The mass protests on the streets of Hong Kong over the past few days have been inspiring. The protests started with university students holding class boycotts and then public lectures in central Hong Kong. These led to an occupation of Civic Square, a space – as its name suggests – which is supposed to be open to the public but that has recently been fortified with huge fences. After prevaricating, the leaders of the movement called Occupy Central, which had planned to occupy roads in the central business district on October 1st, decided to bring the date forward and essentially merge the movements.
On Sunday, the students were joined by tens of thousands of other Hongkongers, mostly, but not exclusively, young. The police blocked access to the main protest site. They expected that they could simply move in and arrest the core group, while everyone else drifted off home. This didn’t happen. They were frustrated by the sheer numbers of people who decided to break through the over stretched police lines and take possession of a series of key roads in the centre of the city, where many of them remain. The police surrounding the original protest essentially got surrounded themselves. They attempted to dislodge the protesters with pepper spray, tear gas and baton charges, but failed. The riot police were withdrawn this [Monday] morning, who knows for how long. Meanwhile, protests spread to other parts of the city, including Nathan Road in Mong Kok, Kowloon, one of the city’s main roads, and another major retail and business area, Causeway Bay.
While pictures of riot police using tear gas against thousands of protesters this weekend may have taken people in the rest of the world by surprise, in reality this situation has been in the making for a very long time.
The immediate touch-paper for the events has been the announcement by Beijing of the terms under which they intend the long awaited introduction of universal suffrage for the election of Chief Executive of Hong Kong to take place in 2017. The terms were even more restrictive than expected with only 2 or 3 candidates being selected by a narrowly-based nomination committee of 1200 people, stuffed with Beijing loyalists. It is clear that no candidate critical of Beijing will get on the ballot. More than half of the Hong Kong population believes that the plan should be vetoed by Hong Kong’s parliament as such an election would be about as democratic as North Korea.
What in many ways has made people even angrier is the farcical public consultation carried out by the HKSAR government earlier this year. 800,000 people voted overwhelmingly in a well-organised, although unofficial, referendum, that they wanted some form of public nomination of candidates. The government, however, reported to Beijing that Hong Kong public opinion was broadly supportive of there being a nominating committee and screening of candidates, which Beijing says is the only option under the Basic Law governing the relations between Hong Kong and Beijing.
This is not all: increasing attacks on journalists, including physical ones, and signs both of censorship and self-censorship of the media; threats to judicial independence; attempts to bring in anti-subversion laws and ‘patriotic’ education; and increasing corruption all have Hongkongers worried that Beijing is not waiting for 50 years after the handover to start cracking down on freedom of speech and the rule of law. Underlying all this is the fact that Hong Kong is the most unequal society in the developed world, a city where millions work very long hours for low wages and live in cramped, ludicrously expensive apartments, where there is a totally inadequate welfare system, especially for the elderly, while the government builds up huge budget surpluses year after year.
People believe, rightly, that Hong Kong is run by, and in the interests of, a massively wealthy oligarchy who have thrown in their lot with Beijing, who care only about maintaining and increasing their wealth, and who increasingly derive their profits from mainland China and from sweatshops all over Asia. These same people lecture the mass of Hongkongers about patriotism and advise them to shut up and accept what Beijing offers. It is no wonder they are angry.
There have been plenty of mass protests in the last few years, too, so coming out on the streets is nothing new. People succeeded in getting the local government to back off over Article 23 in 2003 (the subversion law) and over national education in 2012, which spawned the Scholarism school student movement so prominent in the latest protests. This is a much tougher fight. Although Beijing was behind both of the previous attempts, it was still the Hong Kong government ostensibly taking the decisions. This time, Beijing has spoken directly, and it will take a massive effort to get them to back down. Mass strikes could do it, but the unions are weak and divided, with the largest federation (the HKFTU) a pro-Beijing sham. Nevertheless, the Professional Teachers’ Union, which belongs to the pro-democracy HKCTU, has called a strike in protest at the police actions. Workers at a Coca Cola factory in one of the major new towns in the New Territories, Sha Tin, also voted to strike after an emergency meeting on Monday morning.
The leaders of Occupy Central are, unfortunately, a well-meaning but tactically inept lot: a collection of law professors, clergymen and the like, who have succeeded in creating divisions with the student leadership, which, while more intransigent, is quite inexperienced. There is a strong possibility the Occupy Central leaders, having imagined a nice, contained, civil disobedience action and instead finding themselves with street battles, will want to retreat, in a move they will justify as a re-grouping process.
Talking to people on the protests about the way forward, there seemed to be anger, but also a degree of fatalism – we can’t change Beijing’s mind, but we’re going to keep on protesting anyway, because we have to try to maintain the freedoms we already have. That it is a mass movement is undeniable. When a 23 year old veterinary assistant called Crystal turns up on the night of her birthday when she sees students being tear gassed, and there’s also a 91 year old woman who left the mainland decades ago, you know it’s a mass movement.
Sue Sparks for rs21.org.uk