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Hong Kong Student Protests at the Cross Roads

| by Laksiri Fernando

( October 4, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Student demands for greater democracy in Hong Kong has now reached a decisive point, the crossroads so to say. The protesters overnight clashed with the anti-protesters or more correctly the other way round. The police has intervened. It is difficult to imagine that the Chinese government would cave in particularly given the events around the world in recent times and also their conservative thinking on democracy. The name given for the movement ‘umbrella revolution’ is also controversial.

There cannot be any doubt that the people in Hong Kong deserve more democracy particularly in freely selecting their Chief Executive. In other spheres, they do have most of the accepted democratic rights perhaps far exceeding some of the so-called democratic countries in practical terms. That was also reflected in the peaceful manner that the students conducted their protests even in this instance at the beginning. Could one imagine the US government tolerating their students blocking the central business district in New York for over a week?

During the last decade there had been some progress in expanding the democratic space in Hong Kong except in security legislation. This has to be admitted. There were similar protests in 2003 but those were not so maximalist. As a consequence of those civic protests two Ministers resigned and finally the Chief Executive also resigned in 2005 paving the way for change. It was as a result of these reforms that popular voting to elect the Chief Executive was fixed for 2017.

What became controversial is the selection process of candidates. Although the 5 million odd eligible voters can vote at the elections, all those who wish to contest for the Chief Executive position cannot do so. Beijing wants to retain the power to screen the candidates. Undoubtedly this is not complete universal franchise. The proposed system for elections for 2017 might satisfy the Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) which gives flexibility in “equivalent free voting procedures” but not the Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) which says inter alia, 

“Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity….To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors…”

What is at question is ‘every citizen’s right to be elected at an election.’ The fact however remains that China has not yet ratified the ICCPR although it has now expressed the intention to do so by singing the Covenant. China considers universal franchise or full democracy as a goal but not necessarily as instantaneous right. It has allowed the free functioning of a multiparty system but it appears that Beijing does not want some personalities grabbing the position of the Chief Executive position. This has become clear from their recent positions.

What is apparent is a tension within the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. This tension is also apparent within the public perceptions in Hong Kong facing the ongoing democracy protests at present. There are those who emphasize ‘one country’ and there are those who value ‘two systems.’ The protesters in streets obviously come from the latter group. Joseph Cheng diagnosed the situation in the following manner in the Preface to his edited new publication just few months back (“New Trends of Political Participation in Hong Kong,” University of Hong Kong, 2014).

“The central leadership’s indication that it will treat the contradictions within Hong Kong in a relaxed and flexible manner is probably the key in the present circumstances, preventing further political polarization and encouraging discussions to reach compromises and solution.” (p. xv).

The central leadership here means China. However, it is questionable that whether the ‘central leadership’ would any longer treat the ‘contradictions merely within Hong Kong’ given certain developments in the international scene in recent past. First is the Arab Spring/s which destabilized several countries in the Middle East and even has given rise to the extremist Islamic State. More specifically is the democracy protests in Ukraine early this year where a pro-Moscow President was ousted. Even in the past, Beijing has been rhetorically emphasising the ghost of British colonialism and possible international conspiracies in Hong Kong.

An added reason for this concern might be the call for the incumbent (pro-Beijing) Chief Executive to resign but without giving a proper reason.

The call for universal suffrage is obviously a valid and a timely one. The question however is how to go about it. Even the British rule did not accord universal suffrage during their time to Hong Kong before the handover in 1997. Hong Kong is a technologically advanced city and if Beijing could establish similarly advanced and harmonious democratic system in the city it could undoubtedly be a feather in China’s cap. Hong Kong is not a colony (should not be) of China like during the British time and it is an integral part of China now.

There can be implications for the mainland China whatever is accorded to Hong Kong towards universal suffrage and democratic elections and at the same time China might be able to experiment democracy in Hong Kong before introducing it into China. This does not however mean that evolution of democracy in Hong Kong or China would be that smooth. There can be ruptures, change and even confrontations. Explaining the democratic developments in the West Charles Tilly once said the following (“The Formation of Nation States in Western Europe”).

“Between the development of stateness, on the one hand, and the pattern of mobilization, on the other, comes the acquisition of political rights binding on agents of government by the members of the mobilized groups within the subject population.” (p. 35).

However, for this development to occur, there should be willingness to bargain and compromise from both sides; the government and the protesters. This is what is lacking in Hong Kong at present. After a week of protests and blocking of the business district, the threat to occupy the government buildings perhaps was farfetched as a ‘peaceful means’ of protest. It is not clear whether the decline of the offer for dialogue with the government was decided before or after the clashes with the anti-protesters last night.

Nineteen persons have been arrested who were involved in the clashes and the police say that half of them (among anti-protesters) are linked to organized crime in one district. This is not a reason however to discount those who came to the streets against the protesters as ‘all thugs or government hooligans.’ I have been watching ABC News (Australia) on the events, and a mature but an angry person saying that “we need to pursue universal franchise, but this is not the manner to do so. Blocking of the main streets is not warranted for so long.” Democracy or human rights also should take into account the dissent emerging from all sides. One may want to have full democracy ‘here and now’ and one may want to pursue it ‘gradually’ through orderly manner. Both are relevant views in democracy. The best way might be to pursue democracy within the existing structures at least far as possible.

It would be a great pity if the authorities resort to scuttle the democracy movement and demands. It would be a great tragedy if more clashes between the protesters and anti-protesters escalate or the police intervene in a coercive manner to completely suppress the protest movement. There can be many casualties. Those who organized the protests in the first place should have anticipated all the possibilities. Things should not go for anarchy.

In my view, it is completely inadequate for the international human rights or democracy organizations just to support any means of protest for democracy and oppose any dissent in its way. This is exactly what the Amnesty International has done. Now all the other organizations might follow suit. We should have guts and wisdom to point out if democracy movements are going overboard and show potential for violent confrontations. Even if to support these movements, at least there should be critical warnings. Democracy cannot be achieved or should not be achieved through violence. Naming and shaming, issuing statements and promoting students or the young to the streets are not good enough to promote democracy particularly in countries like Hong Kong or China.

The US also has come out to sermonise China and the Hong Kong administration on the matter. The US also should reflect on their actions and record on the world stage from the perspective of democracy and human rights. Within an increasing polarization of international politics, considering also the developments in Ukraine and air strikes particularly in Syria any undue pressure from the West on China would further polarize the world than resolving its problems. I have my serious doubts whether the US is pushing the world for a Third World War, knowingly or unknowingly. Given their economic setbacks, China might be a target. 

If I have any influence on the student protesters in Hong Kong, I would ask them to take a step back at this stage and rework their strategies in a realistic manner. What is lacking in human rights organizations world over is the lack of strategy, road maps or well thought out plans for the promotion and protection of human rights and democracy. Just shouting from rooftops will not work.

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