If Hong Kong doesn’t get universal suffrage guaranteed by next year, Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting plans on rallying 10,000 people to block the streets of downtown Hong Kong.
"We expect the police to shut us down because what we would be doing is illegal," Tai said in an interview at a deliberation day on October 26, 2013. If people are arrested, he said, that will arouse the public’s support for universal suffrage.
Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the protest movement conceived by Tai in a January 16, 2013 article in Hong Kong Economic Journal and supported by a number of other professors, pan-democratic legislators, and activists, is in the process of holding a series of public deliberations, trying to build consensus and public support in advance of what ultimately could culminate in a takeover of Hong Kong’s major business and government district, Central, on July 1, 2014.
This particular event was meant in part to address employees of the financial sector and assuage concerns about what it would mean for the industry. Many banks and finance companies have offices in Central, and some people are worried that Occupy Central could hurt the economy.
A crowd of about 80 people were gathered around tables at a restaurant in Central’s trendy Lan Kwai Fong district.
One speaker who works in the finance industry addressed the crowd: "Occupy Central will not occupy the servers," he said, according to a translation provided by one of Occupy Central’s volunteers. Business is done on computers, so there won’t be an impact, he argued. "If there is a traffic jam, I will be late."
That’s the optimistic view, but there are many questions ranging from the level of public support and whether such a demonstration could be successful to whether it is even a good idea. Will Occupy Central end up happening next year?
Tai says he doesn’t want it to happen. He wants to use the threat of the proposed occupation to pressure Beijing into allowing universal suffrage before the proposed date.
A Continuing Fight
Democratic activists have been fighting for universal suffrage for years. In 2010, a campaign for universal suffrage for legislative elections failed to win the reforms demanded by most pan-democratic politicians. In 2007, China’s National People’s Congress Law Committee made a statement authorizing the use of universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election.
But the important issue is whether there will be a democratic nomination process. As it stands now, the Chief Executive is elected by a 1,200 member Election Committee stacked heavily with members of pro-Beijing functional constituencies. Functional constituencies represent businesses and interest groups that are allowed to vote in legislative elections. In 2012, the pro-Beijing parties won 24 of the 30 traditional functional constituency seats, while winning 17 of 35 geographic constituency votes. The Chief Executive candidates are also nominated by the Election Committee, raising questions about whether Hong Kong voters would have a real choice in a Chief Executive election.
Tai, addressing the attendees of the deliberation day, said that the nomination method is an important question to be settled. There are many ways nominations can be made in a democratic system, he said, and that was one of the topics that was discussed by the participants at tables of half a dozen or so people. In April, <i>South China Morning Post</i> reported that Tai raised the proposal of having a nominating panel returned by popular vote.
Not everyone at the forum was supportive of the plans to occupy Central. While the vast majority of attendees support the idea of universal suffrage, there are many who think the risks outweigh the potential benefits.
A businessman who went by the name of Mr. C said, according to a translation, "I support Hong Kong to have democracy as soon as possible," but, "[The commitment to have] One man, one vote by 2017 is a big step. If we bundle one man, one vote with changes to the nomination process, then we might not have either."
A number of participants went to the microphone to share their ideas and concerns.
"What if it affects the financial sector?" a man named Jonathan said. "What if the index drops by 500?"
A financial writer named Ken said, "I want Hong Kong to have a government elected by the people. … But if you ask me to break the law, maybe not."
A number of other people questioned whether the strategy would have any chance of working. After the streets get cleared by police, what comes next? What if the government simply decides to make no changes?
Many in the broader public are apathetic or even opposed to Occupy Central. A group called Silent Majority for Hong Kong, created by a group of six professors, politicians, businessmen, and media figures, has ran ads in newspapers opposing Occupy Central.
"Does Mr. Tai have a monopoly to say if he doesn’t get his way, then everyone in Hong Kong should suffer?" former RTHK radio host Robert Chow Yung, one of the founders, said, as reported by the South China Morning Post in August.
Speakers at the Occupy Central event noted the hurdles they face towards public opinion as well.
Ed Chin, a managing director at a consultancy who organized this event, began promoting Occupy Central to his colleagues shortly after reading Tai’s article in January. "A lot of people are concerned, but they don’t think its a pressing issue," he said.
Democracy is an important issue for finance and business, he said, because business depends on fair play. "What if, five years from now, everything is dependent on guanxi [relationships]? That wouldn’t be good," he said.
"People in Hong Kong have a stable life," Ken said. "There’s 3.5 percent unemployment. It’s not like Greece where the protests were so fierce."
In the end, many people don’t want to risk the stability of Hong Kong. Some people are concerned that they won’t get anything if they overreach. Who knows what will happen?
Regina Ip, the leader of the pan-establishment New People’s Party, wrote an op-ed in the South China Morning Post asking, "Have they calculated the risks and downsides of mass occupation of Central district turning sour, triggering a violent confrontation and even unleashing the People’s Liberation Army onto the scene?"
Tai dismissed those concerns, saying, "People may say they will send the army, but that is unlikely. That would be disproportionate."
On October 24, they did send the Global Times. The state-run newspaper ran an editorial attacking pro-democracy activist Chu Yiu-ming for visiting Taiwan and meeting politicians. The editorial, headlined, "HK opposition at risk of becoming enemy of the State," tied Occupy Central with the "Taiwan independence" movement.
At Lan Kwai Fong, protesters held up a banner that said, "Oppose Occupy Central, Resist the Influence of the Taiwanese Independence [Movement]."
Occupy Central has more deliberation days scheduled. Only time will tell the results.