Regional Stability

After April Stalemate, Could Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement Rise Again?

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Protesters in Hong Kong during the “Umbrella Revolution”. Image: Pasu Au Yeung/Wikimedia

This article was originally published by the IPI Global Observatory on 5 May 2015.

With Hong Kong’s April reform package to elect a new chief executive in 2017 falling far short of creating genuine universal suffrage, and doing little to bridge the region’s political divides, the battle between the government and pro-democracy supporters for hearts and minds has been revived. The “umbrella” movement that caught the world’s attention last year could therefore resurface in the coming weeks and months.

By strictly following an August 2014 decision made by China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), the April package angered pro-democracy members of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council—the so-called “pan-democrats” who supported the street-based umbrella movement—who want to preserve the region’s autonomy as part of the “one country, two systems” model.

The NPCSC stipulated Hong Kong’s chief executive could be elected by a “one person, one vote” system, but the two-to-three candidates would be chosen by a nominating committee, and would need to be supportive of China. The requirement of this committee being “broadly representative” could also be met by replicating Hong Kong’s existing election committee, which comprises 1,200 members, the majority of whom are pro-Beijing.

Hong Kong’s current chief executive, CY Leung, also regarded as pro-Beijing, urged lawmakers to approve the proposal, while the Chinese State Council’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office called it “legal, feasible, rational, and pragmatic.” Pan-democrats walked out of the Hong Kong Legislative Council and vowed to veto the proposal, claiming it would introduce “fake” universal suffrage.

The local government recently launched a campaign called “Make It Happen,” which seeks to build strong public opinion in favor of the reform proposal, and put pressure on the pan-democrats, who are being painted as denying people the chance to vote in the 2017 election. However, it is unlikely that this criticism will move the pan-democrats to support the reform proposal, as doing so might amount to committing political suicide among their supporters.

The NPCSC’s August 2014 decision was the original trigger for the pro-democracy protests of last year. The main reason for the movement was the continuous indifference shown by Beijing and the local government to demands for genuine universal suffrage. But a number of other issues also spurred the demonstrators. These included growing economic disparities, inadequate social welfare for an aging population, affordable housing, the close relationship between business tycoons and government officials, environmental pollution, discrimination against the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual community, and overcrowding by Chinese visitors.

Given this range of grievances, Hong Kong’s chief executive should have played an active role in mediating among residents, or between them and Beijing. After all, under the region’s Basic Law, the office has a responsibility to the Hong Kong people as well as to Central Government. Many, however, consider Leung to have failed in this respect, and to be an agent of the Chinese Communist Party.

For all its intent, the umbrella movement did not really result in any tangible achievements. In this way, it was disappointing when compared with the past successes of massive Hong Kong public protests. In 2003 these saw the shelving of a proposed national security law, and again in 2012 they blocked the introduction of a national education platform in school curriculum.

This lack of success may explain how the frustration of the protesters and their disenchantment with the pro-business administration in Hong Kong found another target earlier this year: the increasing numbers of Chinese tourists and “parallel traders” who purchase bulk quantities of high quality goods from Hong Kong and resell them in mainland China.

Those protests were much smaller in size, but more aggressive in nature than the ones in 2014. In essence, Hong Kong’s residents were asserting that their “way of life,” which the Basic Law guarantees will remain unchanged until 2047, was being threatened by millions of annual visitors from mainland China, some of who stayed for only for a few hours at a time.

The demonstrations also reflected the radicalization of a social movement that started as a peaceful, non-violent, and inclusive struggle. As compared with the umbrella movement, the recent protests put a more visible strain on mainland-Hong Kong relations and also allegedly affected Hong Kong’s reputation as a tourist destination. Surprisingly, they also resulted in a more swift remedial action, as residents of the Chinese border city of Shenzhen were restricted to one trip to Hong Kong per week.

Hong Kong’s governance crisis and political uncertainties are likely to continue for some time, regardless of whether the Legislative Council approves the current reform proposal or not. A solution will not be possible unless both sides develop some form of mutual trust and hold an open dialogue about each other’s apprehensions, as well as constitutional aspirations.

Whatever unfolds in Hong Kong in the next few years will also have wider implications. The conflict is not merely about universal suffrage in 2017. The wider issue at stake is the future of “one country, two systems” until 2047 and beyond. The people of Taiwan will also be keeping a close eye on how Beijing deals with Hong Kong, as they try to preserve their own autonomy in the face of an increasingly powerful mainland.

Rather than the end of the protests, this is the beginning of a “constitutional moment” that should have a bearing on the political system in greater China. The continuing political divisions in Hong Kong also illustrate the emerging clash between the Western understanding and the Chinese interpretation of what is meant by democracy, universal suffrage, human rights, constitutionalism, and the rule of law.

Surya Deva is an Associate Professor in the School of Law at the City University of Hong Kong.

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