Asia

This Is What Hong Kong Democracy Looks Like


(Corrects the day of the week in the first paragraph.)

Protesters wave a British flag and hold a placard reading: 'We save our own Hong Kong' during an annual protest in downtown Hong Kong on July 1Photograph by Kin Cheung/APProtesters wave a British flag and hold a placard reading: 'We save our own Hong Kong' during an annual protest in downtown Hong Kong on July 1

Hong Kong’s people have voted. They’ve marched. What will they do next? After nearly 800,000 people took part in an unofficial referendum last month on the best way to choose the city’s next leader, over tens of thousands—maybe hundreds of thousands—took to the streets on Tuesday to demand a truly democratic election. This event was largely peaceful—but with activists vowing to blockade the financial district if the government doesn’t meet their demands, the fire might come next time.

Not surprisingly, pro-democracy forces and the local government can’t even come close to agreeing on how many people took part in yesterday’s march. Organizers of the annual July 1 protest claimed that more than 510,000 people marched; the Hong Kong Police said fewer than 100,000 did. An independent estimate by the University of Hong Kong put the total at from 154,000 to 172,000 protesters, the largest number since 2004.

Photograph by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

The demonstration ended with the police arresting 511 people for illegally obstructing traffic in the city’s financial district, an ominous sign for Hong Kong businesses worried about the possibility of civil unrest—and for future protests such as the big civil disobedience event threatened by pro-democracy group Occupy Central with Love and Peace.

“It seems that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong are not going to give way,” Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Department of Applied Social Science, told Bloomberg News. “If that’s the case—and with the civil referendum, it seems that the pro-democracy camp is also not going to compromise—the gap is widening.”

Photograph by Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg

The good news is there’s still some time for compromise. Occupy Central is waiting to see what the government suggests for the 2017 election, when current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s term expires, and Beijing has promised universal suffrage for the election to choose his successor. According to Occupy organizer Benny Tai, if the government’s proposal is acceptable, the group will delay any civil disobedience campaign until after a second referendum provides Hong Kong people a say, albeit unofficially, on whether it meets the city’s needs.

The latest statements from the government, however, don’t bode well for that second referendum. The people voting in last month’s Occupy Central referendum want the public to be able to choose their favorite candidates, and activists reject the idea of a small committee of pro-Beijing insiders getting the chance to veto the candidacy of anyone unacceptable to China. However, the government says that eliminating that screening process is a non-starter. In a statement issued today, Hong Kong’s government took a slightly exasperated tone to explain to people about the process. The government “has repeatedly pointed out” that according to the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s quasi-constitution, “the power to nominate [Chief Executive] candidates is vest in the Nominating Committee (NC) only.”

Chinese characters under the caricature of Leung Chun-ying read 'step down'Photograph by Lam Yik Fei/BloombergChinese characters under the caricature of Leung Chun-ying read 'step down'

The government has also taken little gestures to reassure the population up north that they’re all on the same page in rejecting the pro-democracy hotheads. Just as the Chinese media deploys scare quotes when talking about Taiwan’s “president” or the Dalai Lama and the “Tibetan issue,” Hong Kong’s administration is using punctuation to trivialize the actions of hundreds of thousands of its own people. For instance, in a statement issued after the end of the Occupy Central-organized poll, the local government referred to the “results” of the “civil referendum.”

A model tankPhotograph by Lam Yik Fei/BloombergA model tank

In a sign that the Chinese might be having some doubts about Leung, Zhang Xiaoming, director of China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong, made a rare, high-profile visit to two towns in rural Hong Kong. ”More and more it seems that Beijing and C.Y. Leung are jointly responsible for governing, rather than the Hong Kong SAR government doing so on its own,” wrote S.C. Yeung, in the Hong Kong Economic Journal.

Now, as Zhang tries to win friends among the locals, Hong Kong’s official leader, Leung, will face his biggest test. If his government’s proposal for the 2017 election doesn’t satisfy the pro-democracy activists, there will probably be more protests—far more violent and disruptive than Tuesday’s.

Photograph by Alex Hofford/European Pressphoto Agency

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Einhorn is Asia regional editor in Bloomberg Businessweek’s Hong Kong bureau. Follow him on Twitter @BruceEinhorn.

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