Hong Kong After the Revolution

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 20

Hong Kong police use tear gas on protesters. (Credit: Laurel Chor)

The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—known as the “Occupy Central Movement” or the “Umbrella Revolution”—have fundamentally changed the relationship between the central government in Beijing and the Special Administrative Region (SAR). For the first time since Hong Kong’s sovereignty reverted to China in 1997, hundreds of thousands of residents have taken to the streets to voice their opposition against Beijing’s tightened control over the SAR’s political development. Even more significantly, however, is that the unexpectedly vehement demonstration of “people power” has forced Beijing to recognize the limits of “Chinese exceptionalism”—that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) administration has the right to ignore universal values and that foreign countries have no business interfering in the country’s internal affairs. Dozens of well-known mainland-Chinese have expressed support for Hong Kong activists even as foreign media and politicians call on the Xi Jinping administration to respect the demands of student demonstrators in the SAR. Whether the Chinese leadership under President Xi will crack down hard on dissent in Hong Kong and the mainland will give the world a clear indication of the political path President Xi intends for his fast-rising quasi-superpower to follow.

Rewriting Hong Kong Politics

The challenge that Hong Kong activists—the bulk of whom are college and high school students—pose to Beijing can best be understood in light of the changing dynamics of SAR politics. On one level, the student-led Occupy Central campaign is a protest against the hard-line decision in late August by the National People’s Congress on the mechanism for the election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (CE) in 2017 (Xinhua, August 31). While it is billed as a universal-suffrage election with “one person one vote,” Beijing has mandated that a Nomination Committee (NC), consisting of 1,200 mostly pro-Beijing representatives, vet and pick the candidates. Politicians who aspire to join the CE must first secure more than 50 percent of the support of NC members before he or she can become a legal candidate. According to pro-democracy Legislative Councilor and the former Chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association Alan Leong, “this is a North Korean-style election” that is totally out of sync with pledges of a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong (Singtao Daily [Hong Kong], September 2; Associated Press, August 31).

On a deeper level, the Occupy Central movement, whose slogan is “Have faith in the people; Change only comes with confrontation and struggle,” represents a degree of political awakening and empowerment that is unprecedented in Hong Kong history (Radio Free Asia, September 24; Singtao Daily, September 22). While SAR residents are often said to be economic animals who care only about their living standards, hundreds of thousands of residents have defied tear gas and other tough police tactics to occupy areas around the Central Government Office as well as several main downtown thoroughfares. Hong Kong’s first generation of politicians have since the 1980s largely abided by parameters set by their government—first, the British colonial administration, and after 1997, the Chinese leadership—in fighting for electoral rights and other democratic ideals. According to Hong Kong political commentator Joseph Lian, the ongoing political crusade, which for the first time is led by the students, represents “a new generation that dares to challenge the rule of the game imposed by the CCP leadership.” “Since many student leaders are expected to play an active role in the coming two to three decades, Beijing is up against potent adversaries,” added Lian, a former chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal (Hong Kong Economic Journal, October 9). For Johns Hopkins University sociologist Ho-Fung Hung, the Umbrella Revolution represented “a rite of passage for an autonomous civil society.” Hung is impressed by the fact that the leaders of the movement are “young, autonomous new citizens who have organized themselves through social media” (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], October 13).

Hong Kong Finds Support Abroad, and at Home

Compounding Beijing’s problems is the fact that the Umbrella Revolution has riveted the attention of the global media as well as politicians in the Western world. Since the 1997 handover, only the U.S. government has consistently commented on whether Beijing has honored its commitment to give the seven million SAR residents “a high degree of autonomy.” Perhaps due to China’s growing international clout—and its huge market—even the United Kingdom has largely refrained from negative assessments on the adulteration of the “one country, two systems” pledge, which is the basis of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration on the handover of the former British colony back to the motherland. After the Hong Kong police fired 87 rounds of tear gas at protestors on September 28, however, United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a statement urging “all stakeholders to resolve any differences in a manner that is peaceful and safeguards democratic principles” (UPI, September 30). This is the first time in recent memory that the head of the UN has made remarks about Hong Kong politics. The same goes for countries that have become increasingly close economic partners of China. On the eve of Premier Li Keqiang’s early October visit to Germany, German President Joachim Gauck compared the Umbrella Revolution to the anti-Soviet protests that took place in East Germany in late 1989. Gauck said the experience of East Germany showed “how important it was to defend democracy even today,” adding that “the young protesters in Hong Kong have understood this very well” (ABC News, October 9; RTHK [Hong Kong] October 9).

The Umbrella Revolution is also unique because it has struck a chord of resonance among mainland Chinese intellectuals. Since taking power at the 18th Party Congress in November 2012, Xi has emphasized that the Chinese people must have “self-confidence in the road, theories and institutions of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” China, the President warns, must never go down the “deviant path” of Western political values and institutions (People’s Daily, February 21). The Xi leadership must now face up to the fact that Hong Kong students have not only challenged his orthodox views but also won plaudits from intellectuals and non-government organization (NGO) activists in China. In fact, the Umbrella Revolution has forged a kind of united front between activists in the mainland and Hong Kong. Since the 1980s, pro-democracy legislators and civil-society groups in Hong Kong have provided moral and, occasionally, financial help to dissidents, ranging from Liu Xiaobo and Hu Jia to the Tiananmen Mothers. Immediately after the Occupy Central movement was launched in the last days of September, Beijing imposed a news blockade on events in Hong Kong. Related coverage by CNN and the BBC during their broadcasts in China has also been blacked out. Chinese censors, however, have failed to prevent scores of well-known intellectuals from voicing their support for Occupy Central (Associated Press, September 30; Inmediahk.net [Hong Kong], September 30). 

Mainland state-security personnel have detained up to 100 dissidents who have indicated their support for the Hong Kong democracy movement by means ranging from shaving their heads to holding private discussion groups. For example, well-known poet Wang Zang and seven other intellectuals were picked up by Beijing police when they were about to start a poetry reading night in honor of Hong Kong’s protestors. Wang and several other dissidents are expected to be charged with the nebulous offense of “provoking trouble,” which typically carries a jail term of three years. The number of intellectuals who have been harassed or arrested has exceeded those detained for taking part in the short-lived Jasmine Revolution in several Chinese cities in 2011, suggesting Beijing considers the Hong Kong situation a much more serious political threat (Apple Daily [Hong Kong] October 13; ABC News, October 8). 

Beijing has so far refrained from using strong-armed tactics against Hong Kong activists. However, various Chinese leaders and state media have pointed out that the protests were an effort to subvert not only the Hong Kong government but also Beijing’s authority. Vice-Premier and Politburo member Wang Yang noted that “Western countries are trying to fabricate a color revolution by providing aid to the opposition in Hong Kong” (Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] October 14; Ta Kung Pao, October 14). A People’s Daily commentary asserted that the “real goal” of the protestors was to “challenge the highest authority” of China—and that it was “doomed to fail.” The Party mouthpiece has accused the U.S. government and U.S. NGOs of directly aiding the protestors. “The United States purports to be promoting the ‘universal values of democracy, freedom and human rights,’ but in reality the United States is simply defending its own strategic interests and undermining governments it considers to be ‘insubordinate,’ ” the People’s Daily said. An article in the Overseas Edition of the People’s Daily even called the Hong Kong demonstrations an instance of dongluan (“turmoil”), which was the same term used by Deng Xiaoping and then-premier Li Peng to characterize the student movement that led to the 1989 Tiananmen Square Massacre (People’s Daily, October 11; Global Times, October 4). 

Beijing Holds the Cards, and Will Not Back Down

According to Chinese political commentator Deng Yuwen, a former editor at the Central Party School, President Xi and his top-level colleagues have reached a decision not to make any concessions to the protestors. “There is a possibility that after the APEC conference [in November], Beijing would use more stringent tactics against the Occupy Central movement,” Deng said. “And even if drastic steps such as deploying the Hong Kong Garrison of the People’s Liberation Army are not taken, Beijing might tighten control over Hong Kong politics to ward off the possibility of a color revolution” (Author’s interview, October 15). One method Beijing may employ to constrict the breathing room of pro-democracy activists is to cut off funds made available to pro-democracy legislators as well as Occupy Central organizers. A focus of attack is maverick tycoon Jimmy Lai, who runs the popular pro-democracy paper Apple Daily. Earlier this year, hackers from unknown units in the mainland broke into the personal computers of Lai; immediately afterwards, documents were leaked showing that Lai has donated HK$40 million ($5.2 million) to pro-democracy politicians and the Occupy Central movement (Asiasentinel.com, August 29; South China Morning Post, August 28).

An even more potent weapon is the “economics card,” a reference to the fact that the Hong Kong economy cannot survive without support from the mainland. In late September, Beijing summoned a few dozen Hong Kong tycoons to the capital with a view to asking them to denounce the Occupy Central movement. The Xi administration’s overall message is that the entire SAR would suffer economic losses if they did not support the central government. Beijing’s political control over Hong Kong’s economy was graphically demonstrated by Beijing’s sudden decision this February not to hold the Conference of APEC Finance Ministers in Hong Kong. Late last year, senior cadres told the SAR administration that the prestigious function would take place in Hong Kong so as to showcase the latter’s status as Asia’s financial center. The rescheduled event has now been moved to Beijing (Wall Street Journal, September 22; Global Times, March 5). While this brandishing of the “economics card” took place before the current protests, the measure was taken several months after plans for Occupy Central were publicized. Even more significant is the fact that two of the most exciting developments in the Hong Kong economy depend on blessings from Beijing. One consists of plans to expand the SAR’s role as an offshore Renminbi trading center. The other is the “Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect,” or beishuinandiao (literally “transferring water from the north to the south”), a reference to the policy—set to begin later this month—of allowing Chinese citizens to buy stocks listed on the Hong Kong Stock Market (South China Morning Post, February 18; China Economic Review, October 20). The success of these two initiatives depends to a significant extent on the CCP leadership’s largesse.

Hong Kong’s New Future

Over the long haul, Beijing is expected to take more draconian steps to prevent “bourgeois liberal” values from infiltrating the mainland. In mid-October, the CCP Propaganda Department gave orders to the nation’s bookstores to remove publications written by a host of prominent Taiwan and Hong Kong authors. They include the Chinese-American historian Yu Ying-shih, Taiwan writer and artist Giddens Ko and Hong Kong writer and broadcaster Leung Man-To. Mainland publishing houses have also been instructed not to put out books by mainland-Chinese intellectuals including economist Mao Yushi, politics scholar Chen Ziming, novelist Ye Fu (a.k.a. Zheng Guoping), as well as legal scholars Zhang Qianfan and He Weifang. The Propaganda Department and the Ministry of Education have also given instructions to universities to prevent Chinese college students from emulating their counterparts in Hong Kong (Ming Pao, October 14; Radio Free Asia, October 12).

Since the 1900s, when Dr. Sun Yet-sen—who spearheaded the October 10, 1911 Revolution that toppled the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911)—took shelter in Hong Kong, China’s most cosmopolitan and open-minded city has been a generator of new ideas for the motherland. While late patriarch Deng Xiaoping insisted that the territory be returned to China by 1997, he expressed the wish that “several Hong Kongs” be created along China’s rich coast so as to speed up the modernization of the entire country (CNKI.net [Beijing], September 2, 2013; Chinavalue.net, July 7, 2007). However, President Xi’s obsession that the SAR not degenerate into a “base of subversion” against the socialist motherland might spell the end to the role of the dynamic Pearl of the Orient as a catalyst for economic and political changes in the nation of 1.35 billion people.