel Lee. “This is the power of regular people. In a leaderless crusade, no one can single you out.”

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