China's leader Xi Jinping meets with President Barack Obama in Washington this week, almost exactly a year after the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests that convulsed Hong Kong last September.
Hong Kong may not be on the state visit agenda. But as the two leaders sit down for a White House working dinner Thursday night, three key figures from Hong Kong’s decades-long struggle for democracy will be appearing across town at the 75th anniversary of the human rights watchdog group Freedom House.
Martin Lee, a former legislator and venerable democracy advocate, is one of the three Hong Kong speakers. The others are Joshua Wong, a teen icon of the student-led Umbrella protests, and University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai, architect of the Occupy Central protest that exploded last fall into what became known as the Umbrella Movement.
Their appearance comes amid renewed unhappiness in the former British colony over Beijing’s increasing involvement in local affairs since the Occupy protests ended. China appears to many in Hong Kong as more heavy-handed in efforts to control how schools and colleges are run, in meddling with city politics, and in interfering in many areas of culture and expression long seen as part of Hong Kong’s special identity.
Yet the first anniversary of Occupy Central, an event where hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents camped out on downtown streets, is also bringing soul-searching over what – if anything – was accomplished by the 79-day, student-led protest.
Hong Kong didn't decolonize?
Last week, China’s chief representative in the city, Zhang Xiaoming, sparked fresh concern among those questioning Bejing’s role. He asserted that the appointed leader of Hong Kong, Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, has inherent “transcendent” constitutional powers that allow him to rule above the reach of the legislature and courts.
Added to the consternation are widely reported comments days ago by Chen Zuo’er. Mr. Chen, a semi-retired Chinese diplomat unlikely to speak without official clearance, said problems between the city and China stem partly from Hong Kong people lacking a strong Chinese identity and from “failing to decolonize” after the British handover to China in 1997.
Analysts see such comments as a warning by Beijing against a repeat of the Umbrella Movement-Occupy Central protests, and as support for Hong Kong CEO Mr. Leung, known locally by his initials, C.Y.
Surveys show Leung’s personal popularity is mired at near-historic lows, though the issue about him in Asia’s financial hub is not simply a lack of appeal.
Indeed, the Occupy protests last year were motivated by China’s ruling that citizens here would not be able to vote for their leader in the kind of “free and fair” elections that many in Hong Kong say they were promised. Beijing’s voting proposals were called “sham democracy,” since China leaders essentially decided who could run.
Last May Hong Kong lawmakers vetoed the government’s proposals for elections. It was the first open, public challenge to Beijing’s authority by one of its cities. But the “No” vote by democrats in the legislature also kept in place the same small committee that put Leung in power in the first place. (He was chosen by a 1,200-member Election Committee largely hand-picked by China.)
Ho-fung Hung, associate professor of sociology at Johns Hopkins University and an analyst of Hong Kong-mainland relations, says “the occupation achieved nothing.”
“It did not make Beijing adopt a more open-minded approach on Hong Kong," says Professor Hung. “On the contrary, Beijing pressed Hong Kong harder after the occupation ended. It did not even make C.Y. Leung go. It seems that he still enjoys substantial backing from at least a certain fraction of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Whether he could have a second term is now determined by factional politics within the CCP.”
Hung also says that the “unintended consequence” of the protests is that “in its aftermath, C.Y. Leung and whoever’s backing him in the CCP moved to a more hard line on Hong Kong.”
Three generations: different lessons
Yet democratic leaders spanning three generations who helped create and sustain the Occupy protests are not so negative about its immediate legacy in conversations with the Monitor.
The bespectacled student leader, Mr. Wong, says another mass civil-disobedience exercise will not be effective in the next two-to-three years. Seated in a café overlooking the public park where last year he helped start the protests, Wong likens the Umbrella uprising to “showing hands” in a game of cards: But, he says, having 200,000 democracy advocates camping out in tent cities was not enough to win the trick.
Now, he says, he is thinking more long-term and his focus is on 2047, the year when Hong Kong’s current status of “high degree of autonomy” in China expires under the Basic Law, the territory’s constitutional document.
“Occupy is not the only way,” he says. “Other than following the agenda of the government, we should find another role.… Even if we had won, it would only be until 2046. Then what?”
The government, he says, can always launch another consultation on universal suffrage and roll back everything. So Wong wants to amend the Basic Law through some kind of public participation, possibly a referendum – though Hong Kong law contains no referendum provision and the government has long opposed one.
Benny Tai, the legal scholar who initially planned a one-day nonviolent occupation of Hong Kong’s business center last year, only to see it take off into a full-scale city-wide protest, says the “greatest accomplishment” of the Umbrella Movement’s was to change Hong Kong’s passive political culture.
The Umbrella Movement, he says, has “actually awakened the whole generation – not just the young generation, but a whole generation of people who consider democracy important and who are willing to sacrifice, to a certain extent, in order to get democracy for Hong Kong.”
Mr. Lee, founding chairman of the Democratic Party, for years the main voice for democratic change, says Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong have been interfering in the territory’s affairs, and he hopes that Mr. Xi can bring Beijing’s policies back into line with those of China’s late paramount leader, Deng Xiaoping.
The US, says Lee, has an obligation to speak out about Hong Kong because it has supported the Sino-British agreement on Hong Kong’s return to China, as well as the Basic Law.
The 76-year-old politician says the timing with Xi’s visit is coincidental. China has previously attacked Lee for meeting with foreign governments to discuss Hong Kong, but Lee says he will try to speak with State Department officials during his stay, and will also meet with members of the Chinese community.