Turning the tides of fate: Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement in a nutshell

By Daniele Pestilli on October 4, 2014
Image by: Chet Wong (https://www.flickr.com/photos/chetbookshop)

In classical Chinese thought, time was not considered linear: like the rise and fall of dynasties it was viewed as cyclical. Master Zhuang Zhou, a philosopher who lived in the 4th century BC famously wrote: “Time cannot be arrested. The succession of decline, growth, fullness, and emptiness go in a cycle, each end becoming a new beginning”. Indeed, this seems to be the case for China these days.

Twenty-five years have lapsed since the Tiananmen square protests, when Chinese students unhappy with China's ongoing problems called for political reform, and were brutally suppressed by authorities. For those who lived during those seven weeks that gripped Beijing, recent protests in Hong Kong undoubtedly bring back harrowing memories.

Ever since the 1997 sovereignty transfer from the United Kingdom to China, Hong Kong's Chief Executive has been elected by a 1,200 people committee, comprised of a mixture of private citizens and special interest groups. He is to serve a five-year term with one possible extension for the same length of time. Hong Kongers were recently enraged when the Chinese National People's Congress Standing Committee ruled out the option that Hong Kong's next Chief Executive will be selected democratically in the impending 2017 elections. Instead, the Committee announced that only members pre-elected by Beijing will be able to run for office – something the locals have termed “fake democracy”.

This initially prompted student groups to boycott their classes for a week starting on September 22nd. Then, on September 28th, the student movement garnered momentum as Hong Kong's people took to the streets, formally proclaiming the “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” (OCLPHK) movement. They issued two requests: the repeal of Beijing's aforementioned decision and a swift restoration of the political reform process in alignment with Hong Kongers' aspirations for democracy.

Akin to the Tiananmen protests, citizens started helping one another by bringing refreshments, food, collecting garbage and encouraging their companions. Yet despite the initial desire to Occupy with “Love and Peace”, the past few days have seen tear-gas and pepper spray attacks by the authorities as well as a series of bloody scuffles by thugs, who resorted to pushing, punching and kicking pro-democracy protesters in Mong Kok, a vibrant shopping district and one of the most densely populated in the world. The thugs were ostensibly paid off by mainlanders, and upon the arrest of nineteen people, eight were said to have Triad backgrounds. However, the city's security chief denied all allegations that the government had paid these thugs for their services.

It is not only these few troublemakers who have been hampering pro-democracy demonstrators: local residents whose lives and businesses are affected have also begun venting their spleen. A construction worker quoted by AFP news agency said, “I don't support Occupy Central. We have to work and make money. Occupy is just a game.“ Hong Kong journalist Grace Tsoi tweeted, “Anti-occupiers in CWB pushed female student protesters and yelled, 'If you come to the protests, be prepared to be sexually harassed.'”

The protests have lasted for a week now, and controlling its direction is no easy feat. The movement has largely been self-regulated via social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google spreadsheets. Yet while Occupy Central has no official leaders, the protesters have three main figureheads who spearheaded the movement: Benny Tai, Chan Kin-Man and Chu Yiu-Ming.

Benny Tai is a 50-year-old law professor at the University of Hong Kong.
A mere scholar in the '90s who was described by the South China Morning Post as one of those “cuddly professors found on every campus who would talk to anyone interested in their research”, his activism has recently brought him a number of death threats. Benny, who is among the people in charge of cementing deals between the protesters and government officials was interviewed by the BBC on October 3rd, stating: “it's very difficult to maintain any sensible dialogue if the government does not stop these things [i.e. allowing attacks on Hong Kongers] from happening to peaceful protesters.”

An article on Al Jazeera explains that on Saturday the city's chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, agreed to “rational communication” as the only way forward. However, protesters said talks would only be possible upon thorough investigation of the ostensible triad-related events in Mong Kok.

Leaders of the Chinese Communist Party are fearful that dissent such as the Occupy movement could spread to the mainland. Meanwhile, countries such as the United Kingdom and the United States have kept close watch on the situation and expressed their concern as to how the demonstrations have been dealt with.

October 1st marked the National Day of the People's Republic of China, a holiday to commemorate the foundation of the PRC. On this day, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said, “as China knows, we support universal suffrage in Hong Kong accordant with the Basic Law, and we believe in open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity. And we have high hopes that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect for the protestors’ right to express their views peacefully.”

Foreign Minister Wang Yi's response was as follows: “The Chinese Government has very firmly and clearly stated its position. Hong Kong affairs are China’s internal affairs. All countries should respect China’s sovereignty. And this is also a basic principle governing international relations. I believe for any country, for any society, no one will allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That’s the situation in the United States, and that’s the same situation in Hong Kong. We believe that the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s government has the capability to properly handle the current situation in accordance with the law.”

As Chris Patten – the last British governor of Hong Kong and current chancellor of the University of Oxford – pointed out in an article, claiming that international powers should keep their noses out of Hong Kong's affairs is ridiculous: the 1997 Sino-British Joint Declaration guaranteed the survival of Hong Kong's democracy for at least 50 years following the handover. Only 17 years have elapsed since that day, and already the promise – which was registered at the United Nations – is being rescinded.

Patten argues that British ministers, not only have the right but also the moral obligation to check China's power in Hong Kong, in order to guarantee the democratic status-quo.

While this is true, we cannot forget that the seeds of blunder were planted in 1997, when Britain denied the continuing right of U.K. abode to Hong Kongers. Minister Wang Yi did not make an entirely moot point, and the UK should also be privy of the responsability it refused to take two decades ago.

At the heart of the protests is an ardent desire for Hong Kong to not become like the mainland – democracy deprived. Democracy and the core set of values surrounding it – such as freedom of the press and the safeguarding of human rights – is what differentiates this island form the rest of China. This extreme desire is precisely what guided the mass demonstrations in Tiananmen Square in 1989. What followed was a brutal crack-down and suffocation of basic freedoms. The central government in Beijing has already called the Hong Kong protests illegal and “doomed to fail”. Reactions by the authorities against pro-democracy protesters have not been promising in the least, and the tension seems to be waxing even after a week. Yet the darkest hour is just before dawn: this is the time for Hong Kongers to rise up and let their voices be heard, this is their chance to turn the tides of fate. Universal suffrage is at stake, and this time, history need not necessarily repeat itself.