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Taking to the streets of Hong Kong: are both sides losing control?

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Protest organizers and Beijing are both losing control of the situation in Hong Kong. What compromises can each side make in order to resolve the chaos? A contribution to the openGlobalRights debate on Emerging Powers and Human Rights.

Han Dongfang
17 October 2014

The increasing protests in Hong Kong may have finally ensnared Beijing in a human rights conundrum. If China is truly becoming a normative power, then other countries in its realm of influence will be watching this issue closely. And if China really is playing the international human rights game—or at the very least trying to bring its actions in line with its own constitution—then its decisions in Hong Kong will have serious repercussions.

I have witnessed the protests firsthand and argue that both sides need to take a step back and compromise.

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P.H. Yang/Demotix (All rights reserved)

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the street to support Occupy Central, the civil disobedience movement, to pressure Beijing into granting genuine democratic reforms. On September 28th, they were tear-gassed and temporarily dispersed, but regrouped again.


After the Hong Kong police fired tear gas at peaceful protestors on September 28th, many journalists started asking me the obvious question: will China send in the People’s Liberation Army to quell any further dissent? Though some might expect exactly that, my answer to this question is an unequivocal no.

The reason is really quite simple: President Xi cannot afford to have any more problems. Xi Jinping already has enough on his plate, with the fight against corruption and the drive to reduce income inequality and social polarisation in China. These are the key issues that he needs to address in order to maintain popular support at home; these are the issues that directly affect his own position as Party leader and ultimately the very survival of the Party itself. China really cannot afford a human rights disaster in Hong Kong. It is bad enough that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung has made such a mess of the situation already—Xi would only make it worse by sending in troops. It’s possible that Xi would not even mind if the protests continue, because they do not really hurt him directly. In any case, he would want to solve the problem without another dramatic scene of tear gas explosions on television.

But this does not make life any easier for the protest organizers in Hong Kong, who now find themselves in a much more complicated position. Almost from the outset, and certainly ever since the police tear gas attack in September, it has been clear that the organizers do not have much control over the direction of the protests. Many protesters are simply acting on gut instinct. Moreover, the students’ initial demands for CY Leung’s resignation, and for Beijing to withdraw its very narrow electoral reform framework (which limits candidates to a hand-picked few) have still not been met. All the while, the number of people supporting the students on the streets is declining, as they become weary of the disruption to their daily lives. Moreover, the Hong Kong Bar Association has now clearly stated that it is not in favour of continuing the protest. So, what should the organizers do? Beijing does  have to pay attention to the people of Hong Kong. If it does not, their voices will only grow louder and louder

First, they need to find a way to ensure that the movement is sustainable and has enough strength to eventually force Beijing to make a concession. Continually occupying the streets is not the best solution. Instead, they need to step back and give all the interested parties—including the legislature, civil society organizations, academics and think tanks—the time and space they need to achieve positive results through dialogue. After a few months, the organizers could then decide whether or not to launch the street protests once again. The worst outcome would be if the protesters break into the government offices and paralyze the daily operation of government, thereby triggering a violent response from Beijing. If this happens, I would urge both parties to learn from the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, where the government showed restraint and the protesters peacefully withdrew after making their point.

As for Xi Jinping, who is facing an unpredictable and highly volatile situation, it is vital that he offer some kind of compromise to calm everyone down. Of course, Xi will not want to lose face by annulling the decision of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) on electoral reform, as demanded by the protesters. On the other hand, he can’t afford a full-scale explosion in Hong Kong, so he might be willing to offer something that technically stayed inside the framework articulated by the NPCSC but still broadened the range of candidates available to the electorate, to an extent acceptable to the people of Hong Kong. My suggestion would be to take the 70 members of the legislative council out of the current 1,200 member nominating committee and give them the same power to nominate chief executive candidates. In other words, prospective candidates would have to either get the nomination of 35 elected legislators or the nomination of 600 political appointees in order to be eligible to stand in the next chief executive election.

Regardless of how the two sides move on from here, one thing is already very clear: the people of Hong Kong have shown that they are willing and able to take action on their own. They do not need to beg for help from the international community (which has already disappointed so many Hong Kong people) in order to resolve their dispute with Beijing. After all, it does not really matter what the president of the United States or the British prime minister says about Hong Kong—Beijing will not necessarily pay any attention to them. But Beijing does have to pay attention to the people of Hong Kong. If it does not, their voices will only grow louder and louder.

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