Lessons that Australia can learn from the Hong Kongers

Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP commonly known as Occupy Central) began in Hong Kong in January 2013 as a pro-reform civil disobedience campaign. It’s modelled on the activism of Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi with Central being Hong Kong’s financial district. It has three co-founders, Professor of Civil Societies studies Chan Kin-man, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. In March 2013 they publicly announced their occupy movement pledge stating that it was campaigning for universal suffrage through dialogue, deliberation, civil referendum and civil disobedience; it also demanded international standards or put quite simply being able to vote democratically.

In 1997 after one hundred and fifty years of British rule Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese government. It had thrived into a wealthy centre of commerce and although it didn’t enjoy full democracy, it had far more freedoms and democracy than the rest of China. As part of the hand over Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong to keep it’s high degree of autonomy and to preserve it’s social and economic systems for fifty years after the hand over, in a deal known as one country, two systems. A major part of the deal was that in 2017 Hong Kong citizens would be allowed to democratically elect their leader for the first time. The basic law in Hong Kong is a constitutional document enshrining the concepts of ‘one country, two system’, ‘a high degree of autonomy’ and ‘Hong Kong People administering Hong Kong’.

The Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is also commonly known as the Hong Kong government. The title of the leader changed from Governor of Hong Kong to Chief Executive and since the handover, the city of 7.1 million has picked its leader through an election committee comprising of executives, professional delegates, lawmakers and representatives to China’s political bodies.

July the 1st has been an annual day of protest since the hand over too but it wasn’t until July 2003 that the march drew public attention with 500,000 marchers protesting proposed amendments to a security law known as Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 and they called for Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa to stand down. The security law requires Hong Kong to enact laws of its own to prohibit acts including treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, and theft of state secrets. But the proposed legislation gave too much power to the police, such as not requiring a search warrant to search a home of a ‘suspected terrorist’. After public outcry and demonstrations, the government indefinitely shelved its drafted law. Mr Tung eventually resigned on 10 March 2005, three years into his second five-year term citing poor health.

In 2004 China controversially ruled there would be no universal suffrage in 2007 and 2008, further slowing the pace of political reform. It also ruled that it’s approval must be gained for any changes to Hong Kong election laws. In December 2007 Beijing said it would allow Hong Kong citizens to directly elect their own leader in 2017 and their own legislators by 2020.

On March 1st 2012 Chief Executive Donald Tsang near tears, apologised to the public after the city’s anti-corruption bureau Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), started an investigation four months before he retired. The long list of controversial activities Tsang was found to be embroiled in included attending Chinese New Year dinner activities in a casino in Macau together with powerful individuals from the gambling, loan shark and nightclub industries, boarding private jets and yachts, and renting an apartment in business hub Shenzhen for ridiculously low rent from a Hong Kong businessman with whom Tsang had an obvious conflict of interest.

Local TV channel TVB pinpointed the Hong Kong citizens feelings best : “Tsang’s corruption charges touched a nerve with Hong Kongers who have long held a clean government and society as their pride.” And former Chief Justice of the Court of Final Appeal, Andrew Li Kwok-nang, tellingly echoed, “a clean government has always been the core value of Hong Kong society for years.” The Tsang revelations only further fueled public resentment, as surging property prices and an influx of money from China widened the city’s income gap. 

His apology came just days after Henry Tang (Tsang’s former deputy), and front-runner to replace Tsang in the March 25 election, was embroiled in a scandal about a basement built on his wife’s property without government approval. The papers reported that it contained a wine-tasting room, gym and Japanese-style bath. He refused public calls to quit the leadership contest and was already backed by the Chinese government and the city’s richest men to run. “After Beijing, the business community has the largest say and they are opting for Henry Tang because he’s one of them,” said Joseph Cheng, a professor in political science at the City University of Hong Kong. In a poll done at the time, two-thirds of the people surveyed said Tang should quit as respondents questioned his integrity. Tang’s father is Tang Hsiang Chien, who was ranked the 40th-richest person in Hong Kong in 2010 by Forbes Magazine.

Leung chun-ying former convenor of the Executive Council (who’s mentor is the first Chief Executive Tung Chee-twa), defeated  Henry Tang and Democratic Party legislator Albert Ho and the fourth Chief Executive term began on 1 July 2012. Mr Leung staked his reputation on being able to tame Hong Kong’s inflated property market, Hong Kong is now the second most expensive city in the world being pipped recently by London. Rising property prices are making middle-class home owners multimillionaires, while their children, even with a good university degree can’t afford private housing without parental help. Mr Leung harbors a deep antipathy toward the British and the professional civil service, a legacy of colonialism. He adheres to the Maoist idea that a country is divided between the people and their enemies (interestingly  he was the youngest and first Chinese partner in a British property-surveyor firm in Hong Kong, and he studied nautical engineering in the UK).

Mak Chai-kwong, Mr Leung’s first Secretary of Development resigned when the anti-corruption police arrested him just 12 days after he was appointed. Mr Mak was found guilty by Hong Kong’s District Court of conspiring with an official in a housing allowances fraud worth HK$700,000 (US$90,300; £56,000). Hong Kong’s ICAC said Mr Mak and Tsang King-man, Assistant Director of the Highways Department, were accused of concealing financial interests in flats they rented from each other’s wives and had “conspired together to defraud the Hong Kong Government” between 1985 and 1990. Mr Mak ended up with a suspended sentence and Mr Tsang whom Mak has apologised to for involving him, could lose his pension. Barry Cheung Chun-yuen, Franklin Lam Fan-keung and Henry Ho Kin-chung also resigned from Mr Leung under clouds of controversy over conflict-of-interest claims too. In Mr Tung’s administration, two Cabinet secretaries also had to quit following damaging disclosures.

It’s also worth noting for Australian readers, that Mr Leung has advocated that young people should leave Hong Kong to find work in less-expensive countries.

It was reported in June this year that Mr Tung had denied a report that the former Chief Executive had told central government officials that universal suffrage would be bad for Hong Kong. Emily Lau Wai-hing, Chairwoman of the Democratic party said it would be even better if Mr Tung could take a further step and tell Hongkongers that he supported democracy. “I believe my source – who is from the business sector – is not kidding, but I respect (Tung’s clarification),” she said. “Tung has long been very politically conservative and it would only surprise a few if he really told Beijing something like this.”

Ms Lau also said she knew some other businessmen had reservations about universal suffrage, as they saw many countries had failed to address their many social problems despite implementing the ‘one man, one vote’. “I hope the city’s business sector will speak up to persuade Beijing to accept democracy,” she said.

Then in July this year the Chinese government published an unprecedented cabinet-level white paper on Hong Kong stating that it had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the Hong Kong government. China described Hong Kong as being plagued by “many wrong views” and tightly circumscribed the city’s ability to act independently. Hong Kong has “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership,” the paper said. But, it adds, “Loving the country is the basic political requirement for all of Hong Kong’s administrators.”

“As a unitary state, China’s central government has comprehensive jurisdiction over all local administrative regions, including the HKSAR “ and that “the high degree of autonomy of (Hong Kong) is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”

Chinese media such as the People’s Daily reminded that “patriotism to the country” should be important for Hong Kong’s residents. And that “Hong Kong can maintain prosperity and stability for a long time only when the policy of ‘one-country, two systems’ is fully understood and implemented.”

The Global Times’ Chinese edition warned that the central government would not allow chaos in Hong Kong and that it has “a lot of resources and leverage” to prevent such a situation taking place. “The oppositions in Hong Kong should understand and accept that Hong Kong is not an independent country. They should not think that they have the ability to turn Hong Kong into Ukraine or Thailand,” it said.

The Ming Pao daily said that the one-country two-system concept had become an empty shell and that Hong Kong was likely to turn into an ordinary Chinese city.

Hong Kong lawyers dressed in black and marched through the city to protest the wording in the white paper in which it said being patriotic and “loving the country” is a basic requirement for the city’s administrators, including lawyers.

Pro-Beijing newspapers, Chinese officials and Hong Kong business tycoons have strongly criticized the OCLP campaign, saying it could hurt the city’s standing as a financial center. The big four audit firms also joined the chorus, when they took out adverts in local Hong Kong newspapers on Friday warning that investors could leave the city if mass protests go ahead.

More than 780,000 votes were cast in the referendum and the vote was conducted mainly online but also had polling booths with voters required to give their identification number to prevent cheating. The poll was commissioned by the University of Hong Kong Public Opinion Programme (HKUPOP) to run a poll on three different proposals for the 2017 election – all involved allowing citizens to directly nominate candidates – to present to the Beijing government. It ran from the 20th to 29th of June 2014.

The two referendum questions were – For the CE Election in 2017, I support OCLP to submit this proposal to the Government: 1. Alliance for True Democracy Proposal, 2. People Power Proposal, 3. Students Proposal, or Abstention

And – If the government proposal cannot satisfy international standards allowing genuine choices by electors, the Legislative Council (LegCo) should veto it, my stance is: LegCo should veto, LegCo should not veto, or I abstain respectively.

The first motion with the three proposals garnered 91% reflecting strong public support for civil nomination. The second motion received 87.8% of the vote overwhelmingly believe that if the government proposal doesn’t meet international standards, allowing genuine choice by electors, the legislative council should veto it.

A student strike last Sunday has brought us to where we are at now. Police heavy handling of protestors with tear gas and pepper spray only served to spur non-protestors and non-supporters of OCLP into action. Even if it was a role of support by supplying resources, young men and women leaving work came to offer their support with water, food and such things as goggles. With protests continuing into Monday, banks, shops and offices have closed in protest areas, bus lines were suspended and civil servants sent home early. Coca-Cola transport workers went on strike in support of the protests, as did some social workers. More schools joined the class boycott that began last week and the government ordered schools in three districts to close for a second day on Tuesday. It also cancelled plans for the annual firework display to celebrate China’s national day holiday on Wednesday (today) for China’s Golden week. China’s Golden week is a seven day national holiday made up of three days of paid holiday with the surrounding weekends re-arranged so that Chinese companies can have seven continuous days off.

The demonstrators have been extremely orderly; with signs apologising for any inconvenience caused. On Sunday, protesters held their hands in the air each time ‘hands up, don’t shoot‘ as they confronted the police, conjuring up images of the Ferguson shooting in America. On Monday with tensions easing with police, they handed out fresh fruit and crackers, collected rubbish and even fanned passers-by to keep them cool.

Even so organisers and participants are aware that Hong Kong is politically conservative with concerns of financial instability in the financial hub. Retired civil servant Rose Ha, 58, said there was a clear generation gap. She had come to support the students, but few people of her age sympathised. She went on further to say “We are the odd ones out in our group. (The others) enjoy what they have and don’t want things to be chaotic,” she said. “Our friends, who are maybe rich or in power, just denounce the actions and think the students have been misled,” added her friend Ben Ho, 60. “People who are older lose touch with younger generations. They sit in restaurants and just criticise … They think in Hong Kong you can enjoy freedom and a peaceful life; why destroy it? What they ignore is that they are a privileged group and people are suffering from injustice and unfairness and the lack of opportunities.”

Juxtaposition those views with; “The first time I heard of this idea of protest I thought it didn’t make sense. I thought when you deal with the government it is best to be polite and negotiate,” said 31-year-old banker Keith Lee. “If it wasn’t for the tear gas, I wouldn’t have come. Now I will come every day.”

The festive spirit was not dampened on Tuesday night with Hong Kong’s symbolic umbrella proving to be practical once again when torrential down pour was met with songs and laughter and cheers when it had subsided. Demonstrators gave Mr Leung an ultimatum to come out and address the crowds before midnight on, threatening to occupy more government facilities, buildings and public roads if he failed to do so. Mr Leung refused to and said in a televised address that Beijing would not back down in the face of protests that it deems illegal and appealed for protestors to return home immediately. Pro-democracy demonstrators occupying the central business district responded with calls for Mr Leung to step down.

Protesters today at nearby street rallies turned their back on the ceremony marking the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, instead forming crosses with their hands and holding yellow ribbons as a symbol of democracy for Hong Kong. It is expected that the numbers of people protesting are to swell with most Hong Kong citizens having today and Thursday off as part of Golden week.

Mr Chan, has said that he believed the months that OCLP spent educating people (complete with a handbook on ‘civil disobedience’) in non-violent protest has been crucial in shaping events. Protesters have shown restraint even in the face of an unreasonable crackdown. “We can’t control it at the operational level, but the spiritual level, and I’m quite confident Hong Kong people have changed in their views of struggle and resistance,” he said.

This is evident with reports of no looting, property damage or graffiti, with a rare spot of graffiti reportedly being painted over by protesters. In Mongkok, where public buses and cars were forced to be abandoned after being stranded during protests, volunteers have kept watch around the clock to ensure they aren’t damaged. “Nowhere else in the world other than Hong Kong is there such a beautiful and peaceful demonstration,” said Tam Kwok-keung, 54. “There is no looting, no-one is threatening shop owners.”

As of Sunday afternoon there was a news blackout on the Hong Kong demonstrations in the rest of China. Beijing does not want its 1.3 billion citizens getting any ideas. Two years since coming into power as the head of the Communist Party, Xi Jinping has amassed unrivalled personal power and made it clear that it’s he who makes all the decisions that matter. This makes the situation even more unsettling but either which way they will have to make a statement that doesn’t lose them face with mainland China and internationally. Tiananmen square is never far from Hong Kong citizens minds with the general sentiment being that they need to honour the dead for Chinese folk that can’t and perhaps for Chinese young folk that will never know of that day.

In summary, Hong Kong is so similar to current political situations in not just Australia but around the world that it’s uncanny. If we listen to the words and the phrases that the ruling governments and media associates use we can read between the lines. The old political models are broken and the people are calling for reform, but will the elite listen?

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