When faced with an intractable problem of community concern, the favourite response of civil servants here is the time-honoured delaying tactic of “discussion.” Sometimes, if the problem is important enough, the authorities might even launch a formal public consultation.

Americans would call it “kicking the can down the road,” but the exercise has been underway here for a very long time… the better part of four decades, in fact. At issue are still-unresolved questions about how Hong Kong should be governed and especially about the politics of electoral reform.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her cabinet officials meet the press on July 22. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Roadblocks and potholes are everywhere, their effect compounded by a Chief Executive who made her mark as an efficient colonial civil servant and is now working under the strict supervision of Communist Party decision-makers in Beijing who know only one way to govern, namely, their own. A more inflexible combination would be hard to find.

How it began

The challenge is the same as it has been since the early 1980s, when Beijing announced it aimed to reclaim the property lost to Britain in the mid-19th century. To quiet fears ahead of the 1997 handover date, Beijing made many promises. They included autonomy, universal suffrage elections, and all the familiar Western rights and freedoms.

For Beijing, the challenge was whether it could fulfil its promises and live with the result. For Hong Kong, the task was to create a democratic community, of a kind that had never existed here before, within a Communist Party-run state. To date, things aren’t going too well for either side.

Initially enthusiastic about the new opportunities, activists had begun agitating for universal suffrage elections and all the rest in the mid-1980s, years ahead of 1997. The aspirations were passed on from one generation to the next as Beijing threw up one roadblock after another.

The 1997 Handover ceremony. File Photo: GovHK.

The first after 1997 was to delay universal suffrage elections from the first possible 2007 date, a decade after the handover, to 2017. Some old-time campaigners worried they might not live so long. But when that deadline approached, Beijing issued a decree mandating mainland-style elections with prior official vetting of candidates. This was the August 31 decision that triggered the 79-day occupation of major city roadways in late 2014, now known as the Occupy-Umbrella Movement.

Fast forward to 2019, when all the same challenges exploded into a summer of unprecedented dissent. The trigger was the near passage of an extradition bill by Hong Kong’s partially democratic Legislative Council. The proposed legislation would have allowed the transfer of fugitive criminal suspects to all jurisdictions, including mainland China, with which Hong Kong has yet to conclude formal extradition agreements.

Violent confrontations between protesters and police, heretofore almost unknown, have continued since mid-June and are now extending into neighbourhoods throughout the territory.

Also unprecedented, besides the violence, has been the massive size of the crowds turning out for Hong Kong’s more familiar peaceful protest marches. These have been estimated at over a million people on each of four separate occasions between June 9 and August 18, compounded by a city-wide strike, also unheard of. Protest declarations have been issued by professional groups that rarely if ever speak out: lower-ranking civil servants, lawyers, public prosecutors, airport staff, teachers, accountants, even doctors and nurses protesting police brutality.

What do they want?

The protests began, peacefully, last spring. The first coincided with a march in April to protest the prison sentences just handed down for leaders of the 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement. But as the marchers walked passed, on April 28, it was impossible to tell what loomed larger: the guilty verdict and prison sentences for the Occupy Nine, or the new issue of a law that proposed “sending people to China” for trial.

Chan Kin-man speaks on the second day of sentencing arguments for the convicted Umbrella Movement activists. Photo: Holmes Chan/HKFP.

The just convicted Occupy veterans called it an “evil” law, and one that could eventually be manipulated for use against people like them.

Initially, the demand was simply to stop the government’s bill from proceeding at full speed through the Legislative Council without adequate time for debate. The council is now stacked with an even larger pro-government majority due to the recent political disqualification of several pro-democracy legislators. Chief Executive Carrie Lam doubled down declaring the bill must be passed before the summer break in July.

It was the official urgency that initially goaded protesters, but Lam dismissed calls for a proper public consultation. Protesters then began demanding the bill be withdrawn. Lam maintained full-speed-ahead, provoking the first wave of violence in mid-June, against the Legislative Council building itself, to halt the passage of the bill.

The general public uncharacteristically condoned the violence spearheaded by a younger generation consciously rebelling against the Occupy veterans’ insistence on peaceful civil disobedience. Demands have now coalesced and stabilized around five points:

(1) An unconditional withdrawal of the extradition bill, instead of only its current state of suspension.
(2) An independent investigation of police conduct, targeting alleged abuse of power and use of excessive force.
(3) Amnesty for all those arrested.
(4) Retraction of the protest “rioting” label and charges. Under Hong Kong law, these charges can result in 10-year prison sentences. One hero of the resistance is currently serving a six-year sentence for an overnight skirmish with police in early 2016.
(5) The revival of the electoral reform project abandoned in 2015, after the Occupy protest campaign ended.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

To date, these demands have either been ignored or rejected outright. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has insisted that the proposed legislation is a “good” bill, not an “evil” one. Sooner or later, she said, the bill must be passed so that Hong Kong can fulfil its international crime-fighting obligations. She said this during her June 15 press conference, after announcing that legislative work on the bill would be suspended, but not formally abandoned.

An investigation into police conduct has begun but not by an autonomous commission of inquiry. The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) is not independent, say critics, but is in reality beholden to the authority that appoints it, namely, the administration of Carrie Lam.

Secretary for Constitutional Affairs, Patrick Nip, ruled out reviving electoral reform. He said it would be an irresponsible move at a time like now when mistrust was rampant on all sides. He also said it was for pro-democracy Legislative Councilors and Beijing officials to pick up where they left off on the subject four years ago.

The chants calling on Carrie Lam to resign and popular demands for heads to roll in her administration are not among protesters’ five formal points. This is despite the energetic disinformation campaign to the contrary being waged by angry pro-Beijing partisans and their media outlets.

Patrick Nip. Photo: inmediahk.net.

Also widely mistranslated is a favourite protest slogan, originally coined by the now incarcerated hero of the resistance, Edward Leung: 光復香港, 時代革命 “Take Back Hong Kong, the Revolution of Our Times.”

The slogan does not call for the “liberation” of Hong Kong from Beijing’s rule as officials claim, but for restoration in accordance with Beijing’s original 1997 promises.

Of course, as protesters now see it, that would be a form of liberation … from the on-going erosion of rights and freedoms, and from all the cross-border integration projects now underway.

Who are they?

The very next day after her June 15 press conference, over a million people had turned out for another anti-extradition bill protest march. Far from being mollified, the public was even angrier. For her part, two months later, the Chief Executive was even more grim-faced when she blamed a “small minority” who “have no stake in society.” That was why, she said, they had “resorted to all this violence and obstructions.”

Photo: HKFP.

Inevitably, someone managed to conduct a poll amid all the violence and obstructions. A group of academics drew up a questionnaire, distributed it to all takers, either online via their smartphones or on paper, during a dozen different protest demonstrations in June, July, and early August. Interviewers worked the crowds while events were in progress. The findings derived from 6,688 respondents and were published in a lengthy research report, “Onsite Survey Findings in Hong Kong’s Anti-Extradition Bill Protests.”

The survey distinguished between three main types of protest: organized marches, static rallies in a specific location, and the new “fluid” urban-guerilla type with protesters moving rapidly, via mass transit, from place to place to throw the police off-balance.

A majority of those surveyed were under 30 years of age; more men than women, but not overwhelmingly so; with a great majority of all types and categories saying they had either received some or had completed tertiary-level education.

Over 60% said they had participated in the 2014 Occupy-Umbrella Movement. But respondents also reflected the clear political divisions that have emerged since then.

Photo: May James/HKFP.

Over a third self-identified as conventional moderate democrats, of the sort who have been content for years to march peacefully on countless Sunday afternoons. Together with indeterminate centrists, such moderates made up well over half the respondents. But over one-quarter identified as localists or “Hong Kong First” new-style democrats of post-Occupy inclinations. Those who regarded themselves as “radicals” were under 10% in all 12 protests surveyed.

Yet virtually no one agreed that protesters should give up if demands were not met. And over 40% agreed that peaceful protests are no longer useful. This question derived from the graffiti message spray-painted by protesters on July First when they shocked everyone with their audacious assault on the Legislative Council’s main chamber: “You have taught me that peaceful protest is useless.” Overall, about half felt that radical protests might make the government heed public opinion.

The solution

So, why not a community discussion? By summer’s end, the Chief Executive finally had a plan. She announced it soon after the fourth massive march on August 18. Speaking at a press conference two days later, she continued to reject all five protest demands. But she said the time had come for the community to discuss its difficulties.

She had decided against a formal public consultation but was organizing a platform of reliable responsible individuals. They are to discuss Hong Kong’s current crisis and hopefully propose appropriate solutions. She said she would personally engage in community outreach and listen to everyone everywhere. But in organizing the platform, invitees so far have been the same “safe” politically-correct individuals who have been approved for appointments to all official posts in her administration, and to all others since 1997.

Anthony Neoh. Photo: inmediahk.net

One such individual nevertheless held out an unexpected ray of hope. He is Anthony Neoh who currently heads the much-maligned Independent Police Complaints Council. He told interviewers he didn’t think the police force alone could cope with Hong Kong’s current crisis.

What was needed, he said, was a “political solution” and the necessary decisions must come from Beijing as well as from Carrie Lam’s administration. He said he had told her so many times and she agrees. She says she is working on it.

Since the Chief Executive has yet to give even the slightest intimation that she recognizes any political dimension other than the official one, Hong Kong can only live in hope.

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Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.