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In Hong Kong, the cry for democracy grows louder

Beijing rattled by last week's rally and next year's 'Occupy' event

  • Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, Hong Kong
  • Hong Kong
  • July 8, 2013
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On July 1 as many as 430,000 people marched in Hong Kong in what was the largest pro-democracy protest since 2004. The turnout was closely monitored by Beijing and the incumbent Chief Executive of Hong Kong's Leung Chun-ying administration.

Ten years ago, the first such rally on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover by Britain to China took the Chinese leadership by surprise. It was concerned that the political situation may spiral out of control and was dissatisfied that the administration, led then by Tung Chee-hwa was not only unable to solve various economic and social issues, but had not reported on the problems.

Since then, Beijing has sent hundreds of agents to monitor the territory’s political scene. At the same time, it has invested heavily in building an apparatus to try and secure people’s support and maintain stability.

The Leung administration is well aware of its unpopularity. It has suffered as a result of divisions within the establishment that surfaced during what was a bitter chief executive election campaign between Leung and his rival Henry Tang last year; and has been tarnished by a series of scandals involving the chief executive himself and several of his key team members.

Not surprisingly, Leung was asked by journalists whether he would resign after the last rally. The same question was asked of Chief Executive Tung in 2004 after he had lost popular support as reflected by huge rallies on July 1, 2003, January 1, 2004 and July 1, 2004.

The pro-Beijing united front [whose function is to manage the Communist Party’s relations with individuals and groups] was nervous about this year’s demonstration. It scheduled its handover celebration activities in the afternoon instead of the morning, breaking a tradition dating back to the actual handover in 1997. It organized a concert, encouraged shops to launch sales starting at 2pm that day, and many other activities to try and keep protest numbers low.

Those efforts failed as the protesters managed an impressive turnout, despite heavy downpours brought by Typhoon Rumbia.

Beijing and the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR) government now have to contend with a serious challenge being posed by the proposed “Occupy Central” movement protest scheduled for July 1 next year, since some regarded this year’s rally as a rehearsal for it.  

The movement plans to block roads in Central, the financial district of Hong Kong, to demand universal adult suffrage.

Hong Kong people are angry and frustrated with significant economic problems: the widening gap between rich and poor, lack of upward social mobility opportunities for young people, and the fact that more and more families cannot afford accommodation.

Their anger has been exacerbated by what they say is collusion between the government and big business as well as corruption at the top, including within the hitherto much respected Independent Commission against Corruption. Its former head was accused of spending lavishly to entertain mainland officials.

People believe the root of all these problems is the lack of democracy. They want a chief executive who will put the interests of the people first instead of pandering to Beijing and the interests of the tycoons whose support is essential to help safeguard his position.

Arguments like “political reforms have to be gradual” and “democracy has to wait until conditions are ripe” are no longer acceptable to the people. They have clearly stated that they do not want to wait any longer.

The pro-democracy movement demands the democratic election of the chief executive by universal suffrage in 2017 and for all members of the legislature to be elected the same way in 2020.

Hong Kong people understand that the ultimate decision on democracy in the territory has to be made by the top Chinese leaders. They therefore argue that their demand for democracy is patriotic and is essential for political stability and the legitimacy of the HKSAR government.

If political reforms cannot satisfy the people, future chief executives have no legitimacy at all, and so are in no position to promote socio-economic reforms needed to satisfy the community, they say.

However, the signs are far from encouraging. The Leung administration continues to say it will initiate consultations on political reform when the time is right. However, people regard this as a lack of sincerity, unwillingness to listen to them and a delaying tactic.

Worse still, this implies that time is running out for serious and meaningful deliberation at community level in order to reach a consensus on political reform in time to call off the Occupy Central action.

Hong Kong people do not want to confront the Chinese authorities. While most desire democracy, many of them have not been willing to make sacrifices for it. However, the increasing support for the Occupy Central movement indicates that the community is now prepared to act to fight for their rights. 

Joseph Cheng Yu-shek is Chair Professor of Political Science of Department of Public and Social Administration at City University of Hong Kong.

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