Chris Yeung: Change must come

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The cauldron of discontent has boiled over and cannot be cooled down without real change. The new face of democracy is resolute and will not be deterred.

The contrast could not be more ironic. Inside the Tamar Park on September 28, a local pro-China group was holding a sparsely attended gala show to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Outside the adjacent Government Headquarters, Occupy Central leaders were staging a civil disobedience sit-in. The campaign kicked off earlier than planned after police clashed with students and demonstrators at the end of a five-day class strike spearheaded by the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism on September 26.

The students and the Occupy trio called on people to come out and speak up for their own destiny. Tens of thousands of people turned up on September 28, but were blocked from entering Tamar. Angry protesters later stopped vehicles and sat on a major section of the Harcourt Road and Connaught Road outside Tamar. The Occupy began in its real sense.

Electoral roadblocks installed by the NPC Standing Committee aimed to stop the pan-democrats they un-friend from contesting the 2017 chief executive election left even moderates in the pro-Beijing camp surprised and disappointed.

87 rounds of tear gas showered by riot police failed to dampen the anger of demonstrators – quite the opposite. Shortly after midnight, the Occupy spread to Mong Kok and Causeway Bay, two key tourist spots. Schools in Central and Wanchai were closed for one week starting from September 29. Secondary schools reopened on October 6, followed by primary schools the following day. At one point, more than 3,000 civil servants were given a day-off after protesters blocked the major entrance to their offices at Tamar. Fearful of the chaos in traffic and crowd management in the affected area, the Government cancelled the Chinese National Day fireworks.

Driven by sympathy for the students and anger over police’s handling of the protests on September 26 and 27, Hong Kong people have lent their support to students and vented their feelings of injustice over Beijing’s breach of its promise for democracy. They have vowed to hold their future in their hands. Occupy Central’s Benny Tai Yiu-ting told protesters on September 29: “Let the flowers of democracy bloom on every inch of land.”

Events since then could not be more dramatic and breathtaking. On two evenings, rumors ran wild that riot police would be deployed to break up protesters blocking the entrance of the Chief Executive’s Office. Street violence erupted in Mong Kok on October 3 and 4 after anti-Occupy people took the law into their hands to try to remove the blockades. They accused the police of failing to act on the unlawful activities.

The city was on fire. Hong Kong will never be the same.
The movement has been dubbed by Western media the “umbrella revolution” (only Apple Daily in Hong Kong used the same codename), named for the protesters’ defence against the police’s pepper spray (as well as sun and rain). There is no denying that the eruption of the civil disobedience protests can be partly attributed to serious government blunders in handling the protests. They include the excessive use of pepper spray, arrest of student leaders including Scholarism’s Joshua Wong, and the sealing of Tamar for public entry on September 28.

What the people want
More than 17 years after the return to the motherland, a new era of civic and political activism is ushered in by the flocks of people who have spontaneously turned up en masse at Admiralty, Central, Wan Chai, Causeway Bay and Mong Kok. They are adamant on rejecting the universal suffrage framework that the NPC Standing Committee dictated on August 31. Knowing the chance of Beijing reversing their decision may still be razor-thin, they chose not to remain silent, but to vigorously speak up anyway.

Their attitude towards the central government and sense of nationhood will be considerably different from that of the older generations of pro-democratic activists.

The sentiment of taking the future into your own hands (命運在我手) has been prevalent in the five-day student class boycotts. If the students’ aspirations have been echoed by people from different segments of the society, it is due to the depth of their anxiety about the erosion of the city’s unique core values as Beijing’s political and economic influence in the city grow stronger and stronger.
Cynics may argue that the Communist Party’s lack of appetite for true democracy is hardly surprising. But the electoral roadblocks installed by the NPC Standing Committee aimed to stop pan-democrats they un-friend from contesting the 2017 chief executive election left even moderates in the pro-Beijing camp, such as LegCo President Tsang Yok-sing, surprised and disappointed. Some moderates in the pan-democratic camp lament there is no more room for trying to find a deal acceptable to Beijing and the pan-democrats.

Worse, the paternalistic style of mainland officials in giving lectures to Hong Kong people on swallowing the vaguely-defined principle of “loving China, loving Hong Kong” and all-embracing notion of national security has proved to be counter-productive. With confidence in the “one country, two systems” policy and trust in the central government worn thin, the people demand a real say in choosing a leader whom they trust can defend their interests.

No trust
The growth of a feeling of distrust towards Beijing has been obvious. A regular poll conducted by the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion programme between September 4 and 11 found all trust and confidence indicators of the city have fallen to new lows. People’s latest net trust in the Hong Kong government and central government have plunged 12 and 14 percentage points respectively, representing record lows not seen since June 2003 and February 1997. Confidence in the future of Hong Kong and “one country, two systems” policy has dropped drastically. Compared with other age groups, people between 18 and 29 are less confident about the “one country, two systems” policy.

New face of democracy
In many senses, the Occupy movement is a student movement. The massive participation of students and role of student leaders have significantly shaped the movement. They have become, as commentator Joseph Lian has described, the “New Generation of Occupy.” Their attitude towards the central government and sense of nationhood will be considerably different from that of the older generations of pro-democratic activists.

Two solitudes
By the time this article goes to press, there are no indications of Beijing rethinking the political reform framework that lies at the heart of the political storm.

Make no mistake – Hong Kong’s people have no intention of electing a leader to lead the city towards independence. They want a leader who is not Beijing’s puppet and will speak up for their interests.

Admittedly, the possibility of Beijing reversing its reform decision looks slim. But the Occupy protest has sent a sharp reminder to Beijing that the possibility of a veto of the blueprint grows greater in the wake of OC. Even if political reform marches on in the same spot, the democratic movement will neither fade nor weaken. It may erupt in an even bigger scale in the city, making Hong Kong more difficult to govern and mainland-Hong Kong relations more strained.

Chris Yeung is a respected senior veteran journalist and editor in Hong Kong. His storied career includes having served as the Editor-at-Large at the South China Morning Post and more recently as the Deputy Chief Editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.