Hong Kong’s Twin Questions of Democracy and Self-Determination


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August 29, 2019

Hong Kong’s Twin Questions of Democracy and Self-Determination

The long summer of discontent in Hong Kong

  • activism
  • Democracy
  • Hong Kong
  • Politics
  • Protest
  • Umbrella Revolution

Hong Kong is in the turmoil that caught everyone by surprise. The protracted protests in the long summer of discontent this year started with resistance to an extradition bill that would allow the Hong Kong government to transfer Hong Kong’s residents to mainland Chinese courts. Opposition activists, local business leaders, and international investors view it as an extension of the mainland Chinese legal system run by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to Hong Kong. Hong Kong has been supposed to enjoy the relatively transparent rule of law inherited from the British and protected by the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement that Beijing promised. Very quickly, the protests against the extradition bill morphed into a quest for “genuine democracy” in the city-state, revealing the movement as a continuation of the Umbrella Revolution, or Occupy Central Movement, in 2014.

Back in August 31st, 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress of China decided that any future “universal suffrage” of the highest office of Hong Kong would be subject to strict candidate vetting by a nomination committee dominated by Beijing loyalists. It means such an election will be like a village election in mainland China, where the CCP provides the candidates for villagers to vote for. Many in Hong Kong see it as a violation of Beijing promise of ultimate universal suffrage as part of the promise that warrants UK transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong to China, as enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. Outraged by this prospect of façade election, the Umbrella Revolution broke out in September with protesters occupying some of the busiest streets on the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. The unifying slogan of the occupation is “I want genuine university suffrage.”

At that time, both the leaders — including law professor Benny Tai and sociologist Kin-man Chan — and the youthful participants of the movement still believed in seeking compromise with Beijing. They held the assumption that Beijing was reasonable, and that Beijing would eventually allow the form of democratic election closer to “genuine universal suffrage,” if the protesters showed that they were patriotic Chinese happy to work within the perimeter of “One Country, Two Systems” and were not subversive to CCP rule. They were cautious not to offend China’s nationalist feeling. Though many participants and media called the event an “Umbrella Revolution” in the beginning, the organizers exercised self-censorship to forbid the use of the “R” word for fear of Beijing’s suspicion of a “Color Revolution.” They instead called their movement an “Umbrella Movement.” There were many other instances of self-restraint in 2014 on the part of the protestors. For example, some occupiers tried to storm the National Day flag-raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square on October 1, but many more protesters thought such action could constitute defiance of Chinese sovereignty, triggering a furious response from Beijing, including an intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In the end, the storming did not happen, and the ceremony went uninterrupted. Also during the occupation, some protesters tried to break into the Legislative Council building, but other activists, who feared that such an act would cost the movement goodwill of Beijing and public sympathy, stopped them.

Beijing was unimpressed by this reconciliatory gesture and self-restraint of the Umbrella protesters. The authorities dug in without yielding an inch to protesters’ demands. The occupation than lost momentum after 79 days and was cleared in November. After the end of the occupation, the Hong Kong government, and Beijing behind it, treated its leaders and participants as enemies of the state. Those who ran for the 2016 legislative council election were disqualified before or after they were elected, with arbitrary reasons like “violating the spirit of the Basic Laws” in their oath-taking ceremony or accusation that they supported Hong Kong independence in their past social media postings. Benny Tai, Kin Man Chan, and many other organizers were convicted of “conspiracy to cause public nuisance” and “inciting others to cause public nuisance,” and were sentenced to jail. Beijing interventions into Hong Kong internal affairs — something that is not supposed to happen under the “One Country, Two Systems” arrangement — redoubled. The interventions entail the cross-border kidnapping of booksellers publishing sensitive political books in Hong Kong and their clandestine transfer to mainland China, the expulsion of a senior foreign journalist for moderating a discussion forum with the leader of Hong Kong National Party, a pro-independence political group, and the banning of the Party altogether.

The eruption of protracted protests this year with the trigger of the extradition bill is in many senses a result of the accumulation of grievances amidst five years of Beijing’s intensifying post-Umbrella crackdown on Hong Kong. This time around, the demand for genuine universal suffrage is no longer coupled with self-restraint of not offending Beijing’s nationalist feeling. On July 1, protesters stormed into the Legislative Council building. They vandalized the meeting chamber and defaced the emblem of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. On July 21, protesters reached the front door of the Liaison Office, the highest representative of China’s central government in Hong Kong, and defaced the national emblem with ink bombs. Protesters took down the Chinese national flags in many highly symbolic places, like the Golden Bauhinia Square, built to commemorate the sovereignty handover in 1997. Some even threw the Chinese flags into the sea.

Slogans with a hint or explicit reference to the quest for Hong Kong independence were spray-painted in public places during the protest, like “Hong Kong is not China” and “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times.” The movement repeatedly and successfully raised sufficient funds to put full-page ads in newspapers around the world to solicit international intervention to counteract China’s encroachment. Protesters even built an international lobby wing of the movement, planning to travel to the US, UK, and Taiwan to persuade their governments to support and help Hong Kong protesters. Beijing’s characterization of the movement as separatist and being a “color revolution” has not deterred the protesters, and did not bring any erosion of popular support of the movement, as many polls have been showing. Many taboos that constrained the Umbrella Revolution and Hong Kong opposition movement, in general, has gone.

With the increasingly defiant disposition toward Beijing and Chinese sovereignty, the democratic movement in Hong Kong has finally shed itself of any traces of Chinese nationalism. Its quest for genuine universal suffrage has linked to the demand for independence, or self-determination as the lowest denominator among most protesters. Dissents in Hong Kong no longer perceive the hypothetical democratization of Hong Kong as a precursor of democratization in China at large but as part of a quest for greater separation between Hong Kong and mainland China. It is the same path that Taiwan’s opposition movement since the 1970s has taken. In today’s Taiwan, the democratic movement that seeks to defend Taiwan against authoritarian revival is increasingly indistinguishable from the independence movement that defends Taiwan’s de facto sovereignty. Viewed in this light, the long summer of discontent in Hong Kong this year is far from a redux of Beijing in 1989. Instead, it shows more resemblances with the long resistance in Northern Ireland, Palestine, Catalonia, and Ukraine. The question of democracy is now connected to the question of self-determination in Hong Kong.

Ho-fung Hung is the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy at the Sociology Department and the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University.


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