Why the Hong Kong Student Protest Movement Is in Trouble
While the Hong Kong protests vanish from the front pages of the press, replaced by other shiny-object foreign-policy issues, they reinforce why meaningful political and economic change in China will remain phantoms in the air for the foreseeable future. The Chinese Communist Party, as many already know, is incestuously tied to business interests in Hong Kong and the mainland. Change to the political system risks wreaking economic havoc on politically tied business interests. Thus, neither business, nor political elites have any reason to alter the current system. The protesters in Hong Kong, specifically the students, are directly challenging this relationship in the territory. This is a commendable effort that, as negotiations this week demonstrated, will ultimately fail in achieving the desired end state. Unfortunately, the students walked right into an ambush this week by engaging in publicly televised negotiations with the Hong Kong government.
Before we explore why the students just bolstered the Hong Kong government’s ability to drive a wedge between them and other Hong Kong interest groups, it is important to highlight some uncomfortable figures about the Special Administrative Region. Hong Kong has the twelfth worst Gini Coefficient in the world. In comparison, mainland China ranks 27, Singapore 32 and the United States 41. Hong Kong is in the company of Haiti, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Honduras and Guatemala in this ranking. While Hong Kong only registers 3 percent unemployment, approximately 20 percent of the population lives in poverty. Press reporting indicates that students, as well as religious and political actors are well aware of these economic inequalities.
Representatives of these groups make public statements that suggest they feel Beijing’s political patronage networks are increasingly seizing the economy and limiting the ability of average Hong Kong citizens to improve their stations in life.
The August 2014 announcement by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress to limit the choice of Chief Executive candidates only to those approved by the Hong Kong Election Committee has further increased the sense of political insecurity. While students, Christian religious leaders and longtime Democratic activists believe this ruling jeopardizes Hong Kong’s political future, they do not all agree on a viable alternative solution. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (led by Alex Chow) and Scholarism (led by Joshua Wong) believe that Hong Kong citizens should have the right to directly nominate Chief Executive candidates for election consideration. In 2013, Scholarism created a petition for parties in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo) to sign. The petition would demonstrate these parties’ support for direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates by citizens of Hong Kong. No party fully supported Scholarism’s petition. The Democratic Party along with several others refused to sign the petition. These parties believe there is a better solution to nominate Chief Executive candidates than that proposed by Scholarism.
Several Christian religious leaders and other Democratic operatives are throwing their support behind Occupy Central with Love and Peace (Occupy Central). The founders of Occupy Central are both religious representatives in their communities. Benny-Tai is the group’s first leader and a Christian Law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Reverend Chu Yiu-ming is a Baptist leader who is concurrently the new leader of Occupy Central. According to press reporting, members of the Democratic Party, such as founder Martin Lee, support Occupy Central.
Occupy Central started forming in the summer of 2013. By August 2013, the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese used its main publication, Kung Kao Po, to legitimize the use of civil disobedience to force the new Chief Executive’s government to propose a universal suffrage solution. The Diocese claimed that the government had twice put off referencing the issue to Beijing, as called for in the Basic Law; was violating the fundamental rights of the people based on the UN Charter for Human Rights by not developing a universal-suffrage system; and that any proposal must not only offer universal suffrage, but must also include a process of nominating the Chief Executive candidates that allowed for the consideration all opinions.
While the students want direct nominations, other leading political groups want a less disruptive approach to gather opinions. This tension of interests makes it difficult for the Hong Kong government to provide any viable solution that satisfies all groups. What unifies these two movements is their disdain for the voting solution offered by Beijing and what they perceive to be the most recent affront to their lives by Beijing authorities.
This brings us to this week’s negotiations. One early complaint by the students was that the Chief Executive was not engaging in meaningful dialogue with Hong Kong citizens, despite campaign promises. His refusal to come and literally talk with protesters only reinforced this view. Now his government is publicly speaking to the students. While the government offered no roadmap, as the students demanded, it did start laying the groundwork to create the impression that it is sincere about engaging with the students. The goal of the government is to publicly make the students appear stubborn and spoiled, while the government builds the narrative that it is the responsible, grown-up party.
The Hong Kong government’s approach aims to directly show that the students do not have Hong Kong’s economic interests at heart, lack an appreciation for their political rights and have no meaningful solution to offer Hong Kong. This message may resonate with Hong Kong citizens who own small businesses, make their livings driving taxis and are old enough to remember harder economic times.
As noted earlier, the students want direct nominations of Chief Executive candidates and some even want an end to the functional constituencies in the Election Committee. Liberal parties do not agree with this solution. By suggesting publicly that the election rules can change after 2017, the Hong Kong government is attempting to put a carrot in front of these liberal groups. Simultaneously, the government is using the students’ own demands to demonstrate to the public that their interests collide with the political goals of the liberal parties. The students walked right into it—unfortunately.
At the end of the day, the students are unintentionally positioning themselves as the political losers. The Hong Kong government is using its public engagement with them to shape their grievances as separate from those of the average Hong Kong citizen, civil society and liberal political groups. The bigger losers, though, will be the citizens of Hong Kong, as the larger socioeconomic issues—Party patronage networks, corruption and social immobility—will continue to fester. Given that the mainland suffers from these issues, without any meaningful realignment of political rights that reduce the Party’s hold on economic levers of power on the mainland, Hong Kong will continue to experience growing economic inequality and a sense of social insecurity resulting from Party-business ties.
Nicholas Iorio is a private-sector international security affairs consultant specializing in the Asia-Pacific.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Underbar dk/CC by-sa 4.0