South China Morning Post
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Manisha Mirchandani says peaceful protesters do not want radical reform
Hong Kong people do “civil” disobedience well. We clean up our own garbage between rounds of non-violent protest, we wave our lit-up iPhones 6s and sing songs from popular musicals. Familiar with being poked in the eye by umbrellas during the lunchtime rush hour, we now use them to protect ourselves from pepper spray. And, if you have spent time here or know some of us well, you would understand how remarkable it is to see tens of thousands of people brave police barricades and tear gas. We are a risk-averse bunch.
But we stand here today, and we are not seeking radical reform or “revolution” of any sort. We are just asking for something we were promised long ago in spirit and in law. The Basic Law was agreed as the basis for local governance when the British handed Hong Kong back to the Chinese in 1997. And, as part of this, Hong Kong people were gifted the freedom of speech, civil liberties and an eventual path to universal suffrage.
We are not anti-patriotic, nor are we ruining Hong Kong’s international standing by asking for this commitment to be met. If nothing else, Hong Kong people are a pragmatic bunch, and we understand that our lot is best placed with China: for most of us, proudly so.
It is for Hong Kong’s economic future that we stand here. It is the strength of our institutions, our world-class international norms, the opportunity for fair redress and a certain trust that international investors place in our city that has allowed Hong Kong to emerge as a global financial hub.
Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying was elected by a committee of 1,200 people, and for the 2017 election, it is proposed that a similar body will vet all candidates. In the eyes of the people, this is a sort of back-handed fudge on the notion of universal suffrage. Without a real choice, elections become a pointless exercise. And without a mandate, an “elected” leader can hardly represent the interests of its people. We are not asking for wholesale reform. But we are seeking a credible interpretation of what we were promised back in 1984. Thus we are an “Umbrella Movement”, and not a revolution.
When the police used tear gas on peaceful protesters, everything changed. First, gone up in smoke was a golden opportunity for China to demonstrate that “one country, two systems” can work, a viable alternative to separatism.
And is China ready to go it alone, without Hong Kong as an entrepôt? Perhaps so. The rise of the renminbi as a trading currency, increasingly open markets and impressive transport and manufacturing infrastructure means it is easier than ever to trade and do business with the mainland directly. Hong Kong has steeled itself for this moment, and is ready to accommodate.
But in a society where per capita gross domestic product was U$38,000 per year in 2013 (against US$6,800 on the mainland), this movement is less about wealth, and more about our way of life. We have been weaned on the fundamentals of choice, free speech and democracy. And while our former British masters did not impart the privilege, this is the precious legacy we were left with.
History has shown that Hong Kong people know what is rightfully theirs. We may be prone to poking passers-by in the eye with an umbrella on a rainy day in the financial district, but we politely – and with great civility – request that Beijing honour a long-cherished promise made 30 years ago. Or, at the very least, offer a more palatable interpretation of what universal suffrage could mean.
Born and raised in Hong Kong, Manisha Mirchandani is an independent writer and researcher on development issues in Asia