Encore: The Hong Kong Protests' Coming Revival

The Occupy Central movement isn't done yet...

Last year was anything but quiet in Hong Kong. Angered by Beijing’s refusal to let local politics take a more democratic turn, huge crowds—especially of students—clogged main streets and shut down the central business district for ten weeks. Assorted scuffles and police tear gas gave protests an occasional touch of violence though they ended peacefully, if inconclusively. The long-term economic damage was minimal. Yet an atmosphere of distrust and disillusion remains.

So when the government’s Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying (CY Leung), issued his annual Lunar New Year statement not long ago, he turned to the Chinese zodiac in search of guidance for his discontented public. This is, according to the translation dominant in Hong Kong, the Year of the Sheep (though others say the relevant if ambiguous Chinese character yang () really stands for a goat or ram).

“Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups,” he advised. “In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.”

But the image of “Good Shepherd Leung” leading his flock to the political equivalent of ever greener pastures did not immediately spring to mind.

Some Hong Kong residents instead interpreted the analogy as one in which lambs go to slaughter, so they dismissed Leung’s words as yet another political blunder by an unpopular leader seen as acting more dutifully toward Communist leaders in Beijing than toward individuals he nominally represents. It was a reminder that Hong Kong has deep divisions and is certain to face future unrest as Beijing inexorably moves to restrict some—though not all—of the civic freedoms that set it apart from the rest of China. This guarantees that the coming months will not be a time for placid sheep.

Several divisive issues are at work but the most obvious one concerns the political future. Though Hong Kong came under Chinese sovereignty in 1997, it has been governed ever since by a special arrangement called “one country, two systems.” This gives Beijing authority over diplomatic and military matters but is supposed to allow—as the applicable law states—“Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong” with a “high degree of autonomy.”

This means, among other things, that the territory has been guaranteed, at least until 2047, continued press freedom, the right of assembly, an independent judicial system based on British common law, as well as a free market economy and financial standards. In addition, the political system inherited from the British is supposed to evolve gradually into a fully democratic one with local elections. None of this is allowed on the mainland.

At present, the Chief Executive is chosen every five years by an election committee of twelve hundred people selected, for the most part, from interest groups aligned to Beijing; this method has produced three successive leaders with neither a public mandate nor much popular support. Because the top administrator cannot, by current law, represent any political party, there is an strange disconnect between the executive and legislative branches, giving Hong Kong a government that too often seems dysfunctional. Introducing elections by universal suffrage for major posts is supposed to help correct this.

Hong Kong’s vocal pro-democracy politicians had expected popular voting for the top job to be allowed in 2007, but Beijing reneged on an implied promise. Last year, on August 31, however, Chinese leaders said it could be introduced for the next Chief Executive election in 2017—but with a catch. Only “two or three” candidates approved by a special committee under mainland influence can stand for the top office; this meant that pro-democracy candidates perceived by Beijing as unreliable supporters of Chinese Communist Party policies could not win a place on the ballot.

Angry politicians called this a fake democracy that violated the terms of the “one country, two systems” arrangement, and in late September launched a public demonstration called “Occupy Central with Love and Peace.” It was meant to take over the central business district as a peaceful protest against Beijing’s decree and force political concessions. But things soon got out of hand. Unexpected crowds of students, motivated by their own social and economic grievances, overwhelmed the middle-class professionals who run Hong Kong’s small pro-democracy political parties and took control of the streets. Soon the movement had no clear leadership nor agreed set of demands. With Beijing’s strong support, the Hong Kong government simply out-waited the students and by the end of the year, the protest was over.

But not forgotten. Those opposed to Beijing’s decision have promised new demonstrations unless election rules are amended to open up the process of selecting candidates. Or else, the protestors will reject the new plan. Just what they will do and when, or how disruptive new demonstrations may be, remains unknown. However, China—echoed by a supine Hong Kong government—insists no serious concessions will be forthcoming and a completely open nominating process is not possible anytime soon, if ever.