By Elaine Dunn
"Hong Kong is my home ground, (Beijing) is not representing me," Lester Shum, student leader, at Sept. 24 student protest.
Not since the 1960s or 1970s have so many Hong Kongers been asking themselves, “Is it time to leave Hong Kong?” The issue that is again stoking discontent and uncertainty this time is much the same as before: the unbearable idea of Beijing closing in.
Hong Kong, the tiny island that was leased to Britain for 99 years as the result of China losing the Opium War, was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997. Part of the agreement negotiated between the United Kingdom and China then was “one country, two systems,” that Hong Kong would be given democratic election of its own leaders. Yet 17 years later, this has not happened. Each of the three “chief executives” since has been appointed by Beijing. This past August, pro-democracy groups had their hopes further dashed when Beijing announced that candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership election would be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
Both the U.K. and the U.S. had expressed support for Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy. British lawmakers announced plans to visit the former British crown colony to see whether its handover treaty had been violated by China’s actions. The U.S. issued a statement to the effect that it “supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong in accordance with the Basic Law and the aspiration of the Hong Kong people … an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity.”
HK’s pro-democracy activists doubt western support will make much difference. Nevertheless, China immediately responded angrily. "Hong Kong's affairs, including constitutional reform, belong to China's domestic affairs. No foreign country has the right to make irresponsible remarks or interfere in any form," spokesman Qin Gang said.
However, if China thinks its bark will scare off Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists, it has seen nothing yet!
An unlikely teen activist
In the thick of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is a skinny, spectacled 17-year-old secondary school student. Joshua Wong is a fierce pro-democracy organizer. Two years ago, while only 15, he formed Scholarism, a student protest group that rallied 120,000 protesters to occupy government headquarters, forcing the Beijing-proposed pro-Communist curriculum that was to be introduced to Hong Kong’s public schools to be withdrawn. His fight song: You have to see every battle as possibly the final battle – only then will you have the determination to fight.”
After Beijing’s announcement about the 2017 election, Wong’s group once again mobilized Hong Kong’s students to voice their displeasure by walking out of classes in late September. College administrators and Hong Kong’s largest teacher union have pledged to show leniency to students who skip classes, locking step with Wong’s group and all striking students.
As this issue of China Insight goes to press, HK students are rallying to Wong’s civil disobedience campaign to fight for democracy. An estimated 13,000 students rallied at the Chinese University on Sept. 22, kicking off their boycott week. On Sept. 24, thousands of college students again were reported to have skipped classes. They also took to the streets protesting the communist government's refusal to allow free elections in Hong Kong. On Sept. 26, more than 100 secondary schools (grades 7-12) have sanctioned class boycott though students will have to produce letters of approval from their parents.
China’s reaction? Its state-run media has named Scholarism a group of “extremists” and indentified Wong by name as a “threat to the stability of Communist Party rule.”
Hu Jia, a 15-year-old during the Tiananmen Square protests 25 years ago, hinted that Wong could be arrested or jailed. In an interview with CNN, Hu said, “I hope he understands this will be a battle of resilience. It is not a fight, nor a skirmish, it is a true war, in terms of the length of time it involves, its complexity, and the potential sacrifice it might involve.” Hu should know. In 2000, he exposed the sale of unregulated (and tainted) blood for transfusions in central China that resulted in entire rural villages being infected with AIDS. The government accused him of “inciting subversion of state authority” and threw him in jail for three-and-a-half years. Since then, he’s been placed under house arrest on and off. He is rooting for Wong and other pro-democracy activists. With Hong Kong’s relative freedom, he thinks it’s the perfect place to spark a democracy movement, and is hopeful that perhaps one day, true democracy may penetrate through the entire mainland.
Despite his tender years, the astute Wong zeroed in on two issues that threaten the Hong Kong he knows: declining press freedom and nepotism in the Beijing-friendly political ranks. For this, he’s taking on a lot of risks to become one of the most vocal voices for Hong Kong democracy. “People should not be afraid of their government; the government should be afraid of their people,” he told CNN. He is fully aware that class boycotts will not change Beijing’s mind about the 2017 election, “but if we do not organize, Beijing will not think about it at all. We just hope to give more pressure — as much as possible.”
“Hair” and “law”
On Sept. 9, pro-democracy supporters and journalists packed a church hall to have their heads shaved in a symbolic act of protest against China’s increased exertion of political control over Hong Kong.
In both Mandarin and Cantonese, the words “hair” and “law” sound similar. Therefore, it’s common for dissidents to shave their heads to mock China’s limited rule of law. Besides, Chinese regards hair as a precious gift from their parents. Therefore, shaving one’s hair is making quite a significant statement: giving up a precious gift from one’s parents in the pursuit of freedom.
Leading the head -shaving event are the leaders of Occupy Central, the grassroots pro-democracy group founded in 2013 to champion the right of the Hong Kong public to elect its next leader without Beijing dictate. Tanya Chan, a former Civic Party legislator, was one of the few women to participate. “People joke with me, asking me if I shaved my hair because I am getting left [unmarried] or because there is no real universal suffrage," Chan was quoted as saying in many Asian papers. "The answer is simple. Since sham marriages are illegal, how can we accept a fake election?”
Occupy Central’s leaders also promised to stage mass rallies in Hong Kong’s central business district, bringing the financial hub to a grinding halt. One of its co-founders has vowed to “create a resistant movement in Hong Kong” and will not give up hope for political reforms leading to open democratic elections in 2017. However, Occupy also realizes it needs to achieve the delicate balance of keeping popular anger simmering while not losing local support through confrontational actions in a city where economic stability is critical.
On Oct. 1, China’s National Day, Occupy organizers are planning a Hong Kong “democracy banquet” open to everyone who supports democracy. People who plan to attend are asked to bring food, drinks, spare batteries for phones, sleeping bags and a change of clothes. Occupy had also applied for permits for rallies on Oct. 1 and 2.
Rising discontent in Hong Kong
On Sept. 22, a University of Hong Kong survey of 1,000 city residents found more than half have "no confidence" in "one country, two systems" - the lowest level of confidence since the university began tracking the issue in 1993.
Academics in Hong Kong have cited rising anger and social discontent within the Hong Kong populace brought on by a widening wealth gap, rising costs of living and skyrocketing property prices. In this world-class metropolis, approximately 20 percent of residents lived in poverty in 2013. Unless Beijing can appoint a chief executive who can address these social issues effectively, it’s short-term silencing of the democracy activists may be just that; its failure to calm the activism in the long run may lead to bigger, deepening governance problems.
The sentiment is if the chief executive is not a slave or puppet of Beijing, then the pro-democracy activists can work with him. The activists recognize it may be impossible for them to change Beijing's electoral mechanism for now, so they may choose to transform into a civic education and mobilization campaign and hunker down for a long fight with the mainland.
Meanwhile, the exodus of the wealthy and educated from Hong Kong may ramp up once again.