Occupy Central is essentially an effort for universal suffrage, which Hong Kong has never had. Nevertheless, an important side issue is the extent to which the mainland government will have control over local politics.
Before 1997 Hong Kong was directly ruled as a colony of the United Kingdom by a viceroy appointed by the monarch. The viceroy — known as the Governor of Hong Kong — appointed other government officials, including members of the advisory Legislative Council (LegCo). Indirect elections of LegCo members began in 1985, and beginning in 1995, 35 of the 70 members are now chosen through direct elections.
British control of HK ended in 1997, and Hong Kong once again became a territory of China as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Replacing the Governor was a Chief Executive with essentially the same civil powers. A 1200-member Election Committee, whose members are appointed by the mainland’s Central People’s Government, chooses the Chief Executive by majority vote.
While Hong Kong has thus never had universal suffrage, or even a representative government in the style of the United States or even the United Kingdom, one of the goals of the Basic Law of the HKSAR was universal suffrage, with popular elections of all LegCo members and the Chief Exec.
The Basic Law was hammered out just before the 1997 handover, with all parties, including representatives of the mainland government, agreeing to its provisions. Pro-democratic groups in Hong Kong want to hold the Beijing government to the goal of universal suffrage, even as Beijing backs away from its acceptance of it.
In 2007 the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, China’s de facto legislative body, proposed universal suffrage as a possibility for the 2017 election of the Chief Executive, but the wording of the resolution fell short of promising a popular election. Earlier this year, the NPC said only those candidates who are supportive of the central government would be eligible and that there would be no civic nominations of candidates, virtually ensuring that the Chief Executive would be handpicked by the central government.
In January 2013 Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Associate Professor of Law at the University of Hong Kong, initiated the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement, with the stated goals of popular elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 and LegCo in 2020. Tai set about organizing a people’s occupation of the city’s financial district (called Central) along the lines of Occupy Wall Street for late September 2014.
A civil referendum commissioned by Occupy Central seemed to indicate the movement has broad popular support, even as government officials say any occupation or protest would likely be illegal.
Students took to the streets on Sept. 22, a few days ahead of Occupy Central’s scheduled protest. Violent police reactions to the students led Occupy Central’s leaders to begin their occupation of Central on Sept. 28. In fact, there are several groups estimated in the tens of thousands occupying several commercial areas around Hong Kong, and not just Central.
Police on Sunday used tear gas on protesters and arrested many of them, but today the police pulled back and for now are leaving the protesters alone, so long as they remain peaceful and orderly. Citizens have agreed not to obstruct traffic in occupied areas.
Tian’anmen Square 2?
True to form, mainland media and Internet censors have been blocking coverage of the protests. Many foreign media articles are unavailable, and web services like Instagram are completely blocked.
Mainland commentators have condemned Occupy Central as unlawful and unpatriotic, and alleged that “foreign influences” are responsible for the movement. Representatives of HK’s business and financial sectors have also been sharply critical of the movement, as they see it as threat to Hong Kong’s financial security.
Observers are comparing the HK protests to the Tian’anmen Square protests of 1989, which were eventually put down violently by the military on June 3 and 4, 1989 after weeks of largely peaceful, pro-democratic efforts by students and residents in Beijing. Whether the same fate awaits Hong Kong remains to be seen.
Hong Kong has been under the control of the 1% for more than 150 years. Beijing’s control is just one aspect of it. Occupy Central wants the other 99% to have a say in Hong Kong’s governance. At this point, it’s doubtful they will succeed.