What Now for Hong Kong’s Occupy Central?


By R. Alan Clanton Thursday Review editor

Hong Kong’s intense political pressures just won’t go away. This is bad news for Beijing, which hoped to once and for all quash the demonstrations and minimize disruptions by systematically clearing out protesters from key city areas and from central locations.

The protests, which have been escalating—sometimes moving in ebbs and flows of activity and intensity—since late spring and throughout the summer, entered a new phase this week as hundreds of protesters barged into the city legislative facility, entering through a side door and overpowering security guards and bailiffs. The government responded by dispatching a large contingent of riot police armed with batons, shields, and pepper spray—but the security forces did not attempt to enter the building. Instead, a standoff ensued in which police now confront the determined protesters. A larger group of protesters massed outside, many deterred by the police.

Those protesters, like the tens of thousands which have occupied the streets and city squares for months, are demanding free elections—which, in this case, means elections without the interference of Chinese officials.

At the heart of the contentious struggle is the issue of how candidates for Hong Kong posts will be chosen. China has mandated that all candidates be screened and more-or-less handpicked by a select committee of party officials in Beijing. The Hong Kong protesters—who are generally known as Occupy Central—want the right to choose their own candidates through direct, local voting. The movement also seeks universal voting rights for all Hong Kong citizens. Occupy Central is named for the area in downtown Hong Kong called “Central,” a large financial and business center with some wide open spaces between the high rise structures.

Under agreements reached when Hong Kong was cut loose from the United Kingdom in 1997, at which time the city was reunited China, Beijing would allow Hong Kong residents to maintain their traditional of democracy despite the mainland’s template of a single party system—i.e., the Communist Party. The partnership was called “one country, two systems.” Hong Kong would be given its autonomy, but it would still be a part of greater China.

But this uncomfortable relationship has been slowly, and some would say predictably, breaking down in recent years.

China has mandated that any candidate running for public office in Hong Kong must first meet a screening requirement by a committee in Beijing. In fact, no candidate’s name can be placed on a ballot without first being approved by this special committee. Occupy Central sees this as an unacceptable form of micromanagement by Chinese officials, who seek to hand-select candidates who will reflect the prevailing party view set down in Beijing. Further, many in Hong Kong see this meddling by Beijing as the first of many steps toward forcing the city-state into complete, docile compliance with the top party officials. In short: what is the point of holding elections if citizens have no control over how candidates are chosen?

But the authorities in Beijing don’t see it that way. There, where generations of political chiefs and government operatives have risen and fallen based on allegiance and loyalty to a single party (or to the doctrine set down by s single individual) a freewheeling process of selecting candidates based on the messy and unpredictable template of mass primaries, competing parties and clashing personalities would be tantamount to utter chaos. Beijing wants no part of the sort of disorder that democracy produces when it comes to the initial selection of candidates. Elections for all major city and state positions are scheduled for 2017.

But China needs Hong Kong’s vibrant economic engine and its power to pump millions of dollars each day through the financial sector. For this reason, protesters angry at China’s unvarnished meddling in Hong Kong’s politics have chosen the financial district and its dozens of banks, insurance companies, investment firms, brokerage houses, and corporate offices as the primary target for disruption. Financial watchdog groups and international business analysts have worried all year about the impact that Occupy Central might have on Hong Kong’s financial power. As the protests have become larger and more disruptive, so too have the disruptions to the economy. Worse, some business analysts suggest that Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s democracy may suppress future investment, damage confidence, and force a downgrade in Hong Kong’s otherwise reliable financial ratings. A postponement of the 2017 elections would be a disaster for confidence in Hong Kong, and may lead to an exodus by businesses and investors who would simply take their offices and cash elsewhere.

Though much of the Occupy Central movement’s activities have been peaceful, there has been an increase in violence over the last few weeks. The protesters who broke into the legislative chambers were angry because of official edicts and court orders requiring the immediate removal of barricades, hand-painted signs, roadblocks, food vendors, and tents placed by protesters in certain areas of the financial district.

And though widely followed in the western media and in much of the Asian press, the Occupy movement receives scant attention within the media of China. When it does receive attention, the movement is often characterized as hooliganism, or dubbed “an illicit campaign.” Beijing regards Occupy Central as tantamount to anarchy and lawlessness, and considers Occupy’s goal of open elections to be a first step toward social breakdown.

Not all Hong Kong business leaders agree with the Occupy movements methods, even if they do agree with the general principles of democracy, universal suffrage, and open elections. Several major business groups and trade groups along with the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, have denounced the protesters for their disruptions to the marketplace and the economy. But the Hong Kong Bar Association, along with several smaller business trade organizations, have denounced instead the police and the Chinese government for smothering democracy and for using excessive force to quell the mass demonstrations.

Since August and September, when the protests began to reach their crescendo, Occupy Central has grown into one of the biggest anti-Beijing movements since Tiananmen Square. The movement consists of tens of thousands of protesters, many of them students and young people, along with an estimated two thousand tents, three thousand sleeping bags, and hundreds of street vendors set up to provide material support and food service. The protests grew so large in early October that some businesses in the area around Central were forced to close or maintain irregular hours. And though by early November the movement lost some of its peak numbers, thousands of students still remain. Now, there are concerns in both Hong Kong and Beijing that things might ramp up again—with tens of thousands occupying Central and adjacent streets.

But parallel to Occupy Central’s key demand that Beijing recognize Hong Kong’s right to democracy without interference from a committee, is economics—not global economics, the market realities of one of the most crowded places on Earth. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places to live, with real estate prices and rental costs that greatly outstrip income levels. Many survive by going deeply into debt, and others simply share cramped spaces in Hong Kong’s many sleek high-rise towers. Younger people tend also to live at home with parents and grandparents, sometimes well into adulthood, and in fact on average, middle-income Hong residents tend to stay with parents until well into their early 30s. Hong Kong has the dubious distinction of having mortgage rates and home prices which are now 15 times gross annual revenue—prices driven up by millionaire investors and over-speculation. This makes an already overcrowded city (Hong Kong’s population density is roughly 17,000 people per square mile) even more economically challenging for middle class residents.

For many political analysts and business experts, the question becomes: how much longer will Beijing tolerate the disruptions of Occupy Central without a heavy-handed crackdown? Or, conversely, at what point does the protest movement win the day—triggering an acknowledgement by China, and perhaps even concessions, establishing Hong Kong’s right to democracy, even in it messiest incarnation?

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