Hong Kong, China – China’s decision to allow the people of Hong Kong to have tightly controlled elections is triggering the formation of a broad-based democracy movement that in many ways resembles the one that was crushed a generation ago at Tiananmen Square.
Beijing’s latest barriers to democracy in Hong Kong are generating opposition among students and young professionals, with planned mass protests that could take over the region’s streets and campuses in the days and weeks ahead.
Democracy movement leaders are set to hold a Black Sunday march on September 14 to demonstrate Hong Kong’s determination to fight for free elections and free speech.
Joshua Wong, the teenage founder of the student protest group Scholarism, said that, even as he strategises on how best to stage demonstrations across Hong Kong, he “already expects to be arrested or go to jail”.
Undergraduates preparing to join non-violent protests across Hong Kong have been strong backers of the Occupy Central movement, he said.
Occupy Central is leading a protest march with all demonstrators dressed in black. University students, civic groups, and pro-democracy lawmakers have stated that they will join this mass demonstration, one Occupy Central organiser said, to underscore that “the whole city is united in its fight for democracy”.
We don't think the army will be used to stop the protests or kill the students here.
Joshua Wong said that a week later, on September 22, undergraduates across Hong Kong’s universities plan to boycott classes.
Asked about the resemblance between Hong Kong’s unfolding democracy movement and that staged by the ill-fated Tiananmen demonstrators of 1989, Joshua Wong replied: “We don’t think the army will be used to stop the protests or kill the students here.”
Yet he is still hedging his bets. Before embarking on every demonstration, he explained, “We pray that God will protect us during the protests.”
Despite promised elections in the joint declaration between London and Beijing that returned sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997, and “universal suffrage” in the Basic Law that serves as the enclave’s constitution, many residents of the one-time colony feel betrayed by the latest electoral system offered, which will be controlled by the Communist Party.
Holding a poster proclaiming “Betrayal by the Central Government,” Hong Kong legislator Gary Fan recently heckled an emissary of China’s National People’s Congress dispatched to the region to outline Beijing’s controlled voting scheme.
“Security guards took us away – 15 pro-democracy legislators,” he recounted in an interview. “Outside the centre, some Hong Kong citizens voicing their demands for democracy were pepper-sprayed by the police,” said lawmaker Fan, a Neo Democrat. Although Hong Kong’s constitution promises, on paper, the right to demonstrate, he added, “The Hong Kong police are using a heavier hand against people who try to protest.”
Benny Tai, a constitutional law professor at the University of Hong Kong, who helped shape the region’s Basic Law, has been examining another constitution – that of the United States – and how protests guided the evolution of America’s supreme law.
Just as massive demonstrations led by Martin Luther King led to broadening constitutional rights for Americans, he explained, carefully orchestrated acts of civil disobedience can be used for the same purpose in Hong Kong.
The group founded by Tai, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, has been laying the groundwork for a democracy movement aimed at achieving true constitutional rule, free elections in line with international standards, and halting the erosion of Hong Kong’s Bill of Rights.
Occupy Central recently launched a referendum on Hong Kong’s political future that attracted 798,957 votes and made crystal clear that the overwhelming majority of citizens want free elections and the right to nominate their own candidates. Under Beijing’s plan, just 1,200 delegates – most with high-level connections to the Communist Party – would be able to hand-pick party-approved candidates.
This scheme violates the pledge of free elections outlined in the Basic Law and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Tai said. In response, the Occupy Central movement and its allies will take over sections of Hong Kong to call attention to the constitutional crisis that is threatening the enclave’s future.
The digital front
Sophisticated hacker attacks carried out with military-like precision on the Occupy Central website, on the online referendum, and on a matrix of pro-democracy media sites in the past weeks and months, he said, signal that a cross-border digital battle over the future of democracy in Hong Kong has already begun.
One of the leaders of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, Mak Yin-ting, said escalating digital assaults on pro-reform newspapers, and even armed attacks on journalists, have made many citizens even more determined to fight for democracy. Just as authoritarian governments are the enemies of fundamental human rights, she explained, “democracy is the guardian angel of press freedom”.
Meanwhile, Tai said Occupy Central has been training demonstrators on “how to face different situations when you encounter violence from the police or even from the army”.
Pacifism is at the heart of the entire movement, he said.
Still, Beijing has already begun official denunciations – branding the pacifist protesters as would-be rebels – even as the People’s Liberation Army periodically moves its armoured personnel carriers through the streets of Hong Kong.
Although PLA troops are stationed throughout Hong Kong, today’s pro-democracy forces have an array of advantages that their Tiananmen forerunners lacked.
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In 1989 Beijing, none of the top leaders dared to openly side with the protesters: After General Secretary Zhao Ziyang merely opposed the use of armed troops against the students, he was stripped of his position and spent the rest of his life under house arrest.
But in Hong Kong, an array of “pan-Democratic” forces, including Gary Fan and more than two dozen other members of the Legislative Council, are now openly opposing the controlled elections proposed by Beijing, and are joining mass protests demanding universal suffrage.
Legislator Emily Lau, one of the leaders of the Democratic Party, said Democrats are certain to block Beijing’s tainted election proposal from being passed in the legislature.
“We will continue to struggle, with protests [and] inside the Legislative Council,” added Lau, one of the most widely respected and fiery figures in Hong Kong politics.
Legislator Albert Ho, briefly detained by police during a recent protest, said he is exploring potential pathways to lodge “an urgent appeal with the United Nations Human Rights Commission or the Human Rights Committee for the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights”.
That covenant, which is enshrined in Hong Kong’s constitution, guarantees: “Every citizen shall have the right … to vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage.”
This right to stand in elections has been violated by China’s convoluted electoral scheme, Ho said, and he will seek the UN’s aid in resolving this crisis.
As disenchantment spreads throughout Hong Kong society, he said, it is creating a broader coalition of pro-democracy forces.
He added: “Now we are helping to organise the Occupy Central protests.”
Meanwhile, the founder of Occupy Central said that if the Communist Party ultimately unlocks the gates to universal suffrage in Hong Kong, that would represent the greatest step it has taken towards accommodating democracy since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
“True universal suffrage, together with the other developments of constitutionalism in Hong Kong,” Tai predicted, “will provide a very good experimental ground for China to test democracy and constitutionalism”.