[Marxism] Hong Kong v. Beijing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 12 06:26:41 MDT 2019

LRB, Vol. 41 No. 16 · 15 August 2019
Hong Kong v. Beijing
by Chaohua Wang

It has been a hot summer in Hong Kong, in every sense. Massive protest 
rallies have rocked the city since June; on two occasions they have 
involved more than a million people – out of a total population of 7.4 
million. The protests have taken on a weekly rhythm, as those of the 
gilets jaunes did in France earlier this year, stirring up every 
Saturday or Sunday, spreading into the outer reaches of the territory. 
The face-off between protesters and police has become more and more 
confrontational as the weeks have passed, and protest events have been 
planned for every weekend in August and on into September. After that, 
there will be elections for the district councils, and, next year, for 
the city’s Legislative Council. If there is to be a showdown between 
political forces – the protesters, the government of the Hong Kong 
Special Administrative Region (HKSAR), the central government’s liaison 
office in Hong Kong, and the party bosses in Beijing – what form will it 
take? Will it resemble the violent confrontation of Tiananmen in 1989, 
or will it be an electoral battle?

This summer’s protests were triggered by a government-sponsored bill to 
amend Hong Kong’s extradition law. But when I met some of the leading 
figures in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement in Taiwan at the end of 
May, they told me that the bill was just one of several urgent issues. 
None of them anticipated that a new, spectacular phase of Hong Kong’s 
struggle for democracy was about to unfold.

We met at an international conference commemorating the thirtieth 
anniversary of the Tiananmen protest. Ten years ago, I received an 
invitation to a similar conference, to be held in Hong Kong. I told the 
organiser that the Hong Kong authorities were unlikely to welcome a 
former Tiananmen activist blacklisted by Beijing, even if I now had a US 
passport: I said he had better check with the border control agency. He 
got back to me a few days later, having discovered what I knew already. 
This year, in an effort to make the event worthy of its title – ‘Value 
Renewal and Pathfinding for China’s Pro-Democracy Movement’ – it was 
decided to hold the conference somewhere beyond the reach of Beijing. 
Taiwan was the obvious location, not least because the notion of ‘one 
country, two systems’ – which holds that regions within China can retain 
their own distinctive economic systems – was initially aimed at Taiwan 
in the early 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, and reiterated by President Xi 
Jinping in his Taiwan policy speech earlier this year.

Two of the attendees at the conference were former chairpersons of Hong 
Kong’s Democratic Party: Albert Ho Chun-yan, who offered legal aid to 
Edward Snowden when he was hiding out in Hong Kong in 2013; and Emily 
Lau Wai-hing, who in 1991 became the first woman to be elected to Hong 
Kong’s Legislative Council. They urged Taiwan not to trust Beijing’s 
promises, but their real worry was Hong Kong, where the political 
situation has clearly undergone a decisive change since late 2014, when 
the protesters of the Umbrella Movement occupied public spaces and 
streets outside the HKSAR government offices for 79 days.

The Umbrella Movement emerged during a dispute over arrangements for the 
election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. As far as Xi Jinping, who came 
to power in 2012, was concerned, this was unfinished business. People in 
Hong Kong didn’t realise at the time what Xi had in mind for them. They 
assumed the plan was still to honour the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s 
constitution, promulgated in 1990, according to which the ‘ultimate aim’ 
is that the CE will be elected by ‘universal suffrage’, ‘in the light of 
the actual situation’ in Hong Kong following a period of ‘gradual and 
orderly progress’. The same language is used about elections to the 
Legislative Council. In the annexes of the Basic Law concerning methods 
of election, the year 2007 is mentioned as a possible deadline for 
procedural changes, marking the end of the transitional phase following 
the handover of power from Britain to China.

The main political parties, pro-Beijing and pro-democracy, all agreed 
that universal suffrage should be used in the election of the CE in 2007 
and the legislature in 2008, but this didn’t happen. Alarmed by a surge 
in political protests in 2003, the Standing Committee of the National 
People’s Congress (NPCSC), supposedly China’s supreme constitutional 
authority, issued an interpretation of the Basic Law which stipulated 
that Hong Kong would require Beijing’s approval before it attempted to 
amend the electoral system. Any proposed amendments must be approved by 
a two-thirds majority in the legislature. Subsequently, a conservative 
proposal put forward by the Hong Kong government was defeated in the 
legislature by pro-democracy members, who demanded the introduction of 
universal suffrage in 2007 – or, at least, a road map and timetable for 
achieving it.

No progress was made over the next few years, during which there were 
splits in the democratic camp. To allay public frustration, both Hu 
Jintao, China’s president at the time, and Donald Tsang, the CE, 
promised further reforms. An NPCSC decision reached at the end of 2007 
explicitly stated that although there would be only minor modifications 
for the double election of 2012 – of both CE and legislature – 
‘universal suffrage’ would come into force for the 2017 CE election, and 
would then be extended to the Legislative Council. Accepting this as the 
road map, the Democratic Party, Hong Kong’s largest political party, 
decided to negotiate with the Hong Kong government and Beijing over a 
proposal for reforms to the procedures for the 2012 elections.

But by this point new factors were affecting Hong Kong’s politics. The 
most significant was the rise of China, which made itself felt more 
forcefully after 2008, the year of the Beijing Olympics and the global 
financial crisis. In 2009, the sixtieth anniversary of the PRC, Chan 
Koonchung, a Hong Kong novelist and cultural critic living in Beijing, 
published a dystopian tale, The Fat Years, about a rising China under 
ironclad one-party rule. By 2012, Chan was arguing with 
pro-establishment Chinese intellectuals about their latest theory, 
according to which ‘one country, two systems’ wasn’t designed merely for 
Hong Kong but would bring about the wholesale rejuvenation of Chinese 
civilisation. This thinking connects Beijing’s rule to the concept of 
tianxia, or ‘all under heaven’, an idea drawn from classical 
Confucianism, in which the periphery subordinates itself to the 
authority of the sovereign centre, while the centre assumes 
responsibility for the periphery’s security and development. In that 
same year, Xi Jinping came to power. He was impatient with anyone who 
didn’t want to acknowledge the Communist Party’s absolute authority. The 
new thinking on Hong Kong, if subsequent developments are any 
indication, was readily espoused by Beijing. Meanwhile, in the summer of 
2012, before Xi’s inauguration, Joshua Wong, a Hong Kong teenager, began 
a campaign against a proposed ‘moral and national education’ programme, 
and organised a rally attended by more than a hundred thousand people. 
The radical activism of Wong and his comrades announced the arrival of 
the younger generation as a formidable new force in Hong Kong’s politics.

As the dust settled after the 2012 elections, anxiety and frustration 
grew in Hong Kong over the lack of progress towards real democracy. 
Would Beijing renege on its promises again? Early in 2013, taking 
inspiration from the Occupy movement, Benny Tai Yui-ting, a law 
professor at the University of Hong Kong, floated the idea of ‘Occupy 
Central’ as a way to speed up democratisation. He was joined by Chan 
Kin-man, a sociology professor, and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming. Since 2005, 
pro-democracy activists had organised mock referendums to demonstrate 
that the Hong Kong public was ready for participatory politics. They 
believed that the ‘gradual and orderly progress’ towards universal 
suffrage was being delayed on the basis of the phrase in the Basic Law 
that said amendments would be made ‘in light of the actual situation’ in 
Hong Kong.

Occupy Central tried similar tactics in June 2014. In previous years, 
Beijing had attacked such efforts for their lack of credibility or – 
when the legislators collectively resigned in order to trigger an 
election – for wasting taxpayers’ money. In 2014, however, Beijing 
turned up the aggression. The State Council in Beijing issued a white 
paper explicitly stating that in China’s institutional design for Hong 
Kong the ‘two systems’ must be subordinated to the ‘one country’, and 
that the CE must both ‘love the country’ and ‘love Hong Kong’. The 
method of electing both the CE and the legislature must safeguard ‘the 
security and interest of the state’ against foreign interference. On the 
last day of August 2014, the NPCSC published its decision – known as the 
‘8.31’ decision – on the election of the 2016 legislature and 2017 CE. 
Technically, Beijing agreed to allow ‘one person, one vote’ in the CE 
election. But in reality it had shifted the focus to the issue of who 
should be allowed to stand. There would be no more than two or three 
candidates, and the bar for nomination would be very high. Candidates 
would be chosen by a committee sure to be pro-Beijing and pro-business.

Both the white paper and the 8.31 decision were decisive in the 
emergence of the Umbrella Movement in late September 2014. Together, the 
two documents signified, first, that Beijing had once again broken its 
promise to bring universal suffrage to Hong Kong. Second, that by 
granting a narrowly defined ‘universal suffrage’ while imposing severe 
limits on the selection of candidates, Beijing was closing the door to 
further electoral reforms. And third, that Beijing had surreptitiously 
changed the criteria for evaluating the ‘actual situation’ in Hong Kong. 
By emphasising ‘one country’ over ‘two systems’, the two documents 
interpret Hong Kong’s ‘actual situation’ as a matter not of how ready 
Hong Kong’s people are to act as politically capable citizens, or how 
willing they are to participate in public life, but how ready they are 
to follow Beijing’s orders. From now on, there would be no rules or 
principles to follow, no process of argument or reason to rely on. 
Instead, there would be the game of trying to interpret the signs made 
by Beijing officials. This is the new understanding that is at the root 
of today’s protests. In 2014, however, many were not yet fully aware of 
this new normal.

The Umbrella Movement was started by students like Wong. The Occupy 
Central trio soon joined, and their 79-day action lasted until 
mid-December 2014, when police removed the last protesters one by one. 
The occupation cost the protesters dear. One of the leading 
organisations behind the movement, Hong Kong’s city-wide college student 
union, was plagued by disputes over tactics and strategy, and saw public 
support dwindle. Several student union branches withdrew their 
membership. Young ‘radicals’ started talking of the Umbrella Movement as 
a ‘failure’. This may be too harsh a verdict. In the face of pressure 
from Beijing, several new organisations emerged, led by young people 
advocating self-determination or outright independence for Hong Kong. 
These groups launched a campaign aimed at ‘reclaiming’ (guangfu) local 
places. Young people who’d been involved in the Umbrella Movement began 
to connect social welfare issues and disputes over development projects 
to overall political reform. They also turned their attention to the 
district council elections in 2015, and a legislative council 
by-election and general election, both in 2016. Feeling the pressure, 
all the parties nominated younger candidates for the legislative 
election; 26 of the seventy Legislative Council members elected were 
first-timers. The pro-democracy camp gained seats in constituencies 
where elections were by popular vote.

The authorities were alarmed by the new trend. CY Leung, the Hong Kong 
CE at the time, put a set of new measures in place. For the first time, 
candidates were asked to pledge their loyalty to the Basic Law’s 
provisions concerning Hong Kong’s subordinate relation to the PRC and 
the central government. For the first time, six pro-independence 
candidates were disqualified by the election authorities because of 
their political opinions. One of the six, Edward Leung Tin-kei, caused 
the government particular alarm. He won 15 per cent of the votes in the 
2016 legislative by-election, and a year later, was charged with 
‘rioting’ after helping local food vendors resist police removal orders. 
He is now serving a six-year prison term. His slogan, ‘Reclaim Hong 
Kong, the revolution of our time’ (guangfu Xianggang, shidai geming) 
reappeared on the streets this summer.

Similar methods have also been deployed against people with 
comparatively mild political positions. A group of 13 protesters against 
a government-sponsored development project in the north-east of the New 
Territory stormed the legislative building in June 2014. They were 
charged in 2016 with assaulting the police and sentenced to between 80 
and 150 hours of community service. The government appealed and secured 
prison terms, before Hong Kong’s supreme court overturned the decision 
in 2018. The case turned on whether or not the defendants’ intentions – 
to act in the cause of social justice – should be taken into account. 
Joshua Wong and his comrades in the Umbrella Movement were charged with 
illegal assembly and inciting others to take part in illegal activities. 
The cases went back and forth between appeal court and supreme court, 
and the sentences oscillated between relative leniency and prison terms 
that would have killed the protesters’ chance of standing for election 
for at least five years. Earlier this year, the supreme court reduced 
Wong’s sentence to two months; in the event, he was released the day 
after Hong Kong’s largest ever mass rally.

The court hearing the case against the Occupy Central trio pronounced 
their sentences, along with those of six others, in April. Reverend Chu 
Yiu-ming, who is in his seventies, said to the court in his concluding 
statement: ‘I am merely the one tolling the bell, to let people know 
there is suffering in the world.’ Reverend Chu has spent his life 
helping people in need, including me when I fled China in the aftermath 
of the Tiananmen massacre. The first night I ever spent outside the PRC 
was at his home in Hong Kong. In the past thirty years, we have seen 
each other from time to time, in America or in Taiwan; our most recent 
meeting was on a snowy day in London. He was prepared to face trial and 
go to jail, though his wife was worried about his health. The court 
sentenced all three of the Occupy Central trio to 16 months in prison. 
Benny Tai and Chan Kin-man were to start their terms immediately; 
Reverend Chu was given a two-year suspension. The six others sentenced 
that day for their involvement in the Umbrella protests included two 
current members of the Legislative Council. This is another blow to the 
democratic camp: six legislators-elect had already been disqualified in 
2016, after taking office for less than two weeks. The prison terms for 
participants in the Occupy and Umbrella movements were intended as a 
warning to the general public; the disqualification of candidates and 
legislators is aimed at paralysing the democratic camp’s capacity to 
block pro-Beijing bills.


This was the situation in Hong Kong when our conference took place in 
Taipei. Both Albert Ho and Emily Lau were involved in the controversial 
negotiations with the Hong Kong and Beijing governments in 2012. At the 
time, Hong Kong radicals accused Ho and Lau of being traitors. Not any 
longer. Hong Kong’s democratic future is in danger and desperation has 
made enemies into comrades.

 From the government’s perspective, it appeared earlier this year as if 
all the leading troublemakers had been disabled or were at least under 
control. The democratic camp in the legislature is so crippled that the 
pro-Beijing camp managed to pass a procedural bill granting far greater 
power to the chairman of the chamber, effectively removing a 
filibustering instrument on which the democrats had depended to block 
unpopular bills. Carrie Lam, the current CE, proposed amending the 
existing extradition bill to allow extradition to mainland China and 
Taiwan. She has repeatedly cited a case in which a murder suspect 
couldn’t be extradited from Hong Kong to Taiwan because there was no 
agreement in place. Leaving only two weeks for public consultation, she 
repeatedly declined requests to meet with legislators, opposition 
parties, lawyers and the media. The only concession her government made 
was to business, excluding economic crimes from the bill. Even after 
more than a million people marched on 9 June, Lam calmly announced that 
the bill would go through its second reading three days later.

On 4 June, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic 
Movements in China, of which Albert Ho is the current chairman and 
Reverend Chu a long-standing member, commemorated the thirtieth 
anniversary of the Tiananmen massacre with a candle vigil in Victoria 
Park. Two days later, Hong Kong’s lawyers marched in silence wearing 
legal gowns to protest against the extradition bill and the way the 
government had handled it. The huge march of 9 June was organised by the 
Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), an organisation whose members include 
nearly fifty pro-democracy NGOs and political parties. On 12 June, with 
the second reading of the bill imminent, young protesters gathered in 
front of the legislature’s main building, trying to block members from 
getting in. The police used 150 canisters of tear gas, and fired on 
protesters with bean bag rounds and rubber bullets. Almost instantly, 
support stations were set up and supply lines formed by volunteers, who 
passed water and protection gear to the front line. The protesters chose 
a hymn as their marching song. All of this seemed to unfold without 
organisational leadership. Before dusk, the police chief had already 
announced that the demonstration was a ‘riot’, which had legal 
implications for anyone involved, as Edward Leung’s case went on to 
show. There was public uproar at the use of this term. Lam hurriedly 
promised that the bill would be put aside, but it was too little, too 
late. The CHRF had already organised another mass rally – the 
record-breaking two-million march of 16 June.

Lessons have been learned from previous protests. The authorities always 
try to destroy a movement by identifying its leaders. The current 
protests have no leadership and are highly decentralised. Social media 
is the main vehicle of mass mobilisation. This time round, there have 
been no internal splits. Yet the solidarity is not rooted in political 
discipline: even when brothers climb a mountain together, each has to 
make his own effort. One action may be followed straightaway by another, 
or by a few days’ rest. Bruce Lee’s saying becomes a golden rule: ‘Water 
can flow or it can crush. Be water my friend.’

The next two weeks were calm on the surface, but the underlying tensions 
were heightened: several protesters fell or jumped to their deaths, 
leaving notes expressing their political frustration. The next rally was 
planned for 1 July, the date Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred 
from Britain to China in 1997. Beijing and Lam perhaps imagined that the 
protest would follow the familiar pattern: young protesters demonstrate, 
the police respond with force, the public rushes to support the 
youngsters and condemn the police, the enthusiasm soon fades. But on 1 
July the protesters crashed through the glass wall surrounding the 
legislature building and temporarily occupied its main meeting hall, 
making headlines worldwide. There were no tactical splits among the 
demonstrators. Instead, just before midnight, the deadline police had 
set to clear the site, dozens of protesters who had already left the 
building rushed back inside, shouting ‘Go together’ in rhythm and 
forcefully carrying away the last four people inside.

The protests have not diminished over the last two months. They have 
instead become ever more confrontational, vis à vis the police, the Hong 
Kong government and even the central government’s liaison office. Yet 
public support has not waned. There is a silent consensus that the 
not-yet-named protest movement is a collective vote of no confidence in 
Beijing. Beijing must understand this, more or less, but it has not 
acknowledged as much. Its first press conference on the current 
situation in Hong Kong was given by the Hong Kong Macau Office of the 
State Council in Beijing on 29 July. A spokesperson reiterated the 
central government’s support for Carrie Lam, and echoed the Hong Kong 
police chief in describing the clashes of 12 June as a ‘riot’. The 
emphasis of the press conference was firmly on stability and economic 
development, reminding me of Deng Xiaoping’s strategy in the mainland 
after the Tiananmen massacre: ‘Stability is the top priority’ and 
‘Development is the irrefutable truth.’ It reminded me too of Chan 
Koonchung’s conviction that Beijing wants the Hong Kong CE to be an 
extension of its own will, and the people of Hong Kong to be entirely 

This last wish is remote from the reality on the ground. It also speaks 
to Beijing’s perception that a ‘colonial’ mindset has impeded its 
efforts to make Hong King a vehicle for its own interests. The crucial 
period in this respect, I think, was the first thirty years of the PRC, 
when it declined to take Hong Kong back. Hong Kong’s sense of itself 
began to flourish in the 1970s. Some in Hong Kong sincerely wanted to 
adopt a mainland view, or even a mainland identity, but identification 
with the mainland could never be truly be rooted in experience. The 
CCP’s approach means that people in Hong Kong either come to see 
themselves as second-rate citizens of the PRC, no matter how much richer 
they may be than many on the mainland, or feel ever more alienated, 
their sense of themselves as citizens of Hong Kong growing ever stronger.

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