CITY IN REVOLT
A man (left) is overcome by pepper spray from riot police as thousands of protesters (centre) surrounded the government headquarters in Hong Kong’s Central District on Sunday. Hong Kong police used tear gas and warned of further measures as they tried to clear pro-democracy protesters (right), who were out in full force organise themselves before the handover, took this to mean that universal suffrage would be a reality by 2007.
But such hopes were soon disappointed by the Chinese authorities, which have proved far more interventionist than Deng advocated.
In April 2004, the standing committee of the National People’s Congress (NPC), one of the bodies that represent the mainland in Hong Kong, announced that universal suffrage would not be implemented for the election of a chief executive in 2007. That decision was repeated for the 2012 election. But the committee has decided that universal suffrage could be implemented for the election of the chief executive in 2017, andthatsubsequentlyallmembersoftheLegcocouldbeelected this way. But only the chief executive has the necessary constitutional powers to enact this.
According to the official interpretation of the Basic Law, Leung Chun-ying, the current chief executive, must submit a report before the NPC can make a ruling “in the light of the situation and in accord with the principles of gradual and orderly development”. Amendments will then be put before the legislative council and can only be adopted with a twothirds majority. Given administrative timescales, the reform proposal must be submitted no later than the end of 2014 for universal suffrage to be possible for the 2016 and 2017 elections.
With no change on the horizon, democrats who have campaigned for years decided to get organised. Since January 16 2013, Occupy Central, led by law Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting of Hong Kong University, has been growing. “After so many unfulfilled promises, having waited 20 or 30 years, I realised we had reached the final stage,” he told me. “Beijing is promising universal suffrage. But what kind? I personally felt the need to establish a process to create political pressure and finally achieve a true democracy.”
Benny Tai wrote in January last year that he proposed bringing together at least 10 000 citizens “to participate in a nonviolent sit-in with the aim of immobilising Central if no substantial progress is made before the summer of 2014”. Central is the financial heart of the city, where some of the world’s biggest banks and businesses have their headquarters. Paralysing business transactions and the free movement of people, even temporarily, would challenge Beijing’s control.
Benny Tai explained: “We want to provoke the police, goad them into violence. If there are enough of us, the police will be tempted to use greater force. They haven’t used tear gas or water cannons against the people of Hong Kong since the 60s. If they used them against us, it would show how undemocratic our government is.”
Occupy Central gained momentum as the debate crystallised around the interpretation of article 45 of the Basic Law, which states that the chief executive will be elected “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nomination committee in accordance with democratic procedures”.
Beijing has emphasised that “the chief executive to be elected by universal suffrage must be a person who loves the country and Hong Kong. ... ‘one country, two systems’ is a major issue of governance to the central leadership”. The Chinese authorities want to filter the candidates so that no opposition figure can be elected, which is intended to neutralise any security threat to mainland China.
The current electoral committee would become the nomination committee that selects candidates. So the 5 million peopleofHongKongwouldelectachiefexecutivebyuniversal suffrage from candidates indirectly chosen by the Chinese leadership. China’s white paper on institutions – the first since 1997 – firmly reasserts its control of Hong Kong.
Some parliamentarians, university teachers and associations oppose Beijing under the banner of the Alliance for True Democracy. They want a nomination committee directly elected by the people – or at least one with a greater degree of democratic legitimacy.
Some even advocate the abolition of the committee and an unregulated right to stand for election. In March 2013, Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong; and the Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, a strong supporter of human rights and the Tiananmen demonstrators in 1989, joined the movement along with several youth associations such as the Students’ Federation.
The pro-Beijing camp is hostile. The Hong Kong authorities regularly state that they will not tolerate “illegal activity”.
It is also significant that Beijing published its white paper before the citizens’ referendum on universal suffrage organised by Occupy Central this June, which was immediately denounced as illegal. But to the surprise even of the organisers, about800 000peoplevotedonlineoratunofficial polling stations.
Since then, 500 000 people took part in the annual march on July 1, at the end of which 500 activists were arrested for an “illegal sit-in”. Beijing’s tone is hardening.
On August 31, the PNC issued a reminder that only candidates who had received more than half of the nomination committee’s votes would be eligible to stand. Given the makeup of the committee, no democrat has a chance.
Several moderate democrats have made proposals (to no avail) that advocate the retention of the nomination committee to allow room for negotiations with Beijing, and preserve the option of presenting a democratic candidate for election by universal suffrage.
Benny Tai, acknowledging his failure so far, has promised to encourage “an era of civil disobedience”, though he has not yet come up with a programme or a timetable.
With the support of their universities, student organisations planned a week of strikes from September 22 and high school students called for a boycott on September 26.
Twenty-seven pro-democracy MPs have committed to voting against the draft amendment supported by Beijing. Since September 28, the streets have been filled with an ever-growing number of protesters.
– Distributed by Agence