Hong Kong: Before and After Occupy

Hong Kong: Before and After Occupy
Photo Credit : REUTERS/達志影像

There could hardly be a clearer contrast between political thinking before and after the political storm that began here in early 2013. It blew up over questions about Hong Kong’s first Chief Executive election by universal suffrage; then proceeded through a 79-day street occupation protest in 2014, following Beijing’s hardline ultimatum issued on August 31, 2014; and culminated last June when Hong Kong’s Legislative Council rejected the 8.31 formula mandated by Beijing.

The contrast was provided by two Hong Kong academics at another of the University of Hong Kong’s law school forums on Hong Kong’s political future. The topic of the April 14 dialogue was unimaginative to say the least. Yet another academic discussion on “one country, two-systems” … except that the political implications were far from academic.*  They reinforce the conclusion that Beijing needs to give its Hong Kong policy a serious re-think (April 12 post).

The speakers were HKU law school Professor Albert Chen Hung-yee (陳弘毅) and Dr. Brian Fong Chi-hang (方志恒) from the Hong Kong Institute of Education. Professor Benny Tai (戴耀廷), HKU law school, moderated. The occupation protest movement was originally Tai’s idea, although it developed into something rather different than he intended.

Professor Chen was appointed by Beijing in 1997 to serve as a member of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Basic Law Committee, which is under the National People’s Congress Standing Committee. The BLC renders politically correct opinions on questions related to Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution. Chen is known for his precise legalistic explanations that reflect official Beijing thinking.

Chen’s words last week were as carefully-chosen as ever. But they seemed more stilted than usual, probably because of audience expectations. It seemed as though he was presenting the familiar Basic Law formulas to an audience that had already moved on … no longer hanging on every word in an effort to deduce Beijing’s hidden intentions. Perhaps because his listeners were satisfied that they finally understood and were searching for fresh solutions, which he failed to provide.

A Pre-Occupy Perspective

Professor Chen began with a brief overview. Before the return to Chinese sovereignty, everyone had been worried about the economy and human rights, and whether Beijing would keep its promise about no changes after 1997. Beijing had “more or less” kept that promise, he said. At least pre-1997 concerns had not intensified.

But new challenges had appeared and the biggest was over constitutional reform … meaning the promises Beijing had made about allowing universal suffrage elections for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council. This proved more difficult than anticipated. In 2004, Beijing revised its earlier promises about introducing universal suffrage. The changes, known as a Basic Law interpretation, added a new five-step procedure whereby Beijing must first give permission for any electoral reform proposal that Hong Kong might want to introduce.

Answering questions as the discussion developed, he said such electoral reforms were intended to be gradual. After all, there hadn’t been any elections in colonial Hong Kong until the 1980s. Democratic campaigners in those days had asked for a mechanism to be written into the Basic Law whereby such elections … similar to those in Western political systems … could be introduced. That’s how the promises came to be included in the Basic Law.

But there were also conservative views, so the Basic Law was written to specify gradualism … elections must be introduced gradually. And this has been done … by adding a few more directly-elected seats to the Legislative Council and more indirectly-elected members to the Election Committee (that endorses Beijing’s approved candidates for Chief Executive). Thus Beijing is pursuing the Basic Law’s promises on electoral reform in a gradual manner.

As for the recent storm over how to elect Chief Executives, while the Basic Law was being drafted in the 1980s, China’s then paramount leader Deng Xiaoping had said that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive must be “patriotic,” meaning an unqualified loyalist. So that was always Beijing’s intention, said Chen, not something just dreamed up later to confound the 2013-15 electoral reform debate.

Deng Xiaoping had said other things as well. But Chen did not try to reconcile the contradictions.

If a confrontational candidate were to be elected, that would create a “constitutional crisis,” Chen explained, echoing Beijing’s oft-repeated explanation for its restrictive August 31, 2014 mandate (8.31). Such a leader might transform HK into an independent entity.

The 8.31 directive had shocked democracy campaigners due to its hardline interpretation of what a universal suffrage election should look like now and forever more. But there seemed to be no way of resolving the contradiction. It must be either 8.31 or nothing because Beijing saw 8.31 as its only safeguard against Hong Kong’s becoming independent as Beijing defines the term.

The directive meant that voters would essentially be rubber-stamping, via one-person one-vote, Beijing’s choices since only Beijing-approved candidates could contest the election, they had to be patriotic in Beijing’s sense of the term, and the old unreformed Election Committee would first have to nominate them!

Professor Chen’s narrative seemed frozen in time. The perspective was identical to recitations dating back to 1991 when the Basic Law was promulgated. And that’s all the Hong Kong public has had to work with by way of explanations, as it proceeded through several so-called consultation exercises. Interested citizens were asked what kind of reforms they favored and took the assignment in good faith, only to be told afterward that only Beijing’s ideas would do.

Even now, no one speaking for Beijing has explained what definitions Beijing is using and where it expects this to end. The mainland people’s congress system is formed via direct and indirect elections all up and down the line from grassroots levels right up to the National People’s Congress … all managed by the communist party at every level.

In 1998, when a separate Hong Kong delegation joined the National People’s Congress for the first time, reference materials explained that since Hong Kong could not “yet” join the NPC system, Hong Kong’s delegates would have to be selected in a different manner than others. What did Beijing have in mind? For Hong Kong eventually to be integrated into the NPC system, perhaps? If so, there has been no such public clarifications here.

When the 50-year guarantee for one-country, two-systems expires in 2047, what is Beijing planning to do? Renew the promise for another 50 years? Under what conditions? And has Beijing ever really thought about them … except perhaps to assume that once all its cross-border economic, social, cultural, educational, and infrastructure plans and projects had been completed, renewal of the one-country, two-systems contract would be a forgotten issue?  Maybe officials just assumed renewal would not be necessary because the Hong Kong public would already have adapted to mainland-style political ways and cultural norms.

Professor Chen is certainly aware of the changed popular perceptions because the other presentation and questions from the floor all derived from Hong Kong’s new post-Occupy political mood. But he did not directly address its concerns. Definitions were absent. Beijing’s thinking about 2047 was not mentioned.

He did say he thought the one-country, two-systems arrangement would remain the best option after 2047. But he offered no hint as to what he meant by two-systems or what he thought the “Hong Kong system” might look like by then. Would it be an “autonomous” system such as Tibet and Xinjiang have, a formalistic arrangement in recognition of historical and ethnic differences, but not autonomous in terms of who governs and how? Would the two-systems of 2047 preserve the rights and freedoms that Hong Kongers are so fearful of losing? Professor Chen didn’t say.

The Post-Occupy Present

Benny Tai tried to soften the narrative with memories of times past. Tai recalled that before 1997, there was no great sense of commitment to colonial Hong Kong. As the saying went in those days … it was a borrowed place living on borrowed time. People with means looked forward to retirement elsewhere. Before 1997, fears were all about preserving what Hong Kong had then, by comparison with the prospect of an immediate mainland take-over.

Now people here are settled, they regard Hong Kong as their home, and want to plan for its future. They want to build a democratic self-governing community and those aspirations have penetrated deeply into society. But Beijing’s decisions keep decreeing otherwise.

Fong’s memories were more specific. He blamed Beijing for the rising tension because officials had created one impression before 1997 and were now doing something else. They had created the expectations that were now being destroyed.

He mentioned the well-known statements by a then leading Beijing official, Lu Ping, who had said in the early 1990s that there was no need to worry about Beijing interfering with Hong Kong’s post-1997 Legislative Council reforms. That would be a matter for Hong Kong alone to decide. There would be no need to consult Beijing, he had said.

To which Fong replied: Hong Kong people want genuine autonomy of the sort Lu Ping indicated. That’s what people here thought they were going to get. But consider the difference. The new five-step procedure, decreed by Beijing in 2004, negates Lu Ping’s promise. And for sure no need to consult them because Beijing officials from its local liaison office, new since Lu Ping’s day, are always out and about sounding off on Hong Kong affairs.

Still, it was Beijing’s 8.31 decision that probably had the greatest impact. Previously, campaigners had always wanted to work for one-person, one-vote universal suffrage within the framework of the Basic Law.

Afterwards, he is among those who have come to the conclusion that working within the Basic Law is impossible. There is no hope or scope there. So now people are beginning to think: if not within the Basic Law, then without it.

He suggested some possibilities, the sort of ideas many like him are now discussing. The Basic Law needs to be amended or maybe ignored altogether. Or maybe Hong Kong itself should re-write the Basic Law since Hong Kongers had little input when it was originally drafted in the 1980s. Direction came mainly from London and Beijing. So now they might draft their own version to define what kind of a relationship they want with Beijing, and design their own version of “one-country, two-systems."

Hong Kong has become a distinct political community and needs to think how best to protect its own interests. Because more and more people are determined to struggle for genuine autonomy of the sort they thought the Basic Law originally guaranteed: for a self-governing community in all respects except military and foreign affairs.

But how best to do that? Everything now is said to be related to everything else, which all converges on Beijing’s “national security.” Education is about national identity; economic development is about economic security; Chief Executive candidates must be screened by Beijing to keep Hong Kong from becoming an independent entity.

Fong emphasized that this is no longer just about universal suffrage and whether or not Hong Kong should be allowed to hold elections based on international standards. That had been Benny Tai’s initial goal when he began organizing his Occupy Central project in 2013.

The turning point may have been Beijing’s 8.31 decision on Hong Kong’s Chief Executive election, but people are now thinking beyond universal suffrage to a range of Hong Kong interests … economic, social, cultural, plus political. All must be protected if its local identity is to be maintained.

Fong said some people accuse him of advocating independence. That’s what Beijing thinks of such ideas. But he says he doesn’t care what Beijing thinks. He only cares what the people of Hong Kong think.

In fact, from Beijing’s perspective, Brian Fong is talking treason. His views are all the more striking because of where he began … as a moderate’s moderate. Fong was a member of the Alliance for Universal Suffrage brain trust that stood behind Albert Ho’s controversial 2010 compromise decision on a minor Legislative Council reform measure. They said later they thought the 2010 compromise … that caused Albert Ho and the Democratic Party so much grief … would set a precedent for future accommodations with Beijing.

Again, in 2014, Brian Fong was among the “group of 18” moderate academics and professionals who drew up a reform proposal of their own during the public consultation on Chief Executive election methods. The 18 respected Beijing’s aversion to the popular public nomination idea that by then had already become the favorite of Occupy activists who were in the preparatory stages of their street protest agitation. Fong’s group suggested a tentative form of public recommendation (April 1, 2014 post).

But these good intentions came to nothing, although no one realized they would all be totally ignored until Beijing issued its tough August 31, 2014 ultimatum. Beijing had rejected everyone’s proposals across the board whether radical or moderate.

During his presentation Fong said, in effect, that for him Beijing’s 8.31 ultimatum was the last straw. As a result of all his abortive efforts, he had concluded that genuine democratic reform was not going to be possible within the framework of the Basic Law. The only alternative, therefore, is to seek solutions elsewhere. **

Benny Tai concluded the discussion by saying that after the Legislative Council election this September, the next big campaign cause will be Hong Kong’s struggle for self-determination.

*The account here is based on my notes, with some elaborations, and is not a verbatim record of what was said. For that, consult the original.

**Brian Fong has been developing his ideas in numerous articles, including his regular columns that appear in the Chinese-language newspaper Ming Pao.  He and his friends spent last summer, 2015, working on a volume of essays, which they published in the fall: Brian Fong Chi-hang(方志恒), ed. 香港革新論 (On Reforming Hong Kong), Taipei, 2015.

First Editor: Edward White
Second Editor: Olivia Yang

The News Lens has been authorized to repost this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper on her blog.