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Beijing's distortions and Hong Kong's growing desire for change

Analysis: Recent protests have created a generational divide that could spell trouble for China's 'one country, two systems' model
Beijing's distortions and Hong Kong's growing desire for change

Commuters walk along a road occupied by pro-democracy protesters in the Admiralty district of Hong Kong on Friday (AFP Photo/Ed Jones)

Published: October 10, 2014 03:52 AM GMT
Updated: October 09, 2014 04:53 PM GMT

The cancellation of talks that were supposed to take place at 4pm today between Hong Kong’s number-two official Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and student protest leaders is likely to mean very little given that neither side would have been representing anything like a confirmed majority in this city of 7.2 million people.

Lam represents an administration tightly selected and controlled by Beijing, while the student movement is significant yet still very much a minority.

A poll by the Hong Kong Research Association this week found that 55 percent of people were against recent student protests and only 29 percent backed the Occupy Central movement that closed down business and government offices last week.

Friday's scheduled talks fell apart late on Thursday after the government pulled out and blamed student leaders for threatening to escalate demonstrations if their demands were not met. Now, the protesters are said to be planning a fresh 'show of force' Friday evening, according to an AFP report.

As the territory grapples with a political reform process that looks decidedly undemocratic ahead of 2017, one question remains obscured and largely unanswered: What do the majority of people in Hong Kong actually want?

Beijing has played up Tuesday’s poll results in state-run media this week. But as is typical for the mainland’s shackled media, they have selected, twisted and deliberately omitted the extent of what it tells us about current sentiments in Hong Kong.

For the most part little has changed. A poll conducted before the protests in mid-September by a separate surveyor, the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK), showed that fewer than one-third of people in Hong Kong supported Occupy four weeks ago.

What China’s mainland press failed to mentioned was that this week’s poll showed support for Occupy growing from 25 percent in July to 29 percent this month – during the protests – while the number of people who were undecided or had no opinion fell.

In other words, although still less than a third of people in Hong Kong support Occupy, more people are jumping off the fence among the now nearly non-existent group who don't care either way, most of whom seem to be backing Occupy. Then there is still that huge majority against Occupy – 68 percent, which was down slightly on the 69 percent tracked in July – including people like 40-something trading manager Connie Miao.

“They [the protesters] are now more powerful than the police. They want democracy but they are like God and we are the people under them,” she said. “The demonstrators have expressed their demands and the government also said that it heard their voice, so why force for an immediate change?”

The majority of those who, like Miao, oppose the recent protests also appear to support Beijing’s version of how things should work. But that doesn’t mean all people who are anti-protests back the Chinese government, its political reform package for 2017 or indeed China’s “one country, two systems” policy that gives the territory limited democratic decision-making powers.

Umbrellas originally employed by protesters to shield themselves from tear gas have become symbols the pro-democracy movement (Photo by ucanews.com)


In fact, quite the opposite. Last month’s CUHK survey found that nearly 54 percent of people thought Hong Kong’s legislature should veto Beijing’s 2017 political reform program if it bars candidates considered undesirable by the Communist Party. That’s exactly what it does at the moment – the territory’s electorate can vote for but not nominate candidates under the current proposal – and Beijing has shown no inclination to budge an inch.

That’s hardly surprising given the new measures would be the Chinese government’s main mechanism of control over selection of the Hong Kong executive – disguised as democracy, of course.

More worrying for Beijing was another survey on September 23 in which 56.3 percent of people in Hong Kong responded they have “no faith” in the “one country, two systems” model, the first time a poll has showed a majority of people against what is the cornerstone of China’s control over Hong Kong.

Conducted by the University of Hong Kong, the result represented a dramatic increase on the 46.9 percent of Hong Kong people with the same negative sentiment towards the Chinese government’s system just two months previously.

This change occurred during a period in which Beijing apparently began to scare a growing number of people in Hong Kong by showing its trademark inflexibility and unwillingness to listen as it maintained that the reform program would remain unchanged. In turn, this proved to be a key catalyst for recent protests.

The majority of people in Hong Kong are therefore apparently against Beijing’s reform proposal and China’s “one country, two systems” model, and also against demonstrations which paralyze the city and cause disruption to education, businesses, traffic and general order.

That means they are basically against all of the key dynamics happening in Hong Kong politics today, meaning the current situation bears little resemblance to what people actually feel and want – hardly surprising given the overall process is being controlled from Beijing.

In addition, most polls don’t include the very people who are now apparently in control of the anti-Beijing movement: students.

This week’s CUHK poll surveyed people over the age of 18 registered as such last year. That means it omitted almost everyone in the territory under 19 years old including protest leader Joshua Wong, 17, and other ordinary young people like Joyce Lau, a 14-year-old high school student who didn’t join the protesters because her parents disapproved.

“Occupy Central happens because people are very discontented with the government. They demand real universal suffrage. The future of Hong Kong belongs to our generation,” she said.

“We have to fight for democracy with our own hands. Even if we still have to follow the China-style universal suffrage election method in the end, we won’t feel regret because we have at least tried to fight for it.”

Stephen Wing-kai Chiu, a professor of sociology at CUHK, told ucanews.com that discussion has intensified, furthering democracy, but at the same time children are increasingly at political odds with their parents, or being told to stay away from street protests for their own safety.

“The one thing we know is that it is a very divisive issue. We’re talking about people of different generations – it also cuts across generations,” he said.

Chiu argues that what’s happening now in Hong Kong is much more complicated than a simple reaction to Beijing. People in the territory, after being part of a colony for so long, are looking to take control of their own identity. Also many young people here – as in other developed societies – are rejecting the materialistic attitudes enshrined by their parents in the name of things like democratic rights and the environment.

For Beijing, this creates the possibility of a troubling future: Are demographics working against support for the Chinese government in Hong Kong as the young become older and the old pass away?

“We may be looking at a large-scale shift in normative values in Hong Kong,” said Chiu. “There’s no way that you can turn back the clock.”

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