A year on, what can we learn from Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement?
It has been a year since Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” first fanned hopes that we were witnessing a people power movement capable of pressuring the Central Peoples’ Government into fulfilling the democratic promise of Article 45 of the Basic Law. The Umbrella movement has now all but fizzled out, of course. Public support for the movement waned as the protests caused economic disruption, and activists were eventually cleared out of the streets by December.
Indeed, Beijing’s reaction to the largest public demonstration since 1989 revealed a decided unwillingness to concede to demands for democratic reform. When in June this year, pan-Democrats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council voted down Beijing’s original electoral reform plan, genuine implementation of Article 45 looked even more remote in the short term. At the time the electoral reform plan was voted down, pan-Democrat Alan Leong remained hopeful, however. He is quoted as saying that “today is not the end of the democratic movement. Quite the contrary, this is the starting point of another wave of the democratic movement.” In light of any future push for the establishment of universal suffrage and a more representative Hong Kong government, it may be instructive to reflect on some of the possible reasons for current stalemate.
Let us remind ourselves of what the major point of contention was. Article 45 of the Basic Law provides that Hong Kong’s people should be able to achieve the “ultimate aim” of selecting their Chief Executive “by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” After extended public debate over electoral reform, the Central Peoples’ Government finally affirmed in 2012 that Hong Kong would indeed elect its Chief Executive by universal suffrage in 2017. However, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced later that the nomination process would remain under Beijing’s control by insisting that the nominating committee – modeled on the old pro-Beijing election committee – would have the power to select the running candidates. With more than 50 percent of nominating committee members needed for a candidate’s approval, the chances of getting a candidate without Beijing’s blessing nominated is extremely slim. Thus, the nomination process would still remain highly restrictive, allowing Beijing to control who ultimately takes the highest executive office in the Special Administration Region. The bitterness of the Standing Committee’s pill has to be understood in the context of the building resentment among many that Hong Kong is largely governed by pro-business elite that the umbrella movement’s leaders have called a “heartless government.”
Unfortunately, “timing is everything” is a truism that can apply here. Recent scholarship reinforces this by suggesting that strong ruling parties in developmental Asia – whose aim is to rule, not necessarily to be authoritarian – may indeed be persuaded to concede to demands for democracy at certain favorable “moments.” In “The Strength to Concede: Ruling Parties and Democratization in Developmental Asia,” Slater and Wong explain that authoritarian incumbents do not concede to pressures for democratic change only when they are in a position of extreme weakness and are out of options. There are moments when extreme strength may lend incumbents the confidence that their political future will not be destroyed by the introduction of genuine competition.
Democratic breakthrough in both Taiwan and South Korea were instances of such moments, when strong authoritarian governments could have resisted, but nevertheless conceded to, demands for democratization. Back in 2012, it was suggested that China might be entering such a “bittersweet spot,” where enough challenges signal the necessity of democratic reform, but antecedent strengths retained by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lend them confidence that they will continue to stay at the apex of power. While it is impossible to predict exactly when the stars will align, it is clear that the “bittersweet spot” had not been reached in this instance. Interestingly, Beijing’s refusal to concede to a longstanding demand for reform that would see it lose control over the electoral process, already enshrined in the Basic Law, points us to toward some of the reasons for which the leadership does not feel confident at this very moment.
The quality and public perceptions of the pro-Beijing leaders aside, there are other factors that make this moment particularly unfavorable to demands for democratic reform. Beijing’s alleged fear of “foreign interference” is not one of them, however. Dished out as standard fare to bias the general Chinese public against pro-democracy and human rights activists, it is uncertain why Beijing really considers Western powers that influential even if Hong Kong has long been considered a Western foothold into China’s domestic affairs. The sources of the CPC’s perceptible insecurity are more likely domestic in nature. Indeed, President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has since proven more far-reaching than initially anticipated by skeptics, and resistance from within the People’s Liberation Army is presenting itself. Although necessary to shore up the legitimacy of the Party, it is a delicate operation that, mixed in with factional politics, introduces a level of political uncertainty that arguably works against persuading Beijing’s leadership that this is the right moment to concede to the Hong Kong people’s demands.
As predicted back in 2013, the economic slowdown has prompted more crackdowns on activists who question the regime and cast doubt on the ability of China’s leaders to manage the manifold challenges ahead. In recent weeks, human rights lawyers and activists have faced intense pressure from the authorities. By the estimation of the Chinese Human Rights Lawyers Concern Group, as of early September, at least 286 lawyers, law firm staff, human right activists and family members have been questioned, summoned, forbidden to leave the country, detained, or held incommunicado. This has taken place at the same time as the deepening slowdown poses the danger of increasing dissent while necessitating another challenging task – the reorientation of the economy. Although retail sales growth suggests that the slowdown has not registered quite as negatively with the Chinese public, the rollercoaster that is the Chinese stock market speaks volumes on the challenges of economic reorientation, and maintaining confidence in the Chinese leadership’s ability to manage future uncertainties. These factors create a challenging environment for pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong. Indeed, while uncertainty undermines the confidence of the CPC that giving challengers more space will not threaten their control of Hong Kong, it is not so weak as to make concession an inevitable solution to dissent.
From this angle, it would appear that voting down Beijing’s original electoral reform proposal may have been a tactical mistake. Hong Kong legislators must now create a new plan for the 2017 chief executive elections, yet it is unlikely that Beijing will be willing to grant them more than what was in the previous proposal anyway. The “one person, one vote” plan would have at the very least have been some progress at this time. Sun Tzu in The Art of War once counseled, “avoid what is strong, and strike at what is weak.” Beijing is not so weak as to call for a decisive strike, and may be better encouraged to remind itself of antecedent strengths despite the uncertainty of the present moment.
A closer reading of Beijing’s propensity to be persuaded by demands for reform may be warranted for the future, as is a “softly, softly” approach in the immediate term. It may be more productive in the meantime to continue focusing on specific policies that many perceive to be the source of social injustice in Hong Kong, which has fuelled demands for a government that represents the wider public interest in the first place. It is imperative that the Central People’s Government prove that this is possible within the current political system, so as not to deepen the growing sense of alienation and hostility that drives radicalization. What the Civic Party’s think tank Path to Democracy will propose in its upcoming report may thus be of interest, if it is indeed based on the premise that “communications with mutual trust … conducted under a moderate attitude is essential for the development of democracy.”
Su-Mei Ooi is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Butler University. Megan Day is a senior student at Butler University at the time of writing.