'Occupy' Hong Kong plan a nightmare for Beijing
By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - Imagine this business-friendly city's business center, Central District, paralyzed for days and possibly weeks on end by 10,000 protestors blocking traffic and demanding their democratic rights.
Such a nightmare scenario was too frightening and painful for any Hong Kong or central government official to envisage - until now, that is - and it is no longer a question for those who like to indulge in speculation and fantasy. It is an actual blueprint, dubbed "Occupy Central'', that has been drawn up by a University of Hong Kong academic and is attracting an increasing number of
followers. It comes complete with a 12-month timeline for action that has the business community shaking in its boots and pro-Beijing politicians warning of dire consequences.
Here's how the plan, brainchild of Benny Tai Yiu-ting, associate professor of law, is supposed to unfold: The movement, so far just a vision on paper, is slated to begin truly moving this July - coinciding with official celebrations to mark the 16th anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese rule - when Tai has called on all those taking part to gather for a public oath-taking ceremony during which they will dedicate themselves to his plan.
The dedication will be followed in early 2014 by a so-called "Deliberation Day" on which participants - at this point Tai is hoping for a count of at least 10,000 - will vote on proposals to bring greater democracy to the city, especially to the election for chief executive scheduled for 2017.
If at any point the Hong Kong government presents an acceptable proposal for universal suffrage in the 2017 election that is "consistent with international standards'', Tai says he will jettison his plan. If the government fails to make such an offer, however, the movement will seek the endorsement of the people of Hong Kong through a sly piece of electoral artifice that would see a by-election triggered by the resignation of a pro-democracy politician from the city's Legislative Council (Legco) who would then stand for reelection; the subsequent vote, which would take place in April or May, would be trumpeted as a de facto referendum for support of the Occupy Central action.
Former Democratic Party chairman Albert Ho Chun-yan, who ran and lost to Leung Chun-ying in the small-circle 2012 contest for chief executive, has volunteered to resign from his Legco seat to prompt the symbolic by-election. If Ho were then voted back into office, that would be interpreted by Tai as a go-ahead signal for the movement, a dubious notion when one considers that the first time the pan-democrats employed this tactic to promote democratic reform, in 2010, no opposition candidate took the bait and chose to stand against the five legislators who had resigned.
In the end, although the five pan-democrats were re-elected unopposed, turnout for the by-election was dismal and the whole exercise lambasted as a waste of public funds that proved nothing.
There is no indication this proposed by-election would be any different, but Ho would most likely be re-elected by his supporters and his reelection then hailed by Tai as Hong Kong's endorsement for his movement, the culmination of which would come in July - again coinciding with handover celebrations - with a 10,000-strong non-violent occupation of Central blocking traffic, disrupting commerce and probably resulting in mass arrests of protestors.
Pro-Beijing politicians and leaders in the business community maintain that Tai and his followers are playing a dangerous game that could forever damage the city's reputation as an orderly, law-abiding international finance center. Lawmaker Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen, who is also chairman of the Business and Professionals Alliance, has warned: "I know that several multinational financial firms have prepared contingency plans [in case the movement goes ahead]. If the political risk is too big, they might move part of their offices out of Hong Kong."
Other pro-Beijing Legco members have denounced Tai and his movement for calling on people to break the law to achieve a political end.
The Global Times, a mouthpiece for the Chinese Communist Party, also jumped into the fray with an editorial issuing this rhetorical blast at Hong Kong democracy advocates: "Those who want to threaten the central government by trying to mess up Hong Kong should recognize that the losses brought about to Hong Kong by their act would be much bigger than those the rest of China would suffer. If they believe [the people of Hong Kong] will support them in using 'economic suicide' as a political gamble, let them try and see."
The editorial added that "China has adequate power" to quash any political threat emanating from Hong Kong.
Strong words, but what Chinese leaders don't seem to understand is that their hard-line approach only further fuels the democratic flames in the city. This became clear yet again when remarks made last month by Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, at a seminar in Shenzhen attended by 40 pro-establishment Hong Kong lawmakers were published recently on the website of the central government's liaison office in Hong Kong.
Qiao appeared to lay down a new and more exacting condition than any that had previously been articulated by Chinese officials when he said talks on democratic reforms in the city should not even begin until the majority of Hong Kong's 7.1 million people agree that no one who "confronts the central government" can be elected chief executive. That would almost certainly exclude Ho, a fierce critic of Beijing, who was allowed to run for the city's top job last year.
A 1,200-member election committee, largely controlled by Beijing, chose Leung over his biggest rival, former chief secretary Henry Tang Ying-yen, while Ho finished a distant third.
Hong Kong's mini-constitution, called the Basic Law, guarantees the city autonomy until 2048 under a "one country, two systems" formula as well as a democratically elected leader during that time. But the Basic Law does not stipulate what form that democracy must take-and there is the rub.
The pan-democrats want a democracy rooted in the Western tradition and worry that
Qiao's remarks are a sign that Beijing aims to establish some sort of screening mechanism to shut them out of any electoral process that is put forward in the future.
Qiao also made it plain to the lawmakers in Shenzhen that Western-style democracy is not the way to go for Hong Kong. "What flowers the Western garden can plant are stipulated by their constitutions," he said. "What flowers the Hong Kong garden can plant are stipulated by the Basic Law."
It is not entirely clear what provisions of the Basic Law Qiao had in mind here, although he might have been referring to Article 45, which states in part: "The Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be selected by election or through consultations held locally and be appointed by the Central People's Government."
The appointment authority granted to the central government in the article appears to allow Beijing veto power over any leader elected by the people of Hong Kong. But the article also calls for the chief executive to be chosen "by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures"-and these are the words that Tai and his followers plan to take to the streets of Central.
How do ordinary people in Hong Kong see all this?
So far, reports in local media indicate that, while most people strongly disagree with Qiao's remarks, they also do not support the Occupy Central movement. Tai may eventually gather his army of 10,000 demonstrators, but a silent majority will be staying home.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1
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