South China Morning Post
Comment›Insight & Opinion
Michael C. Davis
Michael C. Davis says leading Occupy protesters should now focus on winning public support for their campaign, while putting pressure on officials to act in Hong Kong’s best interests
Looking out at “Umbrella Square” the morning after the clearance, with cars humming by and workers scraping the last remnants of the yellow stickers off the adjoining government buildings, one may ask: how significant was this Occupy protest and, what next?
This was the place where the best of Hong Kong youth spoke truth to power and where they built a city on the paved highway. Last Thursday, power spoke back as the Hong Kong government hauled away our youthful leaders, several elected legislators, the father of our democracy movement and even a leading pro-democracy publisher.
The humming of the passing cars and the ordinariness of the now cleared streets may lull Hong Kong’s leading officials into complacency, thinking they have solved the problem. They would be wrong.
Umbrella Square, like other famous squares, will surely linger on in the hearts and minds of the people. The youthful exuberance, flashing cellphone lights, public seminars, yellow umbrellas, street art, tent city, community service, study halls, “shopping trips”, occasional flare-up of confrontation, global media scrum, court orders, bailiffs, pepper spray, tear gas and 7,000 police clearing the streets will not soon be forgotten. Even as the protesters are driven from the public space, they have taken back the city or at least the hearts of many of its people.
These things have combined to create a standard by which the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong will long be measured. Taking liberty with Basic Law commitments to universal suffrage, the rule of law and basic human rights will not pass the test. The diminished autonomy and weakened rule of law outlined in the white paper does not pass the test. Nor does the managed election required by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision.
These governments are surely on notice that they will do as they please at their peril. Continuing central government interference in Hong Kong’s autonomous affairs will no longer go unnoticed.
The continued failure of the Hong Kong government to speak up for Hong Kong concerns was at the heart of the protest. In calling for democracy, Hong Kong people are calling for a government that represents their interest and speaks up for Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life.
Hong Kong people have signalled they expect more honesty from public officials. Officials claiming that universal suffrage only means everyone can vote without any regard to a genuine right to choose among the most viable candidates is dishonest and will be rejected.
Public officials insinuating that civil disobedience over democratic development poses a greater threat to the rule of law than the official declarations now under challenge has met with scepticism. Does a white paper that dismisses the Sino-British treaty, claims sole authority over “one country, two systems” in a central government political body, allows the NPC Standing Committee to interpret and amend the Basic Law as it chooses, characterises judges as administrators and binds them to prioritise national security pass the rule-of-law test?
Insinuating that demands for the high degree of autonomy promised in the Basic Law are disloyal calls for independence has been an insult to public intelligence, as has been blaming it all on foreign interference.
Protest leaders have signalled that they will take their protest to the whole city with teach-ins, marches, civil referendums, political and economic boycotts, and further occupations. Both legal and illegal non-violent strategies have been mentioned. Winning public support should be primary in devising strategies. This involves, on one hand, a serious effort to educate the public about their concerns and, on the other, not asking ordinary people showing their support to do all the things protest leaders may be willing to do.
Pan-democratic politicians have lessons to learn as well. They are now challenged to bring a new generation into the fold. The public will expect them to be inclusive and cohesive to gain the support necessary to realise the democratic reform called for in the protests. Their promised veto of a non-democratic model will surely only be the first step in a long-term strategy. Public support should be sought and petty squabbles avoided.
Hong Kong government officials and leaders of the establishment camp face a heavy burden going forward to help the central government to understand the roots of Hong Kong concerns. Nothing less than Hong Kong’s survival, with its core values intact, is at stake.
Beijing’s effort to assure the election of a compliant chief executive by mandating the vetting of candidates has surely blown up in its face. Instead of having a leader simply willing to speak up to guard Hong Kong’s autonomy, they now have an entire civil society mobilised to do so.
Concern about an uncooperative or resistant elected leader has always been a red herring. Clearly, any Hong Kong politician who can gain the support of over half the voters is not going to benefit by dedicating his or her administration to fighting the central government. Helping central government leaders to understand that would be a much more constructive role for the government and its supporters than continuously lecturing Hong Kong people on Beijing’s requirements. An honest election poses no threat to Beijing, and Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law will continue to benefit the country.
At this stage, the Hong Kong government could start on the path to redemption by simply admitting its errors and reporting more honestly in a new report to the NPC Standing Committee. This alone will not restore trust but it would be a start. Exercising discretion in the public interest to not prosecute those arrested may likewise be a good gesture.
Over the long haul, greater public trust will depend on greater honesty about the whole range of constitutional issues and a sincere effort to respond to public concerns. Merely revving up the second round of consultation as if nothing had changed would show no sincerity.
Umbrella Square will surely live on in Hong Kong people’s hearts and serve as the litmus test for future political developments.
Professor Michael C. Davis, of the University of Hong Kong, specialises in constitutional law and human rights