A Hong Kong student leader, Yvonne Leung, said, “The Hong Kong government needs to take lots of responsibility for what’s going on.”1 She was referring to the government’s responsibility to offer genuine universal suffrage and end the impasse.
Unknown to Leung, her statement echoes the state-centered theory of contention — that it is state policies that inadvertently “construct”2 movements. The Umbrella Movement is no different. At every step of the way, the Chief Executive C. Y. Leung’s policies have backfired, first giving rise to the movement and then fueling it for two months and beyond.
This is not to diminish the efforts of organizers, but they could not have produced the Umbrella Movement without the government fanning the flames for them. The Occupy Central movement involves a sustained disruptive action which is unprecedented in Hong Kong. For decades, protestors would gather and march for an afternoon or evening and then go home. Even pro-democracy supporters had been skeptical of the wisdom of disrupting the central business district.
As late as the first week of June, Occupy Central was still looking fragile. Organizers weren’t sure if they would get even 100,000 votes in the civic referendum they scheduled for late June. Then, in mid-June, Beijing issued the White Paper3, which seriously erodes Hong Kong’s autonomy by elevating “one country” above “two systems” in the “one country, two systems” model. The assertion of total control in the White Paper backfired, driving almost 800,000 people to vote in the civic referendum. However, the Hong Kong government dismissed these voices in a July report to the central government, which served as the basis for the harsh decision handed down by the central government on August 31.4 The decision effectively limits the promised universal franchise to a choice between CY Leung A and CY Leung B, thereby giving the façade of legitimacy to Beijing’s hand-picked chief executive.
The atmosphere in September was gloomy. Still, the future Umbrella Movement was not even conceived. Students organized a class boycott in the week of Sep. 22. Occupy Central was set to launch on Oct. 1. Organizers were so wary of weak popular support that they chose to begin their disruptive action on a national holiday in order to minimize disruption. If the Hong Kong government had ignored the protestors, dissent would have quickly died out.
Yet, the Hong Kong government effectively “constructed” the Umbrella Movement by using excessive police force. On Sep. 26, secondary school students reclaimed the Civic Square outside of the central government offices in Admiralty. The police’s rough handling and mass arrests of teenage students created an outrage. When people turned out in large numbers to support students on Sep. 27, Occupy Central leaders felt compelled to launch their movement. As more and more people answered the call to gather at Admiralty on Sep. 28, the police fired 87 rounds of tear gas. When news spread that the police were about to fire rubber bullets, the organizers, fearful of causing injuries to their supporters, called off the occupy movement. But more angry people arrived to stand together with protestors in Admiralty. The crowds further spread to Causeway Bay east of Admiralty and Mongkok across the Victoria Harbor.
The Hong Kong government not only gave birth to the Umbrella Movement, but has also provided sustenance so that it has lasted for so long. Just as the crowds began to dwindle after Oct. 1, thugs attacked protestors in Mongkok on Oct. 3. The attacks did not intimidate protestors but only sent more people to the occupy sites. Since then, every effort to clear the occupy sites has only hardened protestors’ resolve.
To understand how the Hong Kong government is responsible for “constructing” the Umbrella Movement, we should also see how government policies since 2012 have built up a welter of dissent that exploded on Sep. 28. That takes us to Hong Kong’s distinctive status as the only case of “freedom without democracy” in the world.5
Hong Kong people, whether they are pro-occupy or anti-occupy, cherish freedom. Can freedom survive without democracy? Hong Kong people want a neutral civil service, an impartial police, an independent judiciary, and a free press. Unfortunately, successive Chief Executives since the handover in 1997 have not defended these core values.
The first Chief Executive CH Tung introduced a rather draconian national security bill in 2003, but was forced to resign after half a million people protested. The second Chief Executive Donald Tsang introduced political appointments, which began to politicize the civil service. The third and current Chief Executive, CY Leung, has stepped up the appointments of his loyal supporters to key government positions and advisory committees.6 Under his watch, even the Independent Commission Against Corruption has itself become the target of a corruption investigation. In addition, the police have come under attack for making arbitrary arrests of protestors and selectively enforcing the law. Media critics of the government have been demoted or fired, with some journalists subjected to physical attacks by thugs. The rapid erosion of freedom in the past two years explains why the firing of tear gas so easily ignited the Umbrella Movement.
Hong Kong protestors want genuine universal suffrage because only democracy can stop the further erosion of freedom. Hong Kong’s economic success is also fragile without democracy. When the Chief Executive rules through cronies, economics becomes politics by other means.
Disruptive actions do not normally last. It is to the credit of the government’s heavy-handedness that the occupy movement has lasted for two months.
The Hong Kong government’s latest tactic is to hide behind private court injunctions to clear the occupy sites. But if the court injunctions originally demonstrated respect for Hong Kong’s cherished rule of law, the amassing of thousands of police behind tens of bailiffs against protestors in Mongkok since Nov. 24 has shattered any pretention. Protestors did not resist court injunctions but moved from the streets covered by court orders to surrounding streets. As more and more people turned out in Mongkok, the police began to beat up and arrest reporters, passers-by, and protestors alike.
The Hong Kong government has repeatedly failed to learn the lesson that police brutality cannot silence dissent but only backfires. Even if all the occupy sites are cleared, the struggle for genuine universal suffrage will not go away but only mutate into other forms of civil disobedience. The Umbrella Movement will go down in the study of contentious politics as a classic example of the state-centered perspective.
1Echo Hui, “Hong Kong student protest leaders seek talks with Beijing officials,” LA Times, Nov. 4, 2014 (http://www.latimes.com/world/asia/la-fg-hong-kong-student-protest-leaders-beijing-20141105-story.html)
2For state construction of movements, see Jeff Goodwin, No Other Way Out, Cambridge University Press, 2001; Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow, Contentious Politics, Oxford University Press, 2006.
3Information Office of the State Council, The Practice of the “One Country, Two Systems” Policy in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, June 10, 2014
4Decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on Issues Relating to the Selection of the Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region by Universal Suffrage and on the Method for Forming the Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the Year 2016,” August 31, 2014.
5See my testimony at the Congressional-Executive Commission on China here.
6On a separate track, CY Leung has been accused of taking payouts of HK$50 million and then $37 million from the Australian firm UGL without accounting for them.