Causeway Bay, on Hong Kong Island, is one of the city’s busiest shopping areas: a magnet for locals and tourists in search of bargains on anything from smartphones to trendy fashion, luxury watches to gold jewelry. Anyone wandering through the area in the past couple of days would have witnessed a dramatic transformation. Many shops closed — no cars, buses, or trams. Roads occupied instead by thousands of mainly young protesters sitting quietly, chatting, even doing homework. The usually noisy streets, choked by vehicle exhaust fumes, suddenly transformed into an oasis of calm.
Is this the calm before the storm? That has to be the fear. Shamed by last Sunday’s outrageous scenes of young, unarmed protesters being doused with pepper spray and tear gas, our police force has withdrawn to reconsider its tactics and try and salvage its battered image. Sooner or later they will be back, for our government — with backing from the central authorities in Beijing — will not allow key parts of the road system on Hong Kong Island and across the harbor in Kowloon to be paralyzed indefinitely.
There is something both moving and magnificent about the resolve of the young protesters. But the demonstrations also raise troubling memories of the 1989 student occupation of Tiananmen Square in Beijing and its awful denouement. I don’t believe rumors that the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army is being readied to clear the streets. That would precipitate a collapse in confidence and a flight of capital from Asia’s foremost banking and financial services center that even the diehards in Beijing will shy away from — not least because of the huge sums of mainland Chinese money that have found their way into the city’s banks and stock market.
It is nevertheless crucial that Western governments make clear to China that the world is watching. That the fate of the current protest movement is not just a matter of importance for China. And that the international community expects the Beijing and Hong Kong governments not only to acknowledge the legitimacy of the grievances being expressed but also to bring about a peaceful resolution to the current confrontation.
Thousands poured onto the streets Tuesday on the eve of Oct. 1, China’s National Day public holiday. After a hot and oppressive day, violent thunderstorms added to the drama. In most cities, this would send protesters scurrying for cover but, in Hong Kong, we are used to coping with both blistering sun and driving rain, to sharing water when it’s hot and umbrellas when it’s wet. Ironically, the umbrella has become an iconic symbol of the current protest: It was all that many protesters had to protect themselves from the pepper spray and tear gas.
The question now on everyone’s lips is how can the current situation be resolved? Hong Kong’s head of government, chief executive C.Y. Leung, is demanding an immediate and unconditional end to the protests. This has been met with a defiant response, including widespread calls for him to step down. His resignation is the minimum that the organizers of the “Occupy” movement say they will accept before they call for protesters to go home.
There is no chance that Leung will step down under pressure. He is Beijing’s man, and therein lies the crux of the problem. Hong Kong people have completely lost trust in an administration that is no longer seen to be governing in their interests. The freedom of the press is being eroded. Privileged business and professional elites still have a stranglehold on policy making that protects their vested interests. Key posts in government and on statutory bodies and advisory committees are increasingly filled by candidates whose principal qualification is their loyalty to the chief executive, rather than their competence. The treasured policy of “one country, two systems,” mandated by the Sino-British Joint Declaration and our constitution — the Basic Law — is being progressively undermined.
The decision of China’s “parliament,” the National People’s Congress, to palm us off with sham democracy for the 2017 election of the next chief executive is the straw that broke the camel’s back. Despite having promised this election will be by universal suffrage, only two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee stacked with Beijing loyalists will be allowed to stand. In short, the election will be rigged from the outset with the outcome a farce.
Dialogue is desperately needed to defuse the current standoff, but dialogue implies a willingness to listen, something the Hong Kong and Beijing governments have so far steadfastly refused to do. The ball is now firmly in their court; they must listen to the voices on the streets and offer our younger generation some real hope for the future.
Our young people know what is at stake. They are determined to stand up in defense of their way of life: their core values, their freedoms, and the rule of law — all of the things that make Hong Kong unique among China’s cities. A poignant note, tacked to a roadside post in Causeway Bay sums it up: “Together we stand, apart we fall.”
Anson Chan was chief secretary of the Hong Kong government, both under British rule and after the city’s handover to China in 1997. She is also the founder of the Hong Kong 2020 democracy advocacy group.