Hong Kong’s ‘Common Aspiration’ Is Anything But

The city's report in the wake of pro-democracy protests is a mere sop to Beijing, experts say.

Pro-democracy lawmakers carrying yellow umbrellas --the symbol of the pro-democracy movement-- walk out of the legislative chamber as the consultation document is about to be presented in Hong Kong on January 7, 2015. Tensions remain high following more than two months of mass protests for fully free elections that failed to win concessions for pro-democracy campaigners. AFP PHOTO / AARON TAM (Photo credit should read aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images)

In early January, the Hong Kong government released a report on the “recent community and political situation in Hong Kong:” in other words, where things stand after 2014 Hong Kong protests, which saw hundreds of thousands protesting in the city’s streets for more democracy.

In early January, the Hong Kong government released a report on the “recent community and political situation in Hong Kong:” in other words, where things stand after 2014 Hong Kong protests, which saw hundreds of thousands protesting in the city’s streets for more democracy.

The report concluded that it is the “common aspiration” of Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and the people of Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive — but “strictly in accordance with the Basic Law and the relevant Interpretation and Decisions” of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, a top Chinese body.

The group HongKong2020, convened by veteran political leader and democracy advocate Anson Chan, called the report a “complete misrepresentation of the views of the vast majority of the community.”

How important is this report, and what does it mean? 

Louisa Lim, Visiting Professor, University of Michigan:

The Hong Kong government’s report — derided by student leaders as “poison,” “wastepaper,” and a failure even as a piece of secondary school homework — is a clear kowtow to Beijing. Equally unnerving is the background noise from across the border: a steady drumbeat of calls for Hong Kong’s “re-enlightenment.” This Orwellian language surfaced just two days after the early December street clearances in the words of Zhang Rongshun, the vice-chairman of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC)’s legislative affairs commission. “It seems that some people [in Hong Kong] still cannot find an identity with the country,” he said. “There is a need to have a re-enlightenment about the ‘one country, two systems’ principle and national identity.”

Chen Zuo’er, the former deputy director of the Hong Kong and Macau State Affairs office, amplified that message in Beijing on Jan. 8. Asking why those who were “toddlers at the handover” had turned into frontline protestors, he concluded, “it is clear that there have been problems all along with education in Hong Kong.” And “noxious weeds” should be eradicated, he said — Hong Kong’s education minister should know that he is under scrutiny from the central government. This warning came even though the Basic Law specifies Hong Kong can formulate its own policies on education and “education institutions of all kinds may retain their autonomy and enjoy academic freedom.”

For students of history, these comments bring to mind then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s first speech after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing. “I once told foreigners that our worst omission of the past ten years was in education,” he said to martial law units. “What I meant was political education, and this does not apply to schools and students alone, but to the masses as a whole.” Those words ushered in a massive patriotic education campaign that has shaped a whole generation of young nationalists.

Nationalism and the contested idea of patriotism bubbled below the surface throughout Occupy Central, with repeated allegations of unspecified hostile foreign forces driving the protests. There are signs that Hong Kong’s schools could become the next ideological battleground, with Basic Law committee member Rao Geping suggesting national education should be reintroduced with an emphasis on Chinese culture rather than ideology. Given that the Umbrella Movement was born out of a precursor struggle over national education in 2012, such a move could only give protestors a new focus.

Although Occupy Central has been cleared and its main leaders face arrest, its spirit remains in the banners that continue to appear on totemic Hong Kong landmarks like Lion Rock, and in the small-scale street protests that flare up nightly. What should not be forgotten is that an estimated 1.2 million Hong Kongers took part in Occupy. At a time when a record low number of Hong Kongers identify themselves as Chinese or citizens of the People’s Republic of China, the mere idea of re-introducing national education can only serve to deepen Hong Kong people’s alienation from Beijing.

David Schlesinger, Founder, Tripod Advisors:

Sino-Hong Kong relations urgently need one thing to salve the ills of today, and that is for true leadership to emerge — in government, in opposition, and in China’s handling and understanding of Hong Kong.

What we have seen in this winter of discontent and protest is a complete and tragic failure of leadership on all sides.

China failed. The months of protest were a direct result of ham-fisted and tone-deaf writing and speaking about the city, showing no empathy for or understanding of what makes it work and what threatens that working.

The Hong Kong government failed. There hasn’t been one statement or report on the evolving political consciousness that showed an attempt to represent truly the breadth, depth, and even diversity of opinion and feeling.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying failed. Admittedly, Hong Kong has never had a true leader as governor or chief executive, moving from boring bureaucrats to tired tycoons with only the last British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten showing — to little lasting effect — a politician’s love of media, attention, and confrontation. But Leung has seemed to have a spectacular lack of ideas, integrity, or interconnection with the Hong Kong people.

Veteran Hong Kong political leaders Anson Chan and Martin Lee describe some of the core values — such as freedom of the press — that they seek to maintain as Beijing asserts greater control over the territory seventeen years after Britain handed it back to China on the condition…

The protestors failed. While they brought the city spectacularly and movingly to the streets, everyone involved ultimately eschewed taking a true leadership role. They never moved the rhetoric to a place where dialogue or negotiation could meaningfully take place, and they exhausted or irritated many of the very people who had originally supported them.

What these months have showed, though, is that Hong Kong is a place with a political consciousness — where the people have a wide variety of views, desires, demands, and issues. And it has defined Hong Kong as a place that is very clearly not willing, able, nor ready to move closer to China without its own identity being recognized, respected, and reacted to.

Hong Kong needs leadership. It needs a few people willing to take the lead in saying, “This is who we are; this is what makes Hong Kong special; and these are the things that, within the context of big and powerful China next door having suzerainty, we must preserve protect and defend.” There’s no one answer to that list of things. They are what need to be brought out into the open, discussed, debated, and ultimately decided.

The argument about how the Chief Executive of Hong Kong should be nominated and elected is but a sideshow to the real issues of what is Hong Kong, how is its relationship to China defined, how is its special character preserved and developed, and how are its people and their beliefs given expression and representation.

Hong Kong’s future relations with Beijing bounded by the relative sizes, powers, and legal statuses of the two actors. Those relations can be shaped positively by the people themselves, however, if they have the leaders with vision, courage, and integrity to do so.

Ho-fung Hung, Associate Professor, Johns Hopkins University:

The report is just a list of what happened during the occupation movement in Hong Kong, with significant empirical and logical gaps. It describes how the occupation movement started and ended, without accounting for why such an unprecedented and large-scale civil disobedience erupted in the first place. It fails to mention the strong backlash against the NPCSC decision that the future Chief Executive candidate will need to be endorsed by at least half of the nomination committee — which will be controlled by Beijing, just like the current election committee. Scholars and democratic activists, including the moderates, were outraged. After describing the large-scale occupation movement that lasted for several months and involved hundreds of thousands of protesters, the report concludes that it is a “common aspiration” of the Hong Kong people to actualize universal suffrage under the NPCSC framework. It doesn’t explain why so many citizens would protest the NPCSC decision if the “common aspiration” of the Hong Kong people is to accept this decision.

The report is tantamount to telling the Hong Kong people that “we see you protest, but we are ignoring your voice.” It is noteworthy that once the report was published, the Hong Kong police started the mass arrest of organizers and participants of the occupation movement. Hong Kong newspaper Mingpao, citing an anonymous governmental source, claims that no fewer than 1,500 students, legislators, scholars, and other activists were targeted for arrest. The establishment is apparently in a triumphalist mood in the aftermath of the occupation.

Ever since the government managed to clear all the occupied zones, the protestors have had low morale. Many active participants will be occupied with legal entanglement for a while. But it does not mean that the government’s plan to push for a conservative political reform under the NPCSC framework can sail through calm water. Popular support for the Hong Kong government continues to slide, and a distinct Hong Kong identity continues to grow at the expense of the Chinese identity. Many young Hong Kongers, who awakened in the air of liberation in the occupied zones and in their first-hand experience with pepper spray, tear gas, and beatings with police clubs, will not go to sleep again. Large-scale civil disobedience could reemerge at any time, and with a vengeance. This back-and-forth rhythm of mass movement is common in democratic movements all over the world. We could look at the wave of democratic movement in Taiwan in the wake of the mass arrest and persecution following the 1979 pro-democracy protests known as the Formosa Incident — the island democratized in the following two decades — to get a sense of what may await Hong Kong in the years to come.

Denise Y. Ho, Assistant Professor, Chinese University of Hong Kong:

The report underscores the way the Hong Kong government continues to portray its position vis-à-vis the Umbrella Movement. Local media reportage has focused on Pan-Democrats and activists’ objections to the way the movement is represented. There have been critiques of how the occupation carries the repeated epithet of “unlawful,” and multiple groups have protested the conclusion that the “common aspiration” of the people of Hong Kong is to see universal suffrage implemented in accordance with the Basic Law and the NPCSC’s interpretation. I agree that “common aspiration” is a willful misrepresentation, and that simply listing Occupy’s demands — including civic nomination, genuine universal suffrage, abolition of functional constituencies — falls woefully short of genuine engagement.

At base is the question of what political representation really means. If the premise of the Hong Kong government is the Basic Law as interpreted by Beijing, then Hong Kong democracy — with Chinese characteristics — is not representation by and of the Hong Kong people. Reading over the “Constitutional Provisions” which form the first page of the report, it is clear that constitutional development is not to be defined here in Hong Kong.

Reforms to the nominating process are to be reported by the Chief Executive, decided by the NPCSC, consented to by the Chief Executive, and approved by the NPCSC. The reason for the Umbrella Movement was precisely because Hong Kong people did not find the “broadly representative nominating committee” to represent their interests — and thus the idea of universal suffrage is false. Democracy, as Chinese activist Fang Lizhi stated in 1986, is not something bestowed by people in charge. “In democratic countries, democracy begins with the individual,” he said. “I am the master, and the government is responsible to me.”

The Hong Kong government’s report shows that its starting point has not changed since the Umbrella Movement began. I do not know whether this disappointment will lead to further protests. But it is clear that there is a divergence in the representation of recent events and between two definitions of representation as part of universal suffrage.

When we think about Hong Kong and constitutional development, it may be useful to recall what constitutionalism has meant in China. In the Western context, constitutionalism is about limiting the powers of government. But when these ideas were translated onto the Chinese scene in the nineteenth century — as scholar Philip Kuhn has written — “principled criticism” was meant to make the state stronger. Back then, reformers like Liang Qichao thought of participation as all citizens submitting to duty to the community, and unity with national self-preservation was first and foremost on China’s constitutional agenda. Writing in 1994, Kuhn concluded that, “the Chinese constitutional agenda will still be addressed on China’s terms, not on ours.” The notion that Beijing, the Hong Kong government, and the people of Hong Kong share the same “common aspiration” suggests that this history casts a long shadow.

Frank Ching, Columnist:

The report conclusion of “common aspiration” sit oddly in a report on public sentiment. They are a political formula to create the impression that all three parties — Beijing, Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong people — are of one mind, when clearly that is not the case.

According to the report, there exists support among Hong Kong’s populace for Beijing’s decision to deny them the right to vote for the candidate of their choice. That being the case, why was Occupy Central in the planning for two years? Why did university and secondary school students go on strike? And why did university vice chancellors lend their moral authority to this student endeavor?

If the government in Beijing, the government in Hong Kong, and the Hong Kong people were all of one mind about universal suffrage, why were thousands of people protesting? Why are dozens of people now being rounded up by the police?

It turns out that the Hong Kong authorities know that the community is not behind them. In fact, the day after the release of the community sentiment report, the Hong Kong authorities released a second document — the timeline for a second round of public consultation on 2017’s universal suffrage.

In that report, an abbreviated quotation appears: “It is the common aspiration of the Central Authorities, the HKSAR Government and the general public in Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage for the CE election in 2017.” But this time, with no extravagant claims of support from the community. Nowhere does it speak about a common aspiration that joins the two governments and the people of Hong Kong.

Getty Images

Louisa Lim, the author of “The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited,” is Senior Lecturer in Audiovisual Journalism at the University of Melbourne.

David Schlesinger is founder of Tripod Advisors and former Chairman of Thomson Reuters China.

Ho-fung Hung is the Wiesenfeld professor in political economy at Johns Hopkins University. He is the author of Protest with Chinese Characteristics and The China Boom.

<p class="MsoNormal"> Denise Y. Ho is assistant professor in the Centre for China Studies, The Chinese University of Hong Kong. She teaches undergraduate courses in Chinese history and contemporary China Studies to students from Hong Kong and all over the world. </p>
Frank Ching is a writer and university lecturer in Hong Kong.

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