OPINION: Hong Kong's Spirit of Protest Alive and Kicking in 2018

OPINION: Hong Kong's Spirit of Protest Alive and Kicking in 2018
Credit: REUTERS/Bobby Yip

What you need to know

The reopening of Civic Square, a symbolic hub for Hong Kong's Occupy protests, served to galvanize protesters on the city's annual Jan. 1 protest march.

The lesson Hong Kong activists can take from this experience is that one word from Beijing is the best way to mobilize a Hong Kong crowd.

By the end of 2017, the political themes here were all doom and gloom. Democracy movement activists worried that they and the wider concerned public would not be able to absorb the accumulated blows suffered during the past year and survive with their determination intact. They worried about growing accustomed to defeat and losing the will to carry on. It’s one thing to keep saying “never give up” and something else again to pursue goals that remain forever beyond reach.

Preparations for what has become another of Hong Kong’s many protest traditions, the annual New Year’s Day march, were so low-key that observers predicted no one would bother to show up. The two most recent “causes” had generated little public interest. Pro-Beijing commentators had begun gloating that democrats were on a downward slide withno end in sight.

One of the causes was Beijing’s “co-location” plan. This aims to allow mainland immigration and security personnel to enforce mainland laws at the soon-to-be-completed Hong Kong terminus of China’s new high-speed line. The Co-location Concern Group, headed by Civic Party legislator Tanya Chan, had made few waves.

The other cause was the Legislative Council’s Rules of Procedure. Calls to come out and protest the elaborate maneuvers to curb democrats’ LegCo filibustering tactics were too little too late when democrats finally raised the alarm last December. Their effort to block the maneuvers inside the chamber was doomed to fail in any case because six pro-democracy legislators were absent: disqualified in the oath-taking saga. The few hundred protesters who gathered in the cold outside made little difference one way or the other. Civic Party legislator Alvin Yeung said in a Dec. 19 Apple Daily article that democrats failed in that struggle because their explanations and arguments were too weak and the public’s response too limited.

'Safeguard Hong Kong'

For New Year’s Day, organizers and police had anticipated so small a crowd that the designated starting point for the march was a narrow one-block-long side street in Causeway Bay, usually used for smaller rallies. Police require organizers to estimate the expected turnout in advance and preparations reflected the prevailing mood but surprises were in store all around.

If the public is thinking about giving up and dropping out, it hasn’t happened yet. The numbers were way above expectations. In recent years, organizers’ tendencies have leaned toward overestimating … to counteract the obviously underplayed official police underestimates. For this New Year’s Day march, police put the turnout at 6,000. Organizers’ 10,000 figure was probably an underestimate as well.

Organizers were as usual the Civil Human Rights Front, a protest coalition that first came together in preparation for the 2003 campaign against the government’s Article 23 national political security legislation. The slogans for this year’s “January First Safeguard Hong Kong” march, agreed to in advance by all the participating groups, were: “Oppose Co-location,” “Oppose the Legislative Council’s Amended Rules of Procedure,” “Oppose Political Repression,” “Oppose Social Injustice,” etc., etc.

Like last year, the march was also a fundraiser for Legislative Councilors disqualified (DQ) in the oath-taking saga. It had begun in October 2016 and remains ongoing. The appeals process means court costs and legal fees, plus LegCo’s demand for the return of salaries and expenses. Toward those ends, marchers contributed HK$370,000 (US$47293) to the Justice Defence Fund. DQ legislator Teacher Lau Siu-lai was on hand with a collection box. So was “Long Hair’ Leung Kwok-hung. They took in HK$120,000 and HK$260,000, respectively. Joshua Wong and friends, collecting for their new Demosisto political party took HK$220,000, according to a Jan. 3 Ming Pao report .

Still, the medley of protest slogans and causes did little to explain the sudden surge of public interest in issues that had seemed to be falling by the wayside … except for two official events that sharpened the focus by making headlines just days before January First. One set of headlines added an incentive, the other served as a provocation.

Civic Square

Reopening Civic Square provided the incentive … evoking memories of a more hopeful time. But after the hope receded, that time also marked a turning point in the history of Hong Kong’s democracy movement and in Beijing’s perception of the challenges it faces here.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam had promised to reopen the square, formally known as the East Wing Forecourt, which she ordered closed off in 2014. She was then Chief Secretary or Number Two in the Hong Kong government and tensions were rising over electoral reform among other things.

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
Hong Kong's Civic Square in 2010.

The square is actually a paved circular driveway with flagpoles in the center, located at the Tin Mei Avenue entrance to Hong Kong’s central government office building … just adjacent to the Legislative Council complex. Both had become magnets for protest rallies of all kinds. Before its closure small gatherings were allowed in the circle during off-hours, giving rise to the popular “Civic Square” name.

It was the attempt by the three “sparks” … Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, and Alex Chow … to storm the locked gate on the night of Sept. 26, 2014, that precipitated the 79-day Occupy street blockades. The occupation began two days later when police teargassed the crowds that had been gathering spontaneously at the gate to demonstrate support for the three who had been arrested during the altercation. As news of the teargassing spread, thousands more rushed out “to protect our students.”

Each year since then rallies have been held outside the locked Tin Mei Avenue gate to commemorate the day and the precise hour when the crowds were teargassed on Sept. 28, 2014, and Occupy began.

Carrie Lam kept her promise and on Dec. 28 reopened the square, albeit under strict conditions: open to the public for rallies only on Sundays and public holidays, only with official permission, and no over-night camp-outs.

Organizers negotiated permission to use the square as the final destination for the New Year’s Day march with a rally afterward … turning the event into a nostalgic reference point for the events of 2014. Young supporters of the three “sparks” set up a stall near the gate and handed out leaflets in support of their most recent cause: explaining and decrying Hong Kong’s new “political prisoner” category of public offenders. The new category came into use after the three: Wong, Law, and Chow, were re-sentenced last summer, following an earlier trial, and given prison terms for their attempt to storm the gate.

A word from on high

The message came from Beijing: “One Word Carries the Weight of Nine Sacred Tripods” (一言九鼎). This is a common four-character phrase inherited from ancient times. Today it just means something like “words of great importance.” But the tripod was an ancient heavy-metal cooking vessel that evolved into a symbol of imperial power and authority.

Given the context, the phrase instantly evoked old connotations and associations with several Chinese-language newspapers headlining it in their Dec. 28 editions (Wen Wei Po, Apple, HK Economic Journal). It was a direct quote from Li Fei, the stern-faced official most frequently tasked with explaining Beijing’s unwelcome decisions on matters related to Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution.

The context was the Dec. 27 National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) decision formally approving the high-speed rail co-location arrangement whereby mainland officials will be enforcing mainland laws on Hong Kong soil. The plan had not become a subject of widespread public concern but the same could not be said for members of Hong Kong’s legal community. Arguments pro and con had flared suddenly into a major debate ahead of the coming Bar Association’s leadership election.

The net result of the arguments to date is that no article or phrase in Hong Kong’s post-1997 Basic Law constitution can be used to authorize any such arrangement. In fact, it directly contradicts Article 18, which promises that “national laws shall not be applied in Hong Kong.” Still, had Beijing’s pronouncements been less imperious, they might have produced less controversy. But the widely-reported barristers’ debate had focused attention and Beijing’s pronouncements activated it.

Officials dismissed concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy and said the NPCSC approval meant the co-location plan has been approved by the highest constitutional authority, whatever Hong Kong’s Basic Law might say. At a Beijing press conference called to explain, Li Fei said that when the NPCSC issues such a decision on matters related to the implementation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the decision has constitutional force and cannot be challenged. It is of major importance, or in his words, carries the weight of nine tripods (Wen Wei Po, Dec. 28).

He said the arrangement does not violate Article 18 of the Basic Law because co-location will only bring mainland law into the rail terminus but not into all of Hong Kong itself. Nor does the arrangement violate the principle of Hong Kong’s autonomy. If Hong Kongers feel uneasy about using the new border control arrangements inside the city, they can cross the border in the old way. They can still exercise their autonomy by choosing not to use the new Kowloon West terminal.

Hong Kong’s own Basic Law authorities weighed in with equally provocative statements. Hong Kong’s first post-1997 Secretary for Justice Elsie Leung said the Chinese constitution authorizes the NPCSC to supervise decisions made by the central government’s State Council cabinet and the State Council had approved the co-location plan. The Chinese constitution thus gave the NPCSC ultimate power and since Hong Kong’s Basic Law derived its authority from the Chinese constitution, therefore the NPCSC had the authority to issue its decision! She surmised that the critical Hong Kong barristers had insufficient understanding of China’s constitution, which accounted for their failure to grasp so fundamental a point of mainland constitutional logic, as was widely reported in Hong Kong newspapers.

Basic Law authority Maria Tam said in a Dec. 31 South China Morning Post article that the NPCSC decision is one made by the national legislature. It is therefore equivalent to a national law and so cannot be challenged in Hong Kong by its courts. Since the NPCSC decision has the force of national law, therefore the possibility of amending the Basic law to accommodate the plan, as suggested by some legal critics, does not exist.

As usual, however, Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s comments were widest off the political mark. She said there was no need to worry about slippery slopes and setting a precedent for future mainland interventions because anything negative should not be repeated and this was a good thing for Hong Kong. She also spoke out to denounce critical barristers as “elitists.” She said their critical reading of Beijing’s co-location plan showed they held Hong Kong’s Basic Law in higher regard than the national constitution. She said such attitudes were actually undermining Hong Kong’s autonomy.

They all said it’s wrong to conclude that Hong Kong’s much-valued “rule of Law” is actually whatever Beijing leaders decide it to be. The complex mainland legislative process that had taken Beijing legal authorities months to work out is the guarantee of its legality, And there is one final test to be passed. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council must sign off on the deal … which should not be too difficult considering the composition of the council and its updated Rules of Procedure.

The lesson Hong Kong activists can take from this experience is that one word from Beijing is the best way to mobilize a Hong Kong crowd. The political group People Power moved the fastest. By marching time on Jan. 1 they were ready with posters and a mocking play on the word tripod ding (), which sounds the same as the word for top (顶). Their placards used the images not of nine weighty tripods but headshots of 19 top political leaders, mainlanders and locals, who had all spoken out as with “one voice,” all with the same message lauding Beijing’s co-location plan: 【一言十九顶 】.

Included among the 19: Xi Jinping and Li Fei, plus Carrie Lam, Elsie Leung, and Maria Tam, Hong Kong’s former Chief Executives Tung Chee-hwa and CY Leung, and ex-Civic Party member Ronny Tong now ranked among the pro-Beijing pro-establishment elite.

The News Lens has been authorized to republish this article. The piece was first published by Suzanne Pepper here.