How Will the Standoff in Hong Kong End?

Protesters and authorities both hold their ground, amid hopes of civil awakening -- and fears of another Tiananmen.

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Getty Images

Over the past week, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents have occupied the streets of their semi-autonomous city to advocate for the type of elections promised them when China regained sovereignty over the territory in 1997. China’s central government has moved to limit the elections, slated to launch in 2017, by decreeing that candidates for chief executive, Hong Kong’s highest office, must be selected by a committee stacked with pro-Beijing interests.

The protestors have blocked major roads in the downtown area. On Sept. 28, police fired teargas into crowds, leading to a huge outpouring of support for the protests from Hong Kong residents and the international community. Demonstrations since then have remained peaceful and police have shown restraint, even as Chief Executive C.Y. Leung announced in a press conference on Oct. 2 that he would not resign as protesters had demanded. So what will happen next? 

Nicholas Bequelin

The Hong Kong protests have just entered their third act. On Thursday, Oct. 2, the Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung announced minutes before a midnight deadline set by student protestors that the government would meet the main protest organizers "to discuss constitutional developments." While Leung’s announcement defuses the risks of an immediate escalation of the confrontation, it is not clear if the government is genuinely motivated by a desire to find common ground with the protestors, or is instead employing a delay tactic in the hope that momentum peters out.

I have few doubts that the leadership in Beijing would have little hesitation in using lethal force against its own people if they felt the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s grip on power was slipping. But the current situation in Hong Kong is still a long way from that crossroads, and the fact that the Hong Kong government finally acceded the initial demand of the students for a face-to-face meeting reflects it.

The nature of the confrontation in Hong Kong is a question of autonomy: how much genuine autonomy will the territory maintain be able to maintain in the decades following the 1997 return to Chinese sovereignty? As Sebastian Veg, the Director of the French Centre for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, notes below, the protest movement is not a frontal challenge to the party’s monopoly on power in mainland China, nor does it seek to challenge China’s sovereignty. But a hardline response from the authorities could change that.

Around the world, tensions between actual or nominal autonomous territories and their respective sovereign power about the extent of self-governance are part of any autonomy arrangement. Hong Kong is no different.

At the moment, the student-led protest movement is voicing a very simple, compelling demand: that Hong Kong be granted what it has been promised, "a high degree of autonomy," "no change for fifty years," and "one country two systems." But since the 1997 handover, the Hong Kong government has failed to do what the CCP has been so adept at since the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement: respond to social demands before they turn into political ones.

As a result, long accumulated frustrations about local governance in Hong Kong have crystalized into demands for something that Beijing never intended to give: genuine democracy.

Precisely because the majority of the Hong Kong public understands that the prospect of a one-party dictatorship granting democracy to a segment of its population is close to nil, it is not clear that the center of gravity of public sentiment overlaps with the demands of the students and Occupy Central.

Beijing and the Hong Kong government are counting on this to drain out support for the protest movement, and are sticking to the uncompromising arrangement that the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s rubber-stamp legislature, has imposed for the election of the Chief Executive: You are free to vote in any of the candidates we have chosen for you.

The resulting situation is volatile. Two editorials from the People’s Daily published in recent days have made clear that Beijing is still hoping it can steamroll opposition in Hong Kong and close the chapter of trying to fulfill its obligation under Article 45 of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution adopted when the territory’s sovereignty transferred from Britain to China in 1997, to set a system by which the Chief Executive is designated "by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures."

It could then move to the next item on the Basic Law: the dreaded, though currently shelved, Article 23 anti-subversion law, which if implemented would almost certainly result in a dramatic decrease of political and civil liberties as well as freedom of information in the territory.

This will be at the back of the mind of the protest organizers as they meet with the government’s number two, Carrie Lam. But so it should be for Leung himself: In 2003, facing a million-strong demonstration to oppose the passage of Article 23, then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa adamantly said he would not resign. Less than two years later, after a public dressing-down by then-President Hu Jintao, Tung resigned.

For now, the authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong are betting that they can wait out the demonstrators, counting on support among the general public to fade. Beijing could have its way, and Leung save his seat. Much will depend on whether the protesters can maintain the momentum, presumably by uniting around one popular demand: that. Leung steps down. Whatever the result, the Hong Kong public will have demonstrated once more that their determination and courage to defend what we in the West take for granted: civil liberties and the rule of law.

Sebastian Veg:

It’s regrettable that discussions of the Hong Kong civil protest movement have focused on its possible repression before even trying to understand what the movement is about.

The movement comes at the half-way mark of a consultation process on constitutional reform to implement full universal suffrage, as promised by the 1990 Basic Law. The Hong Kong government’s unwillingness to acknowledge the strong pro-democracy current in popular opinion in Hong Kong, as well as Beijing’s desire to control the outcome of any election held by universal suffrage, has undermined this consultation process. Beijing and its acolytes in the territory have aligned against the democracy camp since the consultation began in December 2013: intimidating journalists, publishing a White Paper to provide the legal foundations for eroding the Basic Law framework, hacking pro-democracy websites, and mobilizing pro-China forces.

For these reasons, democrats in Hong Kong worry that the Hong Kong government is willing to erode the rule of law in Hong Kong to achieve its own short-term political aims.

A group of idealistic academics and activists set up a group called Occupy Central in January 2013 with the aim of fighting for full democracy through civil disobedience. Despite mismanaging their timetable, their message, and their public relations strategy, they twice profited from a backlash in public opinion: when the Beijing White Paper was published just days before a mock-poll in June 2014 on election reform and 800,000 came out to vote, and when the NPC handed down a highly restrictive framework for electoral reform on Aug. 31. Stepping beyond the Basic Law framework, the NPC tried to limit the number of candidates and manipulate minute details of the nomination process. Student and other groups then staged a massive spontaneous movement in late September which Occupy was able to join, rather than lead. The government attempted to nip the protests in the bud by arresting student leaders and ordering the use of tear gas against protesters, but a High Court judge ordered their release on a habeas corpus writ and the police forces backed down from the confrontation.

This movement is about more democracy in Hong Kong, as promised in the Basic Law framework. It does not, at this stage, contain any open challenge to the party’s authority in Beijing, or over China’s sovereignty in Hong Kong, and the international media should acknowledge this more clearly.

It is not a movement about China: it comes at the end of a decade of civil awakening and intellectual decolonization in Hong Kong, which has discovered its own identity. With its strong utopian streak feeding the carnival-like atmosphere in the streets, it is changing the way people think about their city. Public opinion, however, remains divided and the battle over hearts and minds continues. If Leung is willing to be an honest broker between Hong Kong residents and the Beijing authorities, or if he steps aside and someone else takes on this role, the crisis can still be resolved. The consultation process on election reform can be relaunched, for example by implicating the Basic Law committee. But while the protests leaders have demonstrated undeniable leadership in their rational and principled statements, these qualities remain worryingly elusive on the government side.

David Schlesinger:

No one who lived through China in 1989 emerged unscarred.

Beijing residents learned their government and army would do anything to keep the CCP in power. Hong Kongers saw their post-colonial future suddenly seem more ominous. Journalists, like myself, learned to deeply mistrust deeply the momentum of joyous outpourings of youth-led demonstrations — like we are seeing in the streets of Hong Kong today — because we saw the joy turn to horror overnight.

The CCP leadership learned … Well, what did they learn? That is the key question facing Hong Kong today.

All public indications are that the leadership learned that the army intervention was a success, that the hundreds or perhaps thousands of deaths bought needed stability, and that world condemnation would quickly pass. If those indeed were the lessons, then my anxiety and pessimism about how the Umbrella Revolution will play out is justified.

But what if the leadership, too, was scarred by Tiananmen? What if the army found the cost of killing its own people was too high? Then, perhaps, there may be constructive ways through.

Since coming to power in Nov. 2012, however, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown no signs of compromise. He has cracked down on domestic opponents ruthlessly. He seems intent on using and displaying power. And he would seem to have everything to lose and nothing to gain domestically by appearing soft on dissent in Hong Kong, or worse, soft on sovereignty.

There is, worryingly, one key group in the Hong Kong drama that was not scarred by Tiananmen. The secondary and university students who have been in the vanguard of Hong Kong’s protests and whose idealism galvanized the city were not even born when a previous generation of students saw their dreams crushed under tank treads. The generational gap both gives them courage and puts them hugely at risk.

I hope for a peaceful end to the standoff. I fear a crackdown.

No matter which happens, a generation has been politicized, a city has found a consciousness, and Hong Kong has displayed an identity separate and distinct from its colonial past and its Chinese nationality.

That in itself is a huge change, a tremendous accomplishment, and a factor Beijing and the world will have to acknowledge.

And for Hong Kongers themselves, no matter how this ends, their lives will be defined by the questions: "Where were you in September and October 2014?" And "what did you do for our city?"

Fu Hualing:

As Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution enters its sixth day and protesters are digging in for a long fight, my mainland friends remain puzzled about the protest. On hearing my explanations, they are quick to question whether it is all worth it. For them, Hong Kong is the envy of China and it is the dream of many in the mainland to come over to study, to do business, and to raise their families.

Hong Kong is well-known for its prosperity, freedom, and, above all, its rule of law. What it misses, as I explain to my mainland friends, is democracy: the ability to choose its own political leaders. Compared with societies that have undergone color revolutions in the past decades, Hong Kong remains a unique place. For the protesters, and people here in general, the battle has been fought mainly to keep what they have already had. Democracy has been sought not to achieve new freedom but to secure the freedom in existence, and potentially at risk.

Seen from this perspective, the stake for Hong Kong in this fight is extremely high: The majority of the residents in the city, knowing what China’s People’s Liberation Army is capable of, would sooner or later realize and accept the political reality. In the end, pragmatism will prevail after protesters have made the statement that needs to be made. But there is a decent life to go on with, and there will be another battle to fight in the bumpy road ahead.

Beijing has to learn to govern Hong Kong differently than it does mainland precisely because of Hong Kong’s uniqueness. Indeed, for Beijing, Hong Kong remains uncharted water in many fundamental aspects. Notwithstanding China’s political and economic power, it proves extremely difficult and costly, if possible at all, for Beijing to censor the media, to clamp down on the civil society, and to dictate the judiciary as the authoritarian government does in the mainland. The CCP has yet to master the art of governing a free society.

The CCP may not have the will to force Hong Kong to become just another mainland city. The Communist elites also treasure Hong Kong for what it is for both private and public reasons. Privately it is hard to imagine which powerful families within the party do not have some direct interest in Hong Kong. Interestingly, it is Hong Kong’s freedom that has attracted them to settle there after 1997 and it is Hong Kong’s rule of law that offers a much-needed insurance for their vested interests. Publicly, Hong Kong offers, and is seen by many political elites in China as offering, a model for China’s future. Unless that model poses an existential threat for the CCP, it is prepared to tolerate any inconvenience that Hong Kong may cause.

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