(because it’s not often these days that someone stares down the dictator) 

Written on the occasion of the defeat of fake universal suffrage in the Legislative Council on June 18, 2015.

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I’ll admit: When I turned up at the Civil Human Rights Front- organized march at Victoria Park last Sunday and looked around, I thought, “Where is everybody?!” There were so many fewer marchers (ultimate count: 3,500) than CHRF had said it expected (50,000) that it almost seemed as if someone was playing a trick on us. Well, I thought, it’s so hot; maybe people are too lazy and will just gather around the Legislative Council building, the march’s terminus and site of the planned encampment in the coming days, instead. But when we got there after a long hot walk, that was not the case either. What’s up? Have HK people really faltered at this last step?

Then it struck me: HK people are SO tired. HK people are so so tired. HK people are so sick and fed up with the political charade of “constitutional development” that the Communist Party and the HK government have been conducting in their city for the last twenty months almost as if they were not there, even though HK people have time and again made it abundantly clear that WE ARE HERE, WE DO EXIST, THIS PLACE IS OURS AND YOU CAN’T DO WITH IT WHAT YOU WISH.

Even in the faces of those who turned up last Sunday, I could see it: They are so tired. And it wasn’t just that the temperature was a good 35 degrees and the heat radiated off the pavement. It was a kind of spiritual tiredness, deep in their bones. They had fought so long, so hard. And not only that: Their struggle was a defensive action: to prevent the worst from happening as opposed to working toward achieving the best.

It was not only that they were tired. Most HK people, and especially young people, had ceased to believe in the efficacy of these marches from Victoria Park to the Liaison Office, to HK government headquarters. You go out, you spend your day in the heat, and what good does it do? We’ve done this for years, and where has it gotten us? If the CCP and HK government won’t listen to 79 days of occupation, then what good is a march going to do? The days of the march may be numbered.

And it was only that they were tired and had ceased to believe in the efficacy of marches. They were by that point quite confident that the 28 Legco members who’d vowed to vote against the HK government proposals to introduce fake universal suffrage in the “selection” (it’s not for nothing that the HK government is addicted to the “s” in front of “election”) of the Chief Executive in 2017, thus defeating the proposals, would indeed do so. In that sense, the motivation to come out and “support” or “threaten” them, depending on how you looked at it, did not seem so urgent. In a strange sense, the low turnout exhibited a faith in those members of the Legislative Council who’d said they would vote the proposals down.

Still, I thought, given all that, they still should have been there. I could just imagine the media having a field day: They said 50,000 would be here, and there are 3,500. The vast majority of the media, largely because of their lack of understanding of the pro-democracy movement (or, in HK, because of self-censorship and/or a pro-CCP editorial stance) had time and again counted the pro-democracy movement out. It had failed to achieve anything concrete out of 79 days of occupation, it had fractured, it had “descended” into localism, it was ultimately powerless to exert its will upon the HK government and the CCP.

There were several things that most media narratives failed to comprehend: 1) After 17 years of postponement, once the CCP decided to shove fake suffrage down the throat of HK, the introduction of fake suffrage became a cornerstone in the CCP end game to exert nearly complete control over HK long before the 50 years of ‘one country, two systems’ and the Basic Law were due to end in 2047, and it really really wanted it. 2) After the publication of the White Paper in June 2014 and the August 31, 2014 hardline decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee that virtually stripped away the last vestiges of HK autonomy, at least as far as making electoral arrangements was concerned, the basic stance of the HK pro-democracy movement was defensive. The occupations originally happened by accident: They were at first a spontaneous reaction against the decision of the HK government to use the HK police as a private militia to protect itself by attacking its own citizens. They were a big NO: NO, WE WON’T BE INTIMIDATED BY YOU! NO, THIS IS OUR CITY; NOT YOURS. Even once they’d settled in to stay for the long haul of 79 days, they were still a big NO: HANDS OFF OUR CITY, CCP! NO, WE WON’T ACCEPT FAKE SUFFRAGE! Yes, we want genuine universal suffrage, and yes, that has been the main slogan of the of the pro-democracy movement, but we all knew that given the August 31 decision, genuine universal suffrage was the longest of longshots, at least in the short term. Therefore, the objective of this phase of the pro-democracy movement has been to defeat fake suffrage and the CCP imposition of its will on the HK political system. (if you think I’m rewriting the narrative now that fake suffrage has been defeated, go back and read my essays ever since June 2014.) If you don’t acknowledge that the CCP really really wanted fake suffrage and the HK people were set on denying them that, then you will really have great difficulty understanding the dynamics of the political situation in HK.

So, standing there in front of Legco with my 3,499 counterparts last Sunday, I was disappointed and I feared the media would have a field day, until I thought, Wait a minute — give them a break, give the HK people a break. Nowhere else in the world that I can think of off the top of my head have so many turned out over the past year to demand democracy, nowhere else have such large numbers come out to so many pro-democracy events. The number surely runs in the millions. And I did a quick tally in my head.

June 4, 2014 candlelight vigil 180,000

June 22 to 29, 2014 referendum on genuine universal suffrage 800,000

July 1, 2014 march 530,000

September 28 to December 11 occupations 500,000

June 4, 2015 vigil & other commemorations 138,000

That’s 2,118,000 participants. And that’s just the massive events. There were plenty of others with numbers in the tens of thousands, thousands, hundreds, dozens. So a fairly conservative estimate would place the number of participants in pro-democracy events in HK over the past year at 2.2 million. That’s astounding; that’s 30% of the HK population of 7.188 million, 44% of the 5 million or so HK people eligible to vote, 62% of the 3.5 million people registered to vote in HK. Of course, there are overlaps. For example, I participated in every one of those events, so you’re counting me multiple times. A good core of that number is people who came out time and time again. But even taking that into account, it’s a lot, especially taking into account that HK has a low unemployment rate of about 3% along with amongst the longest working hours in the world. It’s not as if HK people are sitting around with nothing to do but protest; just the opposite: they made a concerted effort to take time out from their often overly busy lives to stand up for their rights, often substantial time, often at a substantial sacrifice of other areas of their lives.

Looked at that way, I thought, looking at the 3,499 people arrayed in front of me at Legco, give these people a break; give HK people a break. What else do you expect a people to do? How else can they go about expressing their will, their clear demand for real democracy, real autonomy, that HK people choose their own government, their own legislative representatives, that HK people have full political participation and a real say in running their city? (Of course, there’s a lot more we could do, and we could do a lot of things better, but you get my point.)

And thinking of the millions who had come out over the past year to demand their basic right and that we were on the brink of succeeding in denying the CCP its desire to infringe that right in a way that would be legally decisive (with the implementation of “universal suffrage”, the CCP would be under no legal obligation to change the political system further, and HK would essentially, legally speaking, be at its mercy, never a good position to be in with a dictator), my eyes were almost filled with tears, and I felt great love and respect for those 3,499 gathered around me and the millions of others who had raised their voice and spoken out over the past year. They had shown tenacity, perseverance, courage, integrity, principle, morality, creativity, discipline, determination, dedication, commitment to nonviolence, diversity, joy, audacity, humility, community-mindedness and collaboration, anarchy (in the best sense- ability to live and work constructively together without government), the ability to endure suffering and face the truth head-on, great care and responsibility for their society and future generations and a vision for that society based on equality, freedom and real democracy. And at least in that moment I thought, Yes, perhaps there is still some hope yet for HK. It is not a thought I always have.

Photo: Alcuin Lai via Flickr

Kong Tsung-gan is the pen name of the author of Liberate Hong Kong: Stories from the Freedom Struggle and two other books about Hong Kong.