Hong Kong Letter: A city divided on democracy

A year on since the tear gas and democratic struggle still seen as a long-term campaign

Hong Kong University students, faculty members and staff take part in a protest on Tuesday  after the university’s governing council rejected the appointment of pro-democracy professor  Johannes Chan Man-mun as a pro-vice-chancellor. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

Hong Kong University students, faculty members and staff take part in a protest on Tuesday after the university’s governing council rejected the appointment of pro-democracy professor Johannes Chan Man-mun as a pro-vice-chancellor. Photograph: Alex Hofford/EPA

 

Umbrella Revolution. Occupy Central. Umbrella Movement.

The protest went by many names and they were heady days a year ago, when Hong Kong felt the sting of teargas in Central and tens of thousands of demonstrators seeking more democracy in the territory experienced the elation and fear of standing up to mainland China.

There were 79 days of political wrangling, of tension between the activists who wanted to do more to force the government to allow universal suffrage and the moderates who couldn’t believe that the movement, if you could even call it that, had managed to achieve so much prominence, that so many had gathered to noisily shout for reform.

A sea of yellow umbrellas is back in Hong Kong, one year on, with protesters chanting anti-government slogans outside government house. But the movement fractured in the face of stubbornness by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader, Leung Chun-ying and broke.

The protests failed to persuade China to allow a fully democratic vote for the city’s next leader in 2017. Voters must choose from a list of candidates Beijing has approved, and the leaders of the movement with so many names is settling in for a long struggle.

Once a British crown colony, with nine of its 28 governors of Irish heritage, Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” agreement for 50 years that delivered a high degree of autonomy and independent judiciary. But the deal left ultimate decisions on running the territory in Beijing’s hands.

The Hong Kong democracy movement was the biggest political challenge to the Beijing government since the 1989 democracy protests on the mainland, which culminated in the crackdown in central Beijing in the early hours of June 4th.

In the year since the Hong Kong protests, the Chinese economy has started to falter. And the Communist Party’s attention has become firmly set on ensuring the kind of growth that China needs to keep creating jobs and to ensure stability.

There is a sense of unreality about it all now, those 11-plus weeks of turmoil that swept Hong Kong. Some leaders are wondering if they shouldn’t have perhaps focused on one-day strikes to show they could shut down the city at will.

Others believe the protesters – from the fiery, impassioned student agitators and their professors, to the homework-completing primary school demonstrators – should never have picked up their stuff and left.

Silent reaction

There was the horrified, outraged and chillingly silent reaction from Beijing to the protests. There was the patronising tone of the Hong Kong government, under pressure because of the disruption to the city, and unbending, with the backing of the central government. Their supporters feared that defying Beijing would lead to Hong Kong’s economic ruin. The argument was bitter.

The repercussions are still in evidence. The governing council of the University of Hong Kong rejected Prof Johannes Chan Man-mun’s appointment as a pro-vice-chancellor last month, with students and activists convinced it was because of his support of the democracy movement and his close ties to colleague Benny Tai Yiu-ting, a co-founder of Occupy Central.

Life in Hong Kong is never really normal; the city is famously fast moving. Among the demonstrators in Central you could find Pilates trainers, graduate students, hipster children of the super-rich. Their sophistication made it bewildering that they had no say in determining their own political destinies, but that’s how it is.

They are still angry about the fact that Beijing holds so much of a say in their future, but what are you going to do? Most are happy that Hong Kong’s plight is international news, that people globally know about the democratic yearnings.

The demonstrations in Mong Kok on the Kowloon side of the harbour had a rougher aspect to them. Here they were as much about registering the dissatisfaction of the people of Hong Kong at what the massive influx of mainland property buyers had done to the real estate market, making it cripplingly expensive for ordinary buyers to afford to own the homes they live in, despite being in Hong Kong for generations. These problems have not eased.

A leader during the demonstrations, Joshua Wong is an 18-year-old student who comes across as a lot older now in interviews. He remains defiant and is looking ahead to 2047, when the “50 years no change” dateline that seemed like an eternity when the handover took place in 1997, passes.

“Hong Kongers should not only focus on universal suffrage, but also fight for the city’s right to self-determination. We should, through civic referendums, determine our own pathways and political status after 2047, because in this lies the future of our democratic movement,” he wrote in Time magazine.

“If Hong Kong could exercise democratic self-governance under the sovereignty of China, it would not be necessary for us to take this step on the path toward independence. But what self-determination guarantees us is a government of genuine public consent, no matter where Hong Kong’s path may have taken it by 2047; it will safeguard and protect the city’s democracy and autonomy.”

The heady days are gone, and the energetic demonstrators have taken their bivouacs, their yellow ribbons and their slogans, and gone home. For the time being anyway.

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