Hong Kong’s unprecedented protests and civil disobedience movement were launched last Monday by the students, scholars and politicians to express their grievances on the decision of Beijing government on the gerrymandered “election” method for the Chief Executive in 2017.
The timetable and method for the selection of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, taken within the National People’s Congress of PRC, was made in response to the pledge of universal suffrage suggested in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. This Basic Law, established in 1990, was intended to maintain confidence and stability in Hong Kong in the transition period after the United Kingdom handed it over to PRC in 1997. It ensures the principle of “One Country, Two Systems”, “high degree of autonomy” and Hong Kong people administering Hong Kong through “universal suffrage” and “democratic procedures” mentioned in Basic Law article 45.
At the end of August, the Chinese authority announced that a rigorous procedure will have to be implemented to select the candidate(s) before voting. The Chief Executive candidate(s) have to seek the endorsement of more than half of the members of the nominating committee, the members are mainly the pro-Beijing elites, and the total number of candidates is limited to 2-3 people. Considering the makeup of the committee, it is very likely that all the candidates will be pro-Beijing elite.
In other words, there will be no genuine democratic election. This decision reflects that the Beijing authority have a very different definition and understanding of the terms “universal suffrage” and “democratic procedures” when compared with the Western tradition. This is one of the fundamental causes for the student campaign and confrontations.
In response to the Beijing’s decision, a class boycott (student strike) campaign was organised by students on 22 September, joined by the “Occupy Central” on 28 September, in a civil disobedience movement to occupy the financial district of Hong Kong to urge the incumbent to give Hong Kong a genuine democratic election. The campaign is still on-going with several thousands of protesters engaged in this movement, occupying the major roads in the city centre.
It is worth mentioning that protests and demonstrations have happened quite frequently in Hong Kong to fight for people’s freedoms, civil liberties and political rights. But it never happened in the form of civil disobedience or involved the use of riot police to crack down on the movement until now. Surprisingly, the total number of protesters increased significantly after the use of tear gas and pepper spray in the Hong Kong government’s attempt to stop the movement.
The use of tear gas has a very special symbolic meaning among the Hong Kongese. The only other time the police force used tear gas against people in Hong was back in 1967 against leftists who initiated terrorist attacks in the city area. Unlike the attacks in 1967, the “Occupy Central” movement is peaceful. The protesters did not equip any weapons, and when encountering the riot police, they put up their hands and did not make any offensive threats. Yet the government still adopted a strong hand against the protesters (including students), which aroused the anger of the general public, who sympathise with the students and the campaign organisers.
At this stage, government has begun softening the stance; the riot police have been withdrawn and negotiators were sent to negotiate with the protesters. I think the event will last for a while before it disperses. Personally I think the Beijing government is very unlikely to give way; the recent insurgency group activities in Tibet and Xinjiang are a case in point. The Chinese leadership will perceive national security, integration and stability as far more important than individual political rights. It is definitely a tough time for the Hong Kong government leaders to figure out a solution for this crisis. On one hand, they have to follow the party line; on the other hand, they have to pacify the outraged public opinion towards democratization.
This incident is a very good case study in my wider research aimed at understanding “deviant autocracies”, i.e. a society with high level of economic development, but still under an authoritarian/soft-authoritarian regime. Since the 1950s, Seymour M. Lipset and other modernization theorists have claimed that economic development has a positive relationship with democratization. They argue that economic development will foster the number of highly educated citizens and middle class, which will play a critical role in establishing and maintaining democracy.
Hong Kong (currently rank top 20 in the world in terms of GPD per capita) falls outside this theory of economic development. My preliminary quantitative data shows that there is rising number of “deviant autocracies” emerging since the 1970s. Apparently rapid economic development is not a solely dependent variable in predicting democratization. In the past few decades, many studies were conducted to identify the factors that may help us to understand democratization. Yet, there is lack of research study systematically analyse the “deviant autocracies”. My thesis is trying to fill in this gap by collecting empirical evidence to identify and study the variable that can help us to study those deviant cases scientifically and solve the puzzles in theories of democracy.
Sai-fu Fung is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He is Instructor I in the Department of Applied Social Sciences at the City University of Hong Kong. He is also Managing Editor of a Springer open access academic journal, Bandung: Journal of the Global South.