HONG KONG -- The world was transfixed late last September as tens of thousands of young protesters here took to the streets to demand the city’s next leadership election, in 2017, be a free competition with universal suffrage. The humble umbrellas they used to defend themselves against the tear gas, batons and pepper spray of the riot police gave the movement its name, and, along with the protesters’ pledge of nonviolence, won them sympathy around the world.
Seventeen years after the city’s return to Chinese sovereignty, few had expected such blatant defiance of Beijing. The government had announced that participants in the city’s long-promised first direct leadership contest would have to be approved by a committee dominated by pro-China loyalists. Student-led groups and democracy activists defied police, and sometimes pro-government thugs thought to be linked to Hong Kong’s triads, and set up camp in the streets around government headquarters, occupying the area for more than two months. Many saw this as a sea change in attitude in a city often seen as apolitical.
Yet six months on, the pro-Beijing politicians appear, on the surface, to have won. The demonstrators' camp has been uprooted by the police. Talks between student leaders and the government came to nothing, as did calls for the resignation of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who even announced last week that he did not rule out standing as a candidate again in 2017.
That election would be the city's first with voters actually choosing a leader, but Chinese leaders have been talking tough, warning of the dangers of "pro-independence" sentiment among some young people in Hong Kong. They have offered no concessions at all on the election rules. In fact, they’ve warned pro-democracy Hong Kong legislators that if they veto the so-called political reform bill, which essentially contains the proposals the movement rejected last year, the city will simply revert to the old rules where leaders were selected by a committee comprised mainly Beijing loyalists.
“Beijing is not in a mood to compromise,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, head of the department of Government and Politics at Hong Kong’s Baptist University. “Now they’re basically threatening the democrats that if they don’t pass the bill, they’ll get five more years of C.Y. Leung as leader.”
Beijing may be growing more confident on the international stage, Cabestan said, but it “remains paranoid about the impact Hong Kong could have on Chinese politics. So it wants to make more people feel the need to keep quiet -- it’s inclined to narrow Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
Today all that remains of the movement is just a few tents on the sidewalk leading to the government and legislative building. The thousands of yellow Post-it notes, with messages demanding universal suffrage, that made up the so-called Lennon Wall nearby are long gone.
But inside the building, some pro-democracy legislators make it clear they simply aren't going to back down. Even the doors of their offices scream defiance. This must be the only government building on Chinese soil where legislators have decorated their doors with stickers proclaiming “Free Liu Xiaobo” -- a reference to the Nobel Peace Prize winner jailed by Beijing for calling for multiparty democracy -- or demanding the release of jailed civil rights lawyer Xu Zhiyong.
In her office with a spectacular view over Hong Kong’s harbor, Civic Party legislator Claudia Mo keeps a sign saying, "You can’t kill press freedom." A bag hanging from the coat rack is printed with the dictionary definition of the word "Hongkonger," which has just been included in the latest edition of the Oxford English dictionary: proof, she said, of the impact of the Umbrella Movement. “I wouldn’t call it a failure at all," she said. "A lot of people seem to be paying attention to the plight of the Hong Kong people.”
But Beijing “has become harder -- they think Hong Kong people are just really disobedient; they have this parental mentality. Like, ‘We’re your parents, and you guys are just like teenagers who are getting a bit too much testosterone. …’”
This will not persuade the democratic parties to sign up to Beijing’s rules on the 2017 election, she maintained. In mid-March she and 26 other legislators, jointly known as the Pan Democrats -- who control enough votes to veto government proposals, though not to force through their own bills -- pledged to oppose the government’s political reform package, even if it means going back to the old system.
Having a candidate vetted by the Chinese government and elected by voters "will actually be worse for Hong Kong," she said, "because after that, whoever is hand-picked by Beijing and got his 1 million-plus votes could claim he’s got the people’s mandate, and could do whatever he wants. So I’d rather we stick with the old rules. At least now people know that C.Y. Leung was returned by just 689 votes out of a 7 million-plus population!”
Mo and her pro-democracy colleagues are currently refusing to cooperate on many government bills, using their veto power to filibuster and delay nonessential bills, and passing only those with a humanitarian or livelihood aspect. Mo rejects criticisms this is damaging Hong Kong’s economy.
“I think it’s actually good for international business,” she said. “I would assume international investors would come to learn very clearly that the place to invest in China is in Hong Kong, or at least via Hong Kong. Because here we still stick to some sense of the rule of law and universal values.”
But others are highly critical of the Pan-Democrats' approach. Just along the corridor from Mo’s office sits legislator Regina Ip, a former Hong Kong Secretary of Security who resigned after public anger at her attempts to pass a Beijing-backed anti-subversion law in 2003. Ip said the Democrats don’t realize Beijing feels it is actually making a major concession by offering Hong Kong's people the right to vote on approved candidates.
“China herself has had no experience of mass elections, so they have to be very careful. But they see universal suffrage in the chief executive election as a major step forward. They think they are taking a big risk," she said. "It’s a gift to Hong Kong. If it succeeds it will be a highly positive political experiment for the country.”
“You can’t blame China for wanting the top man, or maybe woman, to be trustworthy,” she adds. But the Democrats are missing a chance to influence the process, according to Ip. “They could be kingmakers. When we have universal suffrage… any chief executive candidate will need their support."
And there’s no doubt the protest movement and the debate over political reforms have split Hong Kong society. A poll this month by Hong Kong University’s Centre for Communication and Public Opinion Survey found 46.9 percent of respondents wanted legislators to veto the reform package while 40.2 percent wanted them to pass it. Both figures have risen in recent months, suggesting Hong Kong society is increasingly polarized, with little middle ground.
The reform package has “contributed to dividing Hong Kong society more than ever before," Hong Kong Baptist University's Cabestan said. "We’re seeing families divided, so that they have to avoid talking about politics.”
According to Martin Lee, a barrister and a former Hong Kong senior counsel who is a veteran campaigner for greater democracy under both Britain and China, this division may be exactly what Beijing wants.
The Chinese government wanted all along to alienate moderate support by allowing the protest, and the blocking of roads, to drag on, and participants to fall out with each other, he said: “The Chinese Communist Party believe in divide and conquer more than anyone else,” he argued.
At the same time, many credit the Occupy movement with making Hong Kong’s young generation more interested in politics, possibly starting a process that may lead to long-term pressure for free elections. The "unprecedented free expression” of the Umbrella Movement, seen in the myriad artworks and slogans which plastered the protest sites, has left a legacy, Cabestan said. “People got used to speaking and writing their mind,” he said. “They’re saying, why should we censor ourselves?”
Billy Fung, newly elected head of the Hong Kong University students' union, echoes the professor's words. “If there were another movement, people would join in again. People have realized now that politics is linked to everyone’s life."