Democracy in Hong Kong

Current agitation in Hong Kong is not just about students.  It represents the culmination of years of struggle against encroaching PRC control by liberal, pro-democracy, and anti-Beijing activists, many of them adults and quite a few of them members of Hong Kong’s professional, political, and intellectual elite.

The annual Tiananmen commemoration begat the Article 23 concern group (security law), which begat the Article 45 Concern Group (universal suffrage), which begat the Civic Party,  the Pan-Democratic political faction in Legco, which begat successful agitation against the proposed security law, which begat the fight against national education reforms, which begat Scholarism and energized the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which begat Occupy Hong Kong With Peace & Love (hereinafter OHK) which begat Hong Kong 2020, which begat the July 1 unofficial referendum on Hong Kong’s future, which begat the Alliance for Democracy and set the stage for the current struggle fight against the government reforms announced by the National People’s Congress in Beijing.

The students are out front now because they are key foot soldiers in the effort; and the adults don’t feel that the time is right for them to mount the stage.

With this context, my expectations for the student-government dialogue were not high and, on paper at least (read the transcript only) my expectations were not disappointed.

It will be interesting to see if this event actually “moves the needle” (American political parlance for an outcome that actually change support levels rather than merely reinforce existing views).  My impression is that it won’t.

The HKSAR team did an OK job with its basic theme of “5 million Hong Kongers will vote for chief executive in 2017; isn’t that great?”

The students on the other hand were all “Hong Kong is totally FUBAR, crisis crisis crisis.  Also tear gas.”

I’m suspicious of “corev” (another portmanteau coinage of mine, for “color revolution”) type scripted political movements, and I get my full daily ration of self-righteous teenage impertinence in my own home, so I’m carrying my biases into the analysis.

In any case, I found the students strident and complainy.  They were also, transparently, coached on their tricksy rhetorical moves and sealawyerly parsing of the legal issues, a fact confirmed by the SCMP.

If the pro-democracy movement wanted to score some political points, the students could have offered some “we love Hong Kong, help us save Hong Kong” emotive rhetoric.  Alex Chow, reportedly prone to moist-eyed appeals, could have extended his arms to the government team and implored, “We are your children!  Help us, protect us, don’t beat us, don’t teargas us, and don’t sacrifice our future in order to please Beijing.”

Well, maybe if the next dialogue is coached by communications profs instead of polysci profs we’ll get more of that.

But I suspect that the pro-dem forces understand that this struggle is not going to be won in the McCluhanesque “cool” confines of the debating hall; it’ll be won with feet on the street, and maybe it’s time for some poor, brave student to get clonked on the head so the whole white-“hot” outrage machine can start cranking again.

As to what the strategy is—what the students will do, and what the constellation of pro-democracy forces will do in order to support and exploit the student effort—is a matter of some interest.

A recent document dump by pro-Beijing forces purports to provide a window on the pro-dems strategizing through the meeting minutes of the Alliance for Democracy, a grouping of pro-democratic organizations engaged in Occupy-related issues.

I will provide the necessary caveats.  The whole dump could be an elaborate forgery and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen some denials from some people concerning the accuracy of the remarks attributed to them.

The documents feel real, primarily because there are no grotesque smoking guns.  Just pages and pages of minutiae that are interesting primarily because they illustrate the extent of the planning and handwringing that has gone into the Occupy exercise and some hints as to how the movement will unfold in the next few weeks.

However, inaccuracies in the minutes by omission, commission, accident, or design are clearly a potential hazard.  So please mentally insert the phrase “allegedly” in all instances below in the event, which seems to me unlikely, that the dump turns out to be a forgery en toto or, somewhat more plausibly, en parte.

In other words, caveat HK news junkies.

The dump, as preserved on the Brothers Democracy website is about four dozen files, mostly scans, including three audio files and four pages of scans of minutes for the September 5 meeting, and scanned minutes for the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (hereinafter, the Democratic Alliance)’s 9th, 11th, 13th, 14th, 21st, 22nd, 23rd, 24th, 25th, and 27th meeting; two “6 Party” meetings (an expanded Democratic Alliance meeting with student, OHK, and other representatives); internal polling on people’s attitudes toward Occupy Central for the period October 10-19; a telephone notification list dated September 10 (marked “Secret’) for marshals for the Occupy Central action anticipated on October 1; an undated list of 近期 i.e. near term meetings for period of September 26 through October 8.

Translating the entire dump is beyond my capacity, anyway, my interest, as is digging into the earlier minutes (9/11/13/14), which date to the first half of the year and focus on the July 1 referendum.

So here’s my takeaway on what the later documents appear to tell us about the strategizing running up to the NPC’s August 31 announcement, and the subsequent brouhaha.

One of the purposes of the July 1 voting exercise was to undercut the HKSAR government’s report to the NPC characterizing popular attitudes to committee nomination, which apparently described local opinion as divided and thereby gave the NPC Standing Committee the leeway to give decisive weight to  “national interest” over “local preference”.

N.B. In contrast to the “Beijing reneged” line fed to journalists, the internal line as described by Alan Leung was that the HKSAR had “misled” the NPC.

Unless the report is repudiated, the pro-dems don’t have a legal leg to stand on within the framework of the Basic Law and the NPC; what’s more surprising is that they recognize that they don’t even have a particularly strong legal case for direct nomination under the “international standards” for democracy the students are currently trumpeting.

Claudia Mo, a Civic Party stalwart and ex-AFP reporter (which might explain why she has appeared a few times in AFP’s Occupy coverage as a quotable notable), observed that “international standards” seemed unclear.

Benny Tai, whose job is presumably to make an airtight legal case for the action, instead observed that international practices don’t demand popular nomination.  In fact, the UK doesn’t have direct nomination, as a HKSAR representative pointed out during the student dialogue.  The key stipulation is a matter of principle: Do citizens have real choice?  Do the candidates represent different needs and backgrounds?  The best he could say was that popular nomination would unequivocally meet international standards, not that it was the only way.

Even more problematically, perhaps, the UK opted out of the Article 25 of the Universal Covenant of Civil and Political Rights for universal suffrage and direct elections for Hong Kong during its merrily undemocratic colonial years, and the PRC succeeded to that treatment when it took over in 1997.  The OHK legal case rests on the rather frail legal reed that Beijing inadvertently surrendered its reservation by holding legislative elections.

And that is the best that the cream of the Hong Kong legal profession and the NED—whose job it is to twist Beijing’s knickers on these kinds of treaties—has been able to come up with after over a decade of determined lawyering.

Remarkably, Benny Tai also voiced the concern that another popular referendum might be necessary to legitimate OHK’s demands and allow it to achieve standing as a negotiator, another tip that the case is not a legal slam dunk.  (I might point out parenthetically that I approve of this state of mind, since otherwise we’re left with the metaphysical, undemocratic, and dare I say borderline-putschlike idea that the students can claim the right to speak for “Hong Kong” simply by putting feet on the street.)

So the struggle is in its essence political, not legal.

Without a solid legal strategy, therefore, OHK has turned to a political strategy, that is, to create a rumpus in Hong Kong sufficient to discredit the HKSAR report and reopen the issue.

It was generally understand that rumpus would have to reach unprecedented levels, beyond the traditional complaining and legal marches, which the government could shrug off.

It was decided that civil disobedience was needed; but it had to be packaged in a way that did not alienate Hong Kong public opinion.

This of course, meant Students!  The younger, the sweeter, the neater, the more studious the better.

Joshua Wong and Alex Chow participated in the meetings, and demonstrated an unambiguous enthusiasm for civil disobedience.  Chow commented that most of the 500 arrested during demonstrations in July were eager for another action.

But it also required an adequate pretext.

Therefore, prior to the August 31 NPC Standing Committee announcement, there was a lot of handwringing about what it might say and not say, and whether it could be sufficiently spun to justify an avalanche of righteous student indignation on the streets of Hong Kong.

In the event, the NPC Standing Committee announcement, by eschewing any explicit commitment to a timetable for further liberalization, provided the pro-dem movement enough daylight to employ the hyperbolic declaration that the NPC had “obliterated” (抹杀)democracy in Hong Kong.

It looks to me that the pro-dem action was a foregone conclusion, not because of the NPC’s act of democratic homicide, but because of the threat that the Hong Kong electorate might find itself quite beguiled with a cleverly-run 2017 Chief Executive electoral campaign with some attractive candidates, and find itself reconciled to the leisurely tweaking of the nomination process according to Beijing’s preferences and timetable.

The decision to adopt a politically risky campaign of civil disobedience dictated certain tactics.

The first, as noted above, was to use students as the vanguard.

Second, of course, was to obtain favorable media coverage.  Unfortunately, this ploy failed miserably, as the international press turned its Sauron-like critical eye on the movement with the strength of a thousand blazing suns…Haha.  Just kidding.  Coverage from outlets that were not Beijing-bespoke was favorable to an almost embarrassing degree.

The third was the interesting and dicey issue of how to handle legal and moral liability, especially for students (and also adults, natch) who might be up for a civil disobedience misdemeanor and a night in the clink, but not the resume stain of a felony conviction or an ugly lawsuit.

I think this goes a long way toward explaining the awkward formulation of “conveners” (召集人) instead of “leaders” to characterize the activities of a movement which is, clearly, carefully planned and led.  If participants show up as a matter of individual choice, and not in response to instructions from “leaders”, then the worst that happens is a minor charge for civil disobedience for the kid on the spot, not a charge of “conspiracy”, “subversion” or, if when property damage occurs or somebody gets hurt or worse, negligent or criminal endangerment or whatever the relevant Hong Kong term is, for some leader.

In addition to event marshals—who, I presume, in this context, are there not to prevent illegal behavior, but to document who did what and got arrested and hauled off where—there are several mentions of the HKO legal team standing by to handle the details of detention.

School officials, it might be noted, have balanced their support for student activism with a clear concern that their students do not get caught in the middle of some riot, violent police action or, worst case, Tiananmen style horror.

What to do after the students hit the streets and, presumably, continue to earn the love and support of the Hong Kong people through their moral authority (to quote Margaret Ng) or via the pity they elicit by acting as pinatas for triad goons and/or impatient citizenry is an interesting and as yet unanswered question on the morning after the dialogue and the students’ well-advertised “disappointment” with the outcome.

An interesting hint was offered by the List of Recent Meetings:

Meeting 3, October 2, 2014 AM: Participants “The Three Occupy Guys”, representatives of Scholarism, representatives of the HKFS, some Legco representatives.  

Topic: Discuss the arrangements for Lee Cheuk-yan to take over after the “Three Occupy Central Guys” go behind the scenes.

Lee Cheuk-yan is chairman of the Labour Party and a Legco representative; he’s also General Secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions and therefore, perhaps, has the ability to supplement the students with a broader collection of adult activists from the political and labor fields.

Lee is a determined anti-Beijing warrior.

Unlike the students, Lee also carries more than a bit of baggage.

As revealed by the Jimmy Lai leak this summer, Lee got HK1.5 million from Lai; since Hong Kong law requires that elected officials declare contributions over HK$10,000, this earned Lee a perhaps politicized though, unfortunately, apparently quite justified visit from the Independent Commission Against Corruption. Lee was apparently able to smooth over most of the awkwardness by belatedly depositing the money with his political party.

As for his power base, the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, it is not to be confused with the Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions, a pro-Beijing outfit about twice its size.  The HKCTU is anti-Beijing and has therefore attracted the favorable attention of NGOs looking for an anti-Communist counterweight.

The most persuasive evidence that the pro-dems are indeed contemplating putting Lee in the front lines (and indirectly, very strong support for the proposition that the Democracy Alliance document dump is genuine) was a massive rip job on Lee in the pro-Beijing press last week  (which China Daily, usually a stranger to Hong Kong labor reporting, also saw fit to publicize), backed up by an equally massive dump of surreptitiously obtained documents.

Most of them concern the HKCTU’s relationship with the National Endowment for Democracy which, according to its annual report, had granted $139, 152 to the HKCTU via one of its subsidiaries, the American Center for International Labor Solidarity.  That’s a significant chunk of the NED’s annual Hong Kong funding of $600,000.

The ACILS’s core mission is apparently to fight Commie trade unions abroad, and the HKCTU has been a favorite beneficiary of its largesse even before 1997.  The dump reportedly included e-mails and agreements detailing over $13 million in payments to the HKCTU over the last 20 years.

The e-mails also revealed that in response to the Jimmy Lai donation brouhaha, the Brussels-based International Trade Union Confederation stopped a deal with the HKCTU that apparently involved HK$60,000 per month contribution for “administrative expenses”.

Dox enthusiasts can go to the Twitter feed of 旺角脑场起底组 @mkccwelld for a link to the zipped files.

It will be interesting to see whether Lee Cheuk-yan does shoulder a central role in the next stage of Hong Kong Occupy, given the current rain of poo Beijing is directing his way—and of course, whether the pro-dem media does its usual yeoman job in downplaying or ignoring the story.

Assuming that Occupy Hong Kong is able to keep up the heat on the HKSAR through Lee or via some other individual or organization, the focus of activity would in principle switch to the “Three Guys” in the background: Benny Tai, whom I think of as “Mr. Outside”, Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, the moral authority, and Chan Kin Man who, I speculate, is “Mr. Inside”.

Chan Kin Man apparently is an important guy to Beijing, at least in his own estimation, per an August 2013 profile by the New York Times’ Didi Kirsten Tatlow*:

For about a decade, Chinese Communist Party officials and scholars regularly visited Chan Kin-man, an expert on civil society in China and advocate of democracy in Hong Kong, for advice on this former British colony that returned to Chinese rule in 1997… “I told them, 60 percent of people want democracy in Hong Kong; 80 percent of young people want democracy. The tide is coming in. There is something coming,” said Mr. Chan… About four weeks ago, the visitors brought “a very clear signal,” said Mr. Chan, gesturing at two green-upholstered, rococo-style armchairs where he said they sat. “They came here to advise me not to support Occupy Central.”

From years of meeting with officials, Mr. Chan believes Beijing’s bureaucrats, who think in terms of quotas and plans, estimated China would be economically developed enough around 2020 to consider greater democracy there, too.

“They believed that by 2020 China would be a ‘xiaokang shehui”’ — a moderately prosperous society, said Mr. Chan. “And then we can talk political reform in China, too.”

“They treat 2017 as a starting point. But to us, it’s an end point,” he said. “Free speech, an independent judiciary, a free press, for China, I can wait. But in Hong Kong we are in deep trouble if we wait.”

“So to me, they should take the first step” and grant the democracy many here crave, he said. “It’s very bold, yes. They have to get used to that. To two political parties in China!”

As I left, he called out: “Visit me in jail!”

I suspect Chan sees his job to serve as the respected and respectable interlocutor with Beijing about the future of Hong Kong, speaking from a position of moral and intellectual authority and with millions of democracy-craving Hong Kongers at his back.

So here’s what I imagine the most optimistic HKO scenario to be:

Students come out and win the PR battle so activists can stay on the streets, engage in civil disobedience, and escalate pressure on the government without alienating the public; Lee emerges as the leader of a popular front movement of union/civil society/older students that does the dirty work of maintaining an atmosphere of crisis and giving the lie to the HKSAR’s protestations that sentiment is not overwhelmingly and determinedly against the nominating committees and the functional constituencies; the HKSAR government capitulates, writes a report on the broad unpopularity of anything except popular nomination, and becomes the democracy movement’s advocate before the NPC; the CCP throws up its hands, sends its envoys to work out a face-saving deal with Chan behind the scenes (like direct nomination in 2020), and everybody sings kumbaya.


I wonder if Professor Chan will instead discover that it is the rich, rather than the youth, that hold the upper hand in Hong Kong and that the broad road of co-option and appeasement of Hong Kong’s politicians runs parallel to the steep and narrow track toward true democracy that he is encouraging the CCP to climb.

Anyway, time will tell.

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


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