The Adults Show Up in Hong Kong

The student curtainraiser in Hong Kong appears to be over for now.

A few hundred diehard students remain on post at the three main demonstration sites.   In some places there are more journos than demonstrators.

But don’t get the impression the movement has petered out.  The grownups have appeared to take this political exercise to the next level.

Alan Leung, no student, 56 years old, democracy activist, long time pol, one time candidate for Chief Executive, gave an interview to Malcolm Moore of the Daily Telegraph:

“Almost 95 per cent of the crowd that has gathered every night for seven nights is between 15 to 25 years old,” said Alan Leong, 56, the leader of the pro-democratic Civic party.

“These people will be around for a long time. They will be masters of Hong Kong for the next 40 to 50 years.

“I challenge Xi Jinping (the Chinese president) to answer this question: even if you bring your weight to bear and somehow get your proposal passed, how are you going to govern Hong Kong when this is your public for the next five decades?”


Mr Leong has flatly rejected the proposal from Beijing and said he was sure it would be voted down by the democrats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

“No matter what tinkering you may do, the crux of it, if you strip it to the bones, is that Beijing wants a pre-election before the election. It is as naked as that. How can you say this is the Communist party honouring its handover promises?” he said.

“I am quite sure that the proposal for electoral reform sent by Beijing must be vetoed.”

The proposal he’s referring to is the proposal for the nominating committee that will put forward candidates for the 2017 elections to be conducted under universal suffrage.  It needs to pass by a 2/3 vote and a united front of pro-democracy legislators can block it.

That’s the threat.  If the nominating committee process isn’t cleaned up to the satisfaction of the democracy movement, gridlock and worse.

In this context, I recall democracy movement éminence grise Jimmy Lai’s interview with Hugo Restall of the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page:

Mr. Lai favors continued confrontation to get the best possible deal and mobilize Hong Kong. “We have to make a picture out of action to move people,” he says. “You can’t reason people into action.”

Here’s the strategy, in my opinion: co-opt the Hong Kong executive and use its fear of unrest to wedge it from Beijing and, instead, turn it into an advocate to Beijing for accommodating the reformers.

The narrative rests on the idea that the Hong Kong executive didn’t do its job when it consulted to the NPC on the public mood concerning aspirations for the 2017 elections:

Mr Rowse [a British civil servant who continued in the Hong Kong administration post-1997 as head of the foreign investment department] said there had been a total breakdown in trust between the Hong Kong government and the public following the consultation process over the city’s democratic future.

“The report that was presented to Beijing by Hong Kong was, well, I have used the word mendacious,” he said. “It was a case of pre-emptive cringe, asking them what they would like to hear and then telling them that.”

The Hong Kong city government didn’t just blink; it “pre-emptively cringed”.

That’s the conceptual hook for reopening the nominating committee issue (notice it’s no longer “Beijing reneged”.  That meme might be good enough to gull journos and the public but it flies like a dropped anvil in negotiations with the Hong Kong executive and Beijing).

The deal:

[Rowse] suggested that while Beijing wanted all candidates running for the leadership of Hong Kong in 2017 to be nominated by a committee, the public could name the people put in front of the committee.

He also suggested that the committee could be made more representative, unlike the current election committee which is stuffed with Beijing’s cronies. “I don’t think the game is lost,” he said. “We could do a lot if people believe the government is acting in good faith. The problem is this breakdown in trust”.

And, since we’re talking politics, the horseshit, courtesy of Leung:

…How can you say this is the Communist party honouring its handover promises?” he said.

Mr Leong said he was now “prepared to be led” by the students. But he added: I’m very worried, extremely anxious. You could have a repeat of Tiananmen, that is the worst case scenario.

“I still trust that there are sensible right-minded people in the administration to make sure that what I am most anxious about will not happen.”

My three pet peeves, all in one: the “reneged” canard, the Tiananmen Redux alarmism, and the “led by leaderless students” BS.

And for the bonus round, more horseshit from Leung:

“Hong Kong must be a testing ground, a laboratory for experimenting with local democracy. This is a role that Hong Kong has been playing for 150 years,” he added.

The way I see it is this:

In order to tamp down the current ruckus, the Hong Kong government has accepted the students as interlocutors.  The purpose of the discussions is to address the feelings of the people of Hong Kong concerning democratic reform.

I believe that this is conceived as a clever way to offer the Hong Kong executive a way out of the rancor and embarrassment and unrest of interminable street protests by aggrieved students.  At the same time it offers an avenue for reopening the nominating committee issue as a matter of pressing public concern.

The purpose is to give the Hong Kong government a chance to earn forgiveness for its previous transgressions against the popular will, get some slack on the police violence investigation, and get out of the line of fire by becoming the democracy movement’s advocate—or at least passive partner—in pushing democracy proposals on Beijing.

Of course, the democracy movement is not going to get its way on the backs of seventeen-year old students.  Xi Jinping is not going to be seduced by the base and blatantly ahistorical flattery that he should cement his great-leader stature by showing Deng Xiaoping-style flexibility in his handling of the issue.  (And he is not going to capitulate to a political movement that calls itself a “revolution” for that matter; Joshua Wang and Benny Tai, by the way, both found it expedient to declare”this is not a revolution”, a message which has apparently not yet made it to the editors and headline writers of the world.)

Beijing will only budge if (and maybe not even if) virtually every key element of Hong Kong society is active, mobilized, organized, and on board with the tactic of sustained and escalating unrest if their desired reforms aren’t implemented.

Not just students, in other words.  Educators from the eight universities and other schools (I think most of them are on board); professionals (500 legal professionals have already issued a statement); the pro-democracy bloc in Legco; a nice chunk of the financial sector, perhaps discretely organized by Mr. Rowse (look for a lot of gyrating to justify the idea that unrest in Hong Kong is not bad and indeed is vitally important for the stock and bond boys because Democracy!); segments of the government that are not C.Y. Leung; and a carefully stroked and enticed tycoon or two (paging Jimmy Lai! Paging Jimmy Lai!).

There’s enough support, determination, and money (the last two courtesy of media kingpin and lavish funder of all things democratic in Hong Kong, the markedly rough-around-the-edges Jimmy Lai of NextMedia and Apple Daily.  The party of Alan Leung received at least HK$ 4 million of Lai’s largesse ) to push this strategy.

Add friendly financial assistance and institutional support from the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy and the other NGOs that threaten to stain the movement with their color-revolution taint.

Add to that the frantic enthusiasm of the Western press and the pontificating of the neo-liberal powers (what I previously characterized as the creeping internationalization of the Hong Kong issue has already begun) and we have the makings of a nice pro-democracy political firestorm.

The endgame, in a perfect world, would be if the NPC formally rescinded the provision for a nominating committee in favor of open nomination.  But there are other ways to skin the cat, like tweaking the composition or selection process for the “broadly representative” nominating committee to ensure that somebody acceptable to the democracy movement—Hey, maybe that nice Mr. Alan Leung!—makes it before the voters.

As the Wall Street Journal put it:

[T]he government negotiating team led by Ms. Lam could offer carrots, observers say, including allowing more people to be eligible to run in primary-like contests for the city’s highest office.

Or, it could adjust the committee charged with picking candidates for the top post to make it more reflective of public opinion. Currently, that 1,200-member committee is stacked with pro-Beijing members.

As for the students, they will remain indispensable as intimidation on tap, a righteous force that can be put into the field to embarrass and appall the government with the threat of widespread unrest if Carrie Lam’s negotiating team proves unnecessarily recalcitrant.  And of course they are a necessary PR adjunct and welcome focus for the attention of the army of journalists desperately traipsing the city for stories.

Possibly, the Hong Kong government has already signaled, if not its capitulation, its willingness to horsetrade.

As I previously wrote, I considered the fizzling out of the student ultimatum on Thursday night (for C.Y. Leung to resign) and the rapid withdrawal of the students on Sunday night despite the violence in Mong Kok as signs of a choreographed deal.

I tend to give the greatest respect to one group of actors—the university administrators—in the midst of what has been a carnival of less-than-honest framing, slippery tactics, and alarmist bullshit.

They apparently have the job of wrangling the student demonstrators and they seem to have a sincere desire to keep them safe, not only from the Hong Kong cops, but also from the machinations of the Occupy movement, which may, as the situation requires, need some student martyrs at the hands of cops, triads, or provocateurs to keep the outrage machine cranking.  I, for one, would not consider it beyond possibility that some determined backer of the movement might actually send some anonymous goons to rough up some students if he felt that was necessary to keep the pro-democracy fire burning and realize his investments in political reform.

After he went downtown to ceremoniously call for the cancellation of the Thursday ultimatum against C.Y. Leung, the president of City University of Hong Kong, James Sung, issued this remarkable statement:

“Although they can’t grasp the full complexity of the situation, they have innocent hearts…and should be given the utmost toleration and compassion.”

The struggle for Hong Kong isn’t just students speaking truth to power with umbrellas and Cantopop.

This is a prolonged, sophisticated multi-stage political battle between two resourceful and capable adversaries.

If you want to understand what’s going on in Hong Kong, you can’t focus solely on the beauty of democracy and the adorableness of the students.  The democracy movement is also embedded in a matrix of money, subterfuge, compromise, subornation, propaganda, and manipulation.  In other words, it’s good old-fashioned politics, Hong Kong—and Beijing—style.

Peter Lee edits China Matters and writes for CounterPunch on Asia.


Peter Lee is creator of the Patreon Peter Lee’s China Threat Report.