HK′s pro-democracy activists ′unlike anything Beijing has faced before′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 03.09.2014
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HK's pro-democracy activists 'unlike anything Beijing has faced before'

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have vowed to launch a wave of protests over Beijing's decision to vet candidates for the 2017 poll. Analyst Rebecca Liao talks to DW about how far the activists may be willing to go.

Organizers of the pro-democracy movement "Occupy Central with Love and Peace" pledged an "era of civil disobedience" following Beijing's decision to rule out open nominations for the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive in 2017. On August 31, the National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) - China's top legislative committee - decided that the city's next leader will be elected by popular vote in 2017, but only after each candidate is approved by a majority of a 1,200-member election committee.

Critics have described the decision as a betrayal of Beijing's promise to award the special administrative region and former British colony universal suffrage in three years. According to the 1997 "one country, two systems" agreement - following the city's return to China - Hong Kong residents enjoy civil liberties not seen on the mainland, including the right to protest.

Pro-democracy activists reacted to Beijing's move by pledging to launch "wave after wave of protest actions" in the coming weeks and ultimately stage a sit-in to block the roads leading to the city's business district, a move that could potentially lead to a direct showdown with the authorities. Hong Kong police have arrested 22 people during a series of protests targeting a senior visiting Chinese official. Organizers of the movement, however, also acknowledged that supporters who are more "pragmatic" may back down.

Rebecca Liao, China analyst and a corporate attorney, says in a DW interview that while the number of pro-democracy activists may have begun to dwindle following Beijing's decision, the seed has been planted for further tensions down the line.

DW: Who are the pro-democracy activists?

Rebecca Liao: Occupy Central is the main organization behind the pro-democracy movement. Their leader, Benny Tai, is a law professor at University of Hong Kong. The protests they helped organize in July brought out hundreds of thousands, as did the referendum they held on whether Hong Kong should be allowed to choose its Chief Executive. There are also a few smaller groups of pro-democracy activists who are made up mostly of younger people and are more liberal than Occupy Central.

Rebecca Liao

Liao: 'Hong Kong has the tools to organize a robust civil society based on a long tradition of civil liberties'

To which extent are these protesters in the special administrative area different from the ones Beijing has faced before in the mainland?

Hong Kong has the tools to organize a robust civil society based on a long tradition of civil liberties. The legislature, which must approve Beijing's electoral reform plan, is popularly elected. In Hong Kong, Chinese authorities are dealing with a city that has a democratic political culture, supported by Western-style political freedoms. No protest movement on the mainland benefits from that sort of environment.

In addition, protestors in Beijing usually demand redress for social and economic injustice, such an environmental pollution by state-owned enterprises or illegal land grabs. Rarely do they call for a change in the political system. Hong Kong's protestors, on the other hand, want the exact opposite. As can be expected given "one country, two systems," Beijing faces a completely different challenge in Hong Kong.

What do you think will happen in the coming months in terms of protest actions?

Now is a time of real soul-searching among pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong. Beijing has offered an electoral reform plan that is better than what is currently in place, and it is daring the pro-democracy activists to protest against it and lobby for the pro-democracy legislators in Hong Kong to defeat it on principle. Such a course of action would result in the status quo.

Beijing is also forcing the Occupy Central movement to make its case to moderate Hong Kongers, who are generally more interested in business and stability than politics, that asserting a point about greater democracy is more important than gaining the franchise that Beijing is allowing.

The Occupy Central leaders have stated that their numbers have already begun to dwindle following Beijing's decision. They do not expect to be able to muster the civil disobedience movement on the scale they had hoped for. However, if tensions diffuse for now, the seed has been planted for further tensions down the line.

Although Hong Kong has never been an independent country, it thinks of itself as a global city that has the financial wherewithal to run itself and insist on its own unique identity. The more "one country, two systems" thinking seems to encroach on that, the stronger resistance will become.

What kind of protest actions is Beijing bracing for?

As soon as Beijing's decision was announced on August 31, Occupy Central called for an "era of civil disobedience," with immediate plans for sit-ins in Central, the heart of Hong Kong's financial center. The objective with all future protest actions will be to shut down business in Hong Kong by peaceful, nonviolent means.

Implementation may be a challenge, though, as Occupy Central has announced that they expect only a few thousand protesters will show up out of the tens of thousands it hoped for. If this turns out to be the case, Beijing will likely let the protest movement burn out.

Protesters accuse Beijing of breaking its promise to have full democracy. What is your view on this?

The protesters are focusing on Beijing's promise in 2007 to consider a reform plan proposed by Hong Kong's government to implement universal suffrage by 2017. This promise is memorialized in Hong Kong's Basic Law, the special administrative region's constitution. However, Chinese authorities never promised more than what they have done. In other words, while the election of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage is provided for, the nominating committee that chooses the nominees for Chief Executive is not.

Barristers in Hong Kong have argued that a problem nevertheless exists because Beijing's caveat that all nominees must be approved by more than 50 percent of the nominating committee. By definition, this means that there will only be one nominee unless the committee members are given multiple votes. Details about specific nominating procedures will be hashed out later, but Beijing will probably assuage this fear. With the pro-Beijing contingent guaranteed to be in the committee, there is no need for this sort of run-around.

Those who have recognized that the Basic Law doesn't offer protestors much comfort have turned to international law, arguing that Beijing's proposal does not comply with the United Nations International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which covers Hong Kong. Beijing is right to argue, however, that in the same way universal suffrage did not apply to Hong Kong under British rule, it would not apply now that the People's Republic of China (PRC) has stepped into Great Britain's shoes.

Thousands of pro-Beijing protesters gather to march in the streets to demonstrate against a pro-democracy Occupy Central campaign in Hong Kong August 17, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)

The Occupy Central leaders have stated that their numbers have already begun to dwindle following Beijing's decision, says Liao

Nonetheless, this does not mean that the pro-democracy protestors do not have a legal leg to stand on. The Basic Law also provides that The territory's capitalist system and way of life will be preserved for 50 years after the 1997 handover. "Way of life" is a very broad guarantee, and many Hong Kongers can certainly make the case that they are seeing a steady rollback of their pre-1997 political culture.

Beijing has said that it won't budge from its stance, no matter what. What does the Chinese Communist Party's (CCP) tough stance against the pro-democracy activists and opposition reflect?

The CCP wanted to assert its authority over Hong Kong. It also wanted to remind the international community that its definitions of democracy, universal suffrage, and the like differ from those of the Western liberal tradition.

What effect could Beijing's hard stance against Hong Kong democracy have on China's courtship of Taiwan?

In the interim, no effect. This example, however, will cast a shadow on future discussions about reunification of the PRC and Taiwan on the basis of "one country, two systems." It is understood, now, that whatever political system is in place at the time of reunification will stand (it's hard to imagine an initial bargain between both sides that provides otherwise). At the same time, Beijing will assert its control in other ways, and Taiwan's political culture and governance would shift over time.

Rebecca Liao is a corporate attorney and writer based in Silicon Valley, focusing on Chinese politics and culture.