The time is now: Hong Kong’s Occupy Central

“Can you not hear that clock ticking? Or is that just the beating of our hearts pounding ever harder? Time is not on our side; it is on the side of the adversary.”

Kong Tsung-gan
19 August 2014
A demonstrator shouts as people sit in the streets during the rally for democracy.

A demonstrator shouts as people sit in the streets during the rally for democracy. Xuame Olleros/Demotix. All rights reserved.

“People who live in the post-totalitarian system know only too well that the question of whether one or several political parties are in power, and how these parties define and label themselves, is of far less importance than the question of whether or not it is possible to live like a human being.” – Vaclav Havel, The Power of the Powerless, 1978.


“…freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed… Oppressed people cannot remain oppressed forever. The yearning for freedom eventually manifests itself.” – Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from Birmingham City Jail, 1963.


“I thought: hope cannot be said to exist, nor can it be said not to exist. It is just like roads across the earth. For actually the earth had no roads to begin with, but when many men pass one way, a road is made.” – Lu Xun, My Old Home, 1921. 

Who are we? How did we get to be this way?

In any freedom struggle, much of the struggle is between not only the oppressed and their oppressor but between the oppressed themselves, some of whom side with the oppressor, and within each of the oppressed, who in struggling against their oppressor also struggle against the voices within themselves that tell them to unconditionally obey authority or that there must be something wrong with them if they have such a grievance against ‘the way things are’, or that even if there is something wrong, it is utterly futile to fight it.  The fault lines are many.  Such is the case in the Hong Kong freedom struggle.  This is the result of Hong Kong’s history as a colony and an immigrant society.

In the entirety of its modern history, from the start of British colonial rule in 1842 up to today (when Hong Kong finds itself under the new colonial rule of the Chinese Communist Party), Hong Kong has always been a colony and never a democracy.  Like the rest of China, it has no democratic tradition.  Much of the current freedom struggle involves building the democratic culture Hong Kong has never had from the ground up.  Creating culture and changing culture is by no means an overnight process.  It takes time.  The question is, does Hong Kong have the time it takes?  

The process of democratic cultural change involves people transforming themselves from subjects ruled by others—which Hong Kong’s people have always been—to citizens who rule themselves.  This means changing the way we see ourselves.  It does not mean, in the first instance, that the subjects ask the ruler for citizenship rights, for the ruler will not freely grant them.  It means that the subjects refuse to act as subjects and instead act as citizens, demanding their full rights as citizens, and demanding ownership of the society that is rightfully theirs.  In the midst of the struggle for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, this is what is occurring.   

Gandhi had the concept of “swaraj” or self-rule.  He certainly meant this politically, in the sense of India casting off British colonial rule and ruling itself, but he also understood that in order for political self-rule to differ substantially from colonial rule, Indians had to undergo the intellectual, psychological and spiritual transformation of ruling themselves as individuals, and as communities.  

This is what is occurring in Hong Kong. But is time on our side?  For at the same time that this cultural transformation of citizenship and democracy is occurring, there is another very powerful transformation, orchestrated by the CCP: the seemingly inexorable assimilation of Hong Kong into a mainland governed by a dictatorial regime. Hong Kong is in the process of being swallowed whole. 

Which side will win, democratization or assimilation? Living in Hong Kong these days, we hear the clock ticking very loudly.

Hong Kong has not only been ruled as a colony for the entirety of its modern existence.  It is also an immigrant society par excellence.  Almost every Hong Kong person (or her parents or grandparents) came here from somewhere else within the last century.  The vast majority came from the mainland.  Modern-day Hong Kong was created by people seeking refuge from the poverty, chaos, terror, regime-inflicted famine, tyranny, persecution and rights abuses of the society whose rulers now colonize us.  These immigrants (our parents and grandparents) built the city we see before us every day, but in spite of that, they never saw it as theirs, they never had a sense of ownership.  As immigrants, their lot was to keep their nose to the grindstone and work hard to materially improve their own lives, to give their children greater opportunities—the typical immigrant’s dream. And our parents’ and grandparents’ reward for building the city is a miserable retirement with no pension since Hong Kong has no public pension or social security system. One in three elderly people in Hong Kong lives in poverty.  

But their children are different.  We were born in Hong Kong.  We identify with Hong Kong.  It is our place, our society.  We have a sense of ownership the older generations lacked.  But we also notice that though we have this sense of ownership, we most definitely do not own this place, our home.  Our home is owned by others far away.  Their Hong Kong minions, fully beholden to them, administrate on their behalf, not unlike the old British Governor.  We experience this state of affairs as an affront to our sense of justice.  We feel our powerlessness as we walk about the city every day and see it changing before our eyes, usually in ways of which we do not approve.  

In all of our history, nobody—not the British and not the CCP—has ever bothered to ask Hong Kong’s people what we want.  And it is astounding to remember that Britain resumed negotiations with the CCP over the handover only seven weeks after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989.  At that time, Hong Kong’s people were terrified at the prospect of being ‘handed over’, and anyone who was sufficiently wealthy and connected was scrambling to procure foreign passports for himself and his family. And now the CCP thinks it can go on indefinitely ignoring the desires of Hong Kong people for full universal suffrage, all the way to 2047 when the window dressing of ‘one-country-two-systems’ will be dismantled, revealing the iron fist.  Of course, at this rate, Hong Kong will be so fully assimilated by then into the mainland that there will be virtually no difference between it and any other mainland city. 

Only within this historical context can one understand what is happening now.  What the freedom struggle in its current manifestation is all about is Hong Kong’s people demanding, “with love and peace”, that they be heard. It is maddening to hear the word “radical” employed pejoratively by Hong Kong media and government and pro-CCP groups to refer to pro-democracy groups threatening nonviolent direct action if the CCP fails to fulfill its legal obligation of genuine universal suffrage.  “Radical” in the Hong Kong context would mean refusing to recognize the legitimacy of the Hong Kong Basic Law because it was never in any way approved by the people of Hong Kong. And a “radical” of this sort would be right to do so: the Basic Law does not have the legitimacy that would be conferred upon it by constitutional referendum; it has never been formally recognized by the people it concerns as legitimate.  

But all pro-democracy groups accept the Basic Law, however unjust the process that brought it about, however unjust many parts of it may be.  If you keep in mind this crucial concession we have already made, all pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong are eminently “moderate”.  Perhaps far too moderate.  If anything, Hong Kong people have been far too patient for far too long, and far too willing to work within a system that is rigged against us.  Now we are saying: “We have had enough!”

The antecedents to Hong Kong’s civil resistance 

Police arrest a protester during the pro-democracy rally.

Police arrest a protester during the pro-democracy rally. Xuame Olleros/Demotix. All rights reserved.Gandhi knew it was just a matter of time.   At the end of the day, there were just so many more Indians than British administrators and resources that if the Indians refused to cooperate, British rule was unsustainable.  The Indians had superior numbers on their side.  Hong Kong’s people do not.  

Martin Luther King and the US civil rights movement had as their allies consistently favourable federal court decisions as well as the goodwill and sense of justice of a significant number of fellow citizens in a relatively democratic state where black people were a minority of about 10 percent of the population. The Hong Kong judiciary will not play a decisive role in the democracy struggle.  Formally, their highest authority is the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, which stands in the way of genuine universal suffrage. The most we can hope for from the Hong Kong judiciary is that it manages to maintain its current modicum of independence. The popular will is not reflected in formal political power, and the ruling party, the CCP, is determined to clandestinely set the Hong Kong population against each other—to divide us against ourselves, a typical colonial ploy.  

Even in the case of the nonviolent direct action movements in India and the US which are today widely regarded as successful, it is important to remember that it took them decades to achieve success, and for years, both of these movements appeared to be going nowhere.  It took circumstances not within their control (for India, the toll of World War II on Britain; for the US civil rights movement, Lyndon Johnson) to bring them to fruition.

Then, of course, there are the massive 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations in China, whose fate, 25 years on, is still almost too horrible for me to regard directly. 4 June casts a long shadow of sadness and horror on Hong Kong, and we cannot contemplate a nonviolent direct action campaign on CCP-ruled territory without the prospect, however remote, of PLA tanks rolling through our streets.

The Chinese demonstrations of ’89 failed just as the Soviet Communist empire was in the process of collapsing, but it is actually China’s ’89 demonstrations that are the rule and the collapse of the Soviet Empire the exception: successful nonviolent direct action movements are rare.  

So where does that leave us here in Hong Kong?  Who are our allies? 

The Hong Kong business community is lining up to get in thick with the big bully across the border. If you ever were under the illusion that they might be secret democracy lovers, the anti-Occupy Central movement has definitely put paid to that: local chambers of commerce, foreign chambers of commerce, multinational accounting firms, local businesses and mainland-owned businesses all know on which side their bread is buttered.

With precious few exceptions, Hong Kong media leadership is either outright hostile or indifferent (sometimes under the cover of ‘objectivity’).  There is the explicitly pro-CCP media (actually very small in terms of audience) and then the media that believes it is commercial suicide to be pro-democracy. The international media has gone from thinking nothing in Hong Kong is worth covering except business and finance to educating itself quickly and reporting with striking accuracy and insight.  But how far is that going to take us?  Such international media attention is fickle and fleeting.   

After the CCP was enraged by the enormous number of people participating in the 20-29 June Occupy Central referendum on genuine universal suffrage (792,808) and the annual 1 July democracy march (half a million), the Party ratcheted up its full Leninist fury.  It has almost certainly been behind a number of cyber-attacks on pro-democracy groups and smear campaigns targeting a number of pro-democracy leaders.  Its methods have shown just how important it is to oppose further CCP influence and infiltration in the city by standing up for genuine universal suffrage. This was the promise made to Hong Kong in the Basic Law in the form of a clear legal obligation. This is the promise that the CCP appears dead set on breaking.  What it wants instead is our complete capitulation. 

It knows that the 20 to 30 percent of the population who firmly demand genuine universal suffrage and actively participate in the pro-democracy movement will not back down.  And it knows it has 20 to 30 percent of the population in its pocket.  It wants those people in the middle - most of whom would choose genuine universal suffrage if they felt they could - to back down. The CCP thinks that in the long run, it has Hong Kong in a check-mate. It may be right.

But the CCP may be wrong.  It may be a victim of its own success. It has so artificialized and falsified large swathes of Hong Kong society, that it cannot tell false from true. It is unclear whether this current anti-democratic onslaught of propaganda and intimidation will succeed.  It could backfire as these people reveal more than ever before how nasty, brutish and clownish they are.  

Still, can you not hear that clock ticking? Or is that just the beating of our hearts pounding ever harder? Time is not on our side; it is on the side of the adversary. 

Let us begin

Which is why nonviolent direct action is necessary.  Or not so much necessary as the only real option left, the only chance.  We have tried everything else, to no avail.  Hong Kong people are too patient, too deferential, too willing to ‘eat sorrow’ and consider our misfortunes our own fault.  We have that colonial, authoritarian reflex deep inside of us, to defer to power and to think of ourselves as inferior. Much of the struggle is deep within. As for the CCP, you would have thought that the Party would at least throw the dog a bone to encourage the dog into deluding itself into thinking that it had something to gain from working within the system, but to do so would have been to transgress its authoritarian impulse.  This dog is under no illusions: we have nothing to gain from working within the system.

So what are the calculations behind this nonviolent direct action campaign? What is the point of nonviolent direct action, if it stands so little chance of achieving its declared aim?

If the CCP manages to ram through mainland-style ‘elections’, it will cement in place a precedent from which there is no return, short of full-on revolution.  It is the first brick in the wall of formal mainlandization of the political system.  As long as the pro-democracy groups stay united, the CCP will not be able to do this.  The CCP is currently trying to trick ‘moderates’ in the pro-democracy camp into swallowing its 'pocket it first' ploy: take a bit of ‘improvement’ now, and more ‘improvements’ can be made later.  But this is not improvement. It is a grave. For the pro-democracy side, no electoral reform would be better than fake universal suffrage. The Party looks to blame Hong Kong’s people for failing to reach ‘consensus’ and thereby simply postpone its promise even longer, claiming that ‘gradual and orderly progress’ is not occurring, through no fault of its own, of course.

The point is, first of all, to draw a line in the sand: you cannot steamroller us. 

The only thing the CCP understands is power.  Working within the system in Hong Kong, pro-democracy groups have no power, so the CCP does not take them seriously. Stepping outside of the system and presenting the prospect of an occupation of the central business district changes the equation.

This draws the attention of Hong Kong people who might otherwise be marginalised, and the rest of the world becomes aware of the severity of the situation here.  Both groups have paid more attention than ever before.

If it is successful, it will force the CCP to react.  Exactly how it reacts, of course, is an open question.  This invites scenarios that border on the far-fetched, but the actions of the People’s Liberation Army seemed equally far-fetched to many demonstrators in Beijing in 1989.  More likely is that the Party will be compelled to devise a face-saving compromise or climb-down.

Some will disagree with that.  They will say that Occupy Central risks provoking the CCP into taking more drastic actions in Hong Kong than it otherwise would.  But I do not think that nonviolent direct action irresponsibly toys with Hong Kong’s future. One cannot predict or determine every aspect of the future, especially when it comes to politics.

We are stronger than ever but infinitely fragile.  Unlike the CCP, we leave too much to chance. Will people really turn out to occupy Central when the time comes? We hope so; the referendum and 1 July march were encouraging, but we do not really know.  And it is a big leap from voting online or marching a few hours to dedicating yourself to a sit-in. Can you take time off work?  Can you afford to be arrested? Occupy Central is a high-risk gamble, for if it fails, it risks sealing the fate of the pro-democracy movement. 

So if it does fail, if we fail, what happens next?  The CCP has its way.  Hong Kong is changed irrevocably.  The already fragile walls between the CCP and the media, business and the Hong Kong government will all but disappear. This is why we must realize the power of our powerlessness.  It is our own society that is up for grabs.  It really is Hong Kong’s last stand.  It is a point at which people have to make difficult decisions between putting their own interests and those of society first.  

I cannot convince myself (or you) with one simple answer.  The only answer I have goes something like this: the struggle for democracy, for a just and fair society in Hong Kong, is also the struggle for my own soul.  In a sense, it is an end in itself, regardless of the result which lies beyond my control.  And though focused on this small place, this struggle is part of much larger struggle, a global struggle. Because at the end of the day, there has to be more to this world than ill-gotten gain and illegitimate power.  Because Hong Kong, as so many places in the world, hangs in the balance..

Havel wrote The Power of the Powerless in 1978.  At the time, he believed Czechoslovakia was so caught up in the Communist deep freeze that it did not even make sense to begin talking about taking political action.  What he meant by “the power of the powerless” was that even in very repressive situations, we have a choice.  We can choose to live freely in each and every detail of our lives.  We can choose to act as if we live in a free society, and perhaps by doing so, we begin to transform ourselves and the society ever so slightly. It begins, by the accumulation of our actions, to be a freer society because we are in the process of liberating ourselves. 

The difference in circumstances between Czechoslovakia in 1979 and Hong Kong in 2014 could not be greater.  Havel’s strategy was essentially to wait out the repression. The Communist dictatorship, so the thinking went, could not warp society any more than it already had. And while doing so, the spirit was to be readied for when the time was ripe for political action.  In Hong Kong, the time is ripe now.  We have everything to lose by waiting. The room for manoeuvre is narrow, the chances slim. Let us begin.

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