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Hong Kong: The Road Towards a Month of Protests

Published On November 4, 2014 | Far East

Hong Kong is suffering its worst crisis since the handover to China in 1997, as pro-democracy protesters take to the streets to oppose Beijing’s plan for electoral reform in the Chinese territory and to call for the resignation of chief executive CY Leung.

Hong Kong is governed under the principle of “one country, two systems”, under which China has agreed to give the region a high degree of autonomy and to preserve its economic and social systems for 50 years following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain. Hong Kong’s constitution, the Basic Law, provides for the development of democratic processes. However, Beijing can veto changes to the political system and pro-democracy forces have been frustrated by what they see as the slow pace of political reform.

Electoral reform is a particularly sore point. Currently, half of the territory’s legislature is not directly elected, but chosen by professional and corporate groups that favor Beijing loyalists. The territory’s chief executive is indirectly elected by an electoral college effectively controlled also by Beijing. China has pledged to allow the chief executive to be elected by direct universal adult suffrage by 2017, but wants all candidates to be chosen by a nominating committee. Pro-democracy activists say the people should be involved in deciding who can stand. Protesters are seeking to change that policy, arguing that the right to vote is doubtful if the candidates are decided in Beijing. They fear that the territory’s independence is slipping away, and accuse Leung of putting China’s central government ahead of his own citizens. Tensions spilled over into mass protests in the city center in September 2014, with calls for full democracy and the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung.

The 2014 Hong Kong electoral reform is an ongoing public debate on the supposed electoral reform on the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive election and 2016 Legislative Council election. According to the decision made by the NPCSC, the 2017 Chief Executive election may be implemented by universal suffrage. The issues on how to achieve this universal suffrage in 2017 has become the focal point of the public debates. Most of the major political factions have been campaigning for their ideas on the universal suffrage, including the Occupy Central with Love and Peace, an occupation movement to pressure the Beijing government to implement genuine universal suffrage initiated by the pan-democracy camp, as well as the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, an anti-occupy central alliance formed by the pro-Beijing camp.

The electoral method of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong (CE) and Legislative Council (LegCo) has been a long debated issues in Hong Kong since the Sino-British Joint Declaration which decided the transfer of the Hong Kong sovereignty to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1997. In the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Annex I states that the Chief Executive in the future Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) shall be selected by election or through consultations and the Legislature of the HKSAR shall be constituted by elections.

On 31 August 2014, the tenth session of the Standing Committee in the twelfth National People’s Congress set limits for both elections. While notionally allowing for universal suffrage, the decision imposes the standard that “the Chief Executive shall be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong,” and stipulates “the method for selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose”. The decision states that for the 2017 Chief Executive election, a nominating committee, mirroring the present 1200-member Election Committee system nominated by local tycoons, business factions and Beijing-loyalists, will be formed to nominate two to three candidates. Each of whom must receive the support of more than half of the members of the nominating committee. After popular election of one of the nominated candidates, the Chief Executive-elect “will have to be appointed by the Central People’s Government.” The process of forming the 2016 Legislative Council would be unchanged, but following the new process for the election of the Chief Executive, a new system would be developed with the approval of Beijing. Basically, instead of allowing civil nominations, the NPCSC made it clear that the 1200-member nominating committee, which would remain nominated by the business factions and strictly controlled by Beijing, would elect two to three electoral candidates with more than half of the votes before the general public can vote upon, which is seen as effectively screening out any pro-democracy candidate.

Due to those actions, China’s central leaders now face the first sustained mass movement on Chinese soil with directly political aims since the Tiananmen protests in 1989. Hong Kong has not seen a protest on this scale for years, with tens of thousands turning out at one point. At the heart of this is a civil disobedience movement launched by democracy activists, Occupy Central. When China made its ruling, Occupy Central promised demonstrations. Besides the Occupy movement, it was a student protest group called Scholarism led by 17-year-old Joshua Wong – who had earlier protested against pro-party patriotic education in Hong Kong public schools – that catalyzed the occupation with a boycott of classes and a storming of government headquarters. With the students beginning a separate boycott in late September, Occupy kicked off its campaign early.

Although 4 June 1989 – the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre – have an increased importance, the first defining youth movement in modern China was on 4 May 1919. Less than a decade after the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the Xinhai revolution of 1911, students at elite universities in Beijing saw the new Republic of China government as weak, especially in its response to the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War One. That afternoon, over 3,000 of them marched to Tiananmen Square to shout slogans. They also burnt the residence of an official they saw as culpable. The mascots of the movement were “Mr. Science” and “Mr. Democracy”. It was a cause for the young and led by the youth. Many of the movement’s leading lights were active in establishing the Communist Party of China.

As of 1949, 4 May has officially been Youth Day in China, and the Communist Party used its spirit for its own ends. In the worst years of  Mao Zedong’s rule, revolutionary youth had a different meaning – Red Guards, destroying property and assaulting landlords in the name of Mao. It was only after Mao’s death in 1976 that youth protest in China had an anti-government action again, beginning with the “democracy wall” movement of 1978, and picking up momentum in the mid-80s, until the Tiananmen Spring of 1989. The student leadership which began the Tiananmen protests in April 1989 never directly called for an overthrow of the Communist Party, but rather for top leaders to step down, and for those more receptive to political reform to take over. The situation is the same in 2014. Despite splits within the party, those in power took a violent stance against the occupation of Tiananmen Square, ultimately resulting in the bloody action that killed several hundred demonstrators, many of them students. As an interesting fact, with an important impact on the present situation, the only place on Chinese soil where the memory of  Tiananmen has been kept alive is Hong Kong.

Youths and students are the main actors also in 2014, with two main groups of pro-democracy activists emerged. One is Occupy Central, led by Benny Tai, while the other comprises student groups such as the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism. Occupy Central organized an unofficial referendum on political reform in June 2014. About one in five Hong Kong residents turned out for it. Shortly after the vote, tens of thousands of protesters took part in what observers say was Hong Kong’s largest pro-democracy rally in a decade on 1 July, which marked the day Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997.

Since then, the student groups have become a key player as well. In late September, they led a week of class boycotts, which later grew into full-scale city-wide protests when Occupy Central decided to join in. Notable student activists include Alex Chow and Lester Shum from the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and Joshua Wong of Scholarism. The students later threatened to escalate the street protests by occupying government buildings if chief executive CY Leung did not resign. This prompted an offer of talks with high-level Hong Kong government officials, which the students accepted.

Not everyone in Hong Kong has supported the protests. Pro-Beijing and pro-business parties tend to be against the campaign, and several anti-Occupy Central groups have been set up. They include the Silent Majority for Hong Kong political group founded last year by members of a pro-Beijing alliance, including former RTHK radio host and economics professor, Robert Chow Yung. At the end of the first week of the mass protests, groups of people showed up at protest sites to argue and forcibly tear down tents, most notably in Mong Kok. This prompted scuffles with pro-democracy protesters. Police later said they had arrested several people involved in fights, and some had links to triad gangs. Both sides behaved with calm and intelligence. The police, who initially reacted with tear gas and pepper spray, quickly realized that violent suppression of peaceful demonstrations could only harden the opposition and trigger more resistance. As a result, they scaled down their presence on the street and returned to routine law enforcement. The protestors, mostly young students, have demonstrated discipline and self-restraint since the beginning. Foreign journalists have noted the orderliness of the demonstrators and the cleanliness of the occupied streets.

Though the short-term crisis seems over, in the medium to long-term, democracy in Hong Kong, including completely free elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, should be a major political objective. It is vital for Hong Kong’s democratic development to be successful, since it has a demonstrable effect on the rest of China.


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