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Keeping the democratic struggle alive after the Occupy Movement

By Tracy Cheung and Godric Leung 

“Stop charging or we use force!”

Minutes after the final warning flag was unfurled, several blasts pierced through protesters’ angry cries as police in riot gear fired volleys of tear gas into the crowd. Streams of pungent smoke filled Harcourt Road, an artery outside Tamar government headquarters, where thousands of protesters were jostling against the police cordon. Many choked as they screamed and dashed back. More retreated to nearby Tamar Park in panic. Meanwhile, those suffering the effects of the suffocating gas kneeled on the ground in tears and breathed heavily.

It was 5:57 pm on September 28, the first day of a city-wide occupy movement to demand universal suffrage. “We had never imagined police would use tear gas on a main road,” says Angie Lam Yin-shan, a 21-year-old student protester from Baptist University who was caught in the chaos when police dispersed the crowds. “My friends saw thick smoke coming from behind. We then started running at full speed,”

Angie Lam gets ready to face tear gas and pepper spray

Heightened tension persisted in Admiralty until 2 am. Although police fired 87 tear gas canisters and more than 40 people were sent to hospitals, thousands of protesters continued to occupy the main roads in Admiralty, Central, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay. “It’s totally unacceptable! How can the police use violence against peaceful protesters?” cried Lam, adding that many of her acquaintances had taken to the streets to protest against police violence.

Lam was a supporter of the week-long class boycott organised by university students which began on September 22. During that week, students surrounded the government headquarters and held civic lectures at Tamar Park. The protesters ended up staying after police arrested a group of students and other protesters who broke into Civic Square, the forecourt outside the Central Government Office.

This led to the midnight announcement on September 28, by University of Hong Kong Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting that Occupy Central would begin earlier than planned. Lam chose to stay as she believed the occupy movement and the class boycott served the same goal: to fight for genuine democracy.

In recent years, disagreements on how candidates should be selected for the territory’s first Chief Executive election by one-person-one-vote in 2017 has turned into a tug of war between Beijing and its supporters and local democracy advocates.

When Beijing announced a restrictive framework for the 2017 election in August, many believed it had “closed the door” on democracy by screening out any candidates it disapproves of. Under the framework, candidates must be endorsed by half of the 1,200-strong nominating committee – which is stacked with pro-Beijing members – before they can run for the election.

Legislative Council President Jasper Tsang Yok-sing is as disappointed as many pan-democrats by Beijing’s hardline decision. Tsang is considered one of the more open-minded pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong. He was one of the 39 moderate pro-establishment figures who signed a petition calling for consensus on political reform in early August. This was when Occupy Central was getting widespread coverage and heated debates on possible election packages were raging among lawmakers and scholars.  The petition was an attempt to draw the pro-Beijing camp closer to middle-of-the road opinion leaders.

“By rejecting any popular candidate, the price Beijing has to pay is the election will lose credibility,” Tsang says, yet he also knows why Beijing cannot promise Hong Kong a liberal electoral framework.  “The risk is someone, Beijing believes, who will cause a lot of troubles for Hong Kong may be elected,” he says. Tsang hints Beijing may have a hard time ruling Hong Kong, especially on sensitive issues, if the top post is held by a pan-democrat who has “no intention of cooperating perfectly with the Central government”.

As Beijing risks damaging its legitimacy in Hong Kong by pushing forward a version of universal suffrage many find unacceptable, democracy advocates are taking to the streets against high-handed governance. Tsang believes civil disobedience should never be a way out of the political deadlock. “Both sides have adopted a tactic of muscle showing. Power-play, rather than engaging the other side in meaningful dialogue. It only causes a spiral towards worse confrontation,” he says.

At a time when many have lost faith in the Beijing-dominated universal suffrage discussion, Tsang insists there is still hope and space for negotiation, but before anything can happen, Beijing should provide enough incentive for pan-democrats to return to the negotiation table. “We have to explore issues [on universal suffrage] that Beijing is willing to concede to, willing to talk about, and which the pan-democrats will find worthy to talk about. If it’s just a minor adjustment of the composition of the nomination committee, it’s not enough,” he says.

Unlike Tsang, some have given up hope on Hong Kong’s democratic prospects. Dick, 23, a fresh graduate from Polytechnic University who does not wish to disclose his full name, used to be active in street protests. Like many young people of his age, he took part in the June 4 vigil, the July 1 demonstration and in the anti-national education protests in 2012. But increasingly, he feels powerless and apathetic about Hong Kong’s political reality.

“You can see China has a firmer grip on Hong Kong,” Dick says. “Though people take to the streets and protest peacefully as usual, I think these are just sound bites and slogans, with little effect,”

Dick thinks only when people dare to give up their lives for political change will sufficient bargaining power for the opposition be created. Yet most protesters are unwilling to risk their careers and families for democracy, and neither is he. “I have some feeling [about politics]. But I control it. You still have to work tomorrow, you still have to go to school, unless you give up all other things,” he sighs.

When Professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting laid out his plans to Occupy Central last year, Dick was impressed by his notion of civil disobedience. But his faith in the movement gradually eroded when he realized that no matter how many people took to the streets and how many roads got blocked, the authorities would never back down.

“Just voicing [your opinion] is far from enough. People sit there and wait for somebody to lead them, guide them … it has to be much more than the current stalemate,” he says after witnessing a week of occupy movements. Convinced there is nothing he can do to change the political situation, Dick is now considering emigrating to a European country with his family, leaving behind the dim political future of his birthplace.

October’s occupy movement is an outburst of public anger that shows Hongkongers’ determination to gain genuine democracy through non-violent means. At the time of writing, sections of the city’s busiest business and shopping hubs remain occupied. The number of sit-in protesters has dwindled only to swell again after police and anti-occupy groups forcibly removed the protesters’ barricades; resentment about the disruptions to daily life grew and some of the occupied roads reopened. After weeks of false moves and recriminations the government and student representatives finally held talks.

But there was no immediate sign of a breakthrough.  The government said it would consider submitting a report on the views expressed in Hong Kong since the NPCSC decision and set up a multiparty platform to discuss political reform after 2017. This satisfied neither the student representatives nor many of the occupiers. A poll aimed at gauging opinion among the movement’s supporters on the measures was scrapped just three hours before it was due to begin, throwing up more questions about what the next steps for the movement would be.

This leaves many asking the same frustrating question: Where is Hong Kong headed after the occupy movement?

Professor Chan Kin-man, a co-founder of Occupy Central stayed in occupied Admiralty for a month to witness the birth of a self-sustained mass movement initiated by ordinary citizens.

“The ultimate goal of civil disobedience is civic awareness. It’s a significant civic awakening on the part of the public, who have some motivation and autonomy,” Chan says. In the occupied zones, protesters volunteered to prepare food, clean up, replenish daily and medical supplies and decorate their common areas with creative artwork.

Chan believes the occupy movement has changed many things, not just the future direction of social movements, but also the governance of Hong Kong. “(The Government) is neither confronting pan-democrats, founders of Occupy Central nor student leaders. It’s confronting the whole generation,” he says, adding the government should take the initiative and show sincerity by negotiating with democratic forces, otherwise the mass movement will only escalate as protesters try to build up more bargaining power. “We have exploited all the mild strategies … People have already occupied the roads. What else can you expect? A revolution?”

Occupy Central co-founders have said repeatedly, Hong Kong is in an era of civil disobedience. As Chan wrote in his blog, instead of a single protest or petition, recent events mark the birth of a new generation for which, a changed mindset is needed to fight for the space to live under authority’s rule. According to this view, defying the law can be a way to challenge structural injustice, but some fear confrontation will only create a more divided society.

Cheung Chor-yung, senior lecturer of political science at City University of Hong Kong, represents the moderate scholarly view on Hong Kong’s democratic development. “Between Hong Kong and China there is a huge power disparity” Cheung says, adding he feels really let down by Beijing’s unyielding attitude. “Our danger is when we confront Beijing, it’s hard to turn back.”

He fears if Hong Kong people fight recklessly with the ruling party, Beijing will quicken the pace of trampling on the “one country two systems” policy, thereby ruling out all the possibilities for democratic reform.

Back in August, Cheung was one of a group of 18 scholars who proposed a moderate alternative election package, which suggested more flexibility under the framework of the Basic Law without challenging Beijing’s bottom line of preserving the nominating committee. Beijing gave the proposal the cold shoulder, as it did to other progressive frameworks from the pro-democracy camp that suggested various degrees of nomination by ordinary voters.

However disappointed they may be, the veteran advocate for democracy urges Hong Kong people not to be disheartened and to fight on. “Winning democracy from an authoritarian regime is never easy,” he says. “We must try, until we have reached the last resort. It will be difficult. And we may never win the game.”

Felix Tsang in the Admiralty occupied zone

“The only way is to try to outlast them by counting on young people… Can young people nowadays be ruled like in the past? It simply doesn’t work,” Cheung says. “Sacrifice in glory is easy, yet fighting on is hard … There must be ups and downs on the road to democracy. All that matters is how determined we are,” he says.  To strive for democracy in the long run, Cheung stresses Hong Kong people must defend our strong civil society and our freedoms, passing the torch to the next generation who will continue the fight.

Felix Tsang Ho-ching, an 18-year-old creative media student of Hong Kong Design Institute was on the frontline throughout the whole occupy movement. From Admiralty to Mong Kok, and then on to Causeway Bay, he stood firm in the occupied zones even when few protesters stayed and when fear of clearance by police was running high.

Months before the Occupy movement started, Tsang, like many of his friends hesitated about whether to support it actively and bear the legal   consequences. “Yet when Beijing closed the door on genuine democracy, I realised I must stand out. It’s not my choice. It’s the choice of an epoch,” he says.

In the evening of September 28, when police dispersed the crowds in Admiralty by firing tear gas, Tsang was loading supplies for the protest near the Academy for Performing Arts in Wan Chai, a 10-minute walk away from the confrontation. When he watched a live broadcast of the police clearance, he could not believe such disturbing scenes could take place in Hong Kong. “It’s like watching a live film of the Tiananmen Square protest. There are people screaming, smoke and dispersing crowds … Even if I had been there, I could have done nothing. I feel really helpless. ” he says. However, Tsang was not bowed by the police violence and possible arrests. On the contrary, the upbeat mood of protesters and their unity emboldened him throughout the whole protest.

“When I see so many people occupying together, thousands of people stayed behind outside government headquarters, I have no fear, even if they arrest me… I may break the law, but I do nothing wrong,” he says firmly.

There must come a time when the occupy protesters will leave the battlefield and resume their routine lives, yet Tsang is confident the movement has planted a seed in everyone’s heart, and the battle will never end. At least, the young people will fight on. “The rulers may be powerful, but we need not back down. If we give up, there will be no hope,” he says.

 Edited by Cindy Ng


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