Last Stand In Hong Kong
The Power of the Powerless
Editor’s Note: Tens of thousands of government supporters marched in Hong Kong on Sunday August 17th to express their opposition to a pro-democracy movement that has threatened to bring Asia’s biggest financial center to a standstill if the government does not open up the nomination process for electing the city’s top leader. A democracy activist in Hong Kong, writing under a pseudonym for fear of government reprisals, writes exclusively for The Reporters Inc. about the growing movement for expanded social and political freedom in the region.
BY KONG TSUNG-GAN (江松澗)
“The post-totalitarian system touches people at every step, but it does so with its ideological gloves on. This is why life in the system is so thoroughly permeated with hypocrisy and lies: government by bureaucracy is called popular government; the working class is enslaved in the name of the working class; the complete degradation of the individual is presented as his ultimate liberation; depriving people of information is called making it available; the use of power to manipulate is called the public control of power, and the arbitrary abuse of power is called observing the legal code; the repression of culture is called its development; the expansion of imperial influence is presented as support for the oppressed; the lack of free expression becomes the highest form of freedom; farcical elections become the highest form of democracy; banning independent thought becomes the most scientific of world views; military occupation becomes fraternal assistance. Because the regime is captive to its own lies, it must falsify everything. It falsifies the past. It falsifies the present, and it falsifies the future. It falsifies statistics. It pretends not to possess an omnipotent and unprincipled police apparatus. It pretends to respect human rights. It pretends to persecute no one. It pretends to fear nothing. It pretends to pretend nothing…
“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”
— From The Power of the Powerless, by Vaclav Havel
“…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.”
— From Letter from Birmingham City Jail, by Martin Luther King, Jr.
“…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.”
— From My Old Home, by Lu Xun
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. There can also be a struggle 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.” Those same voices may tell them it is utterly futile to fight it.
The fault lines are many, and such is the case in the Hong Kong freedom struggle.
In the entirety of its modern history, from the start of British colonial rule in 1842 up until today (when Hong Kong is essentially under a new colonial rule of the Chinese Communist Party, or CCP), Hong Kong has always been a colony and never been 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–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 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, the subjects ask the ruler for citizenship rights, for the ruler will not freely grant them. It means the subjects refuse to any longer act as subjects and instead act as citizens, demanding their full rights as citizens, demanding ownership of the society that is rightfully ours, taking our fate into our own hands. In the midst of the struggle for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, this is what is occurring. But again, does Hong Kong have the time it takes?
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 said 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, as communities. They had to stop being subjects and start being citizens, they had to take responsibility for their own lives and their own society, and not allow people far away to make decisions for them. This is what is occurring in Hong Kong.
But again, do we have time? 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 at-times 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? On whose side is time? 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.
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. That’s the thanks they get for building the city. A common sight on Hong Kong streets is old people half bent over pushing trolleys loaded with cardboard they’ve collected for recycling, slaving away ‘til the day they die.
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 don’t own this place, our home. Our home is owned by others far away. We are their Hong Kong minions, fully beholden to them, and we administrate on their behalf. 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. But we have no say.
In all of our history, nobody—not the British and not the CCP—has ever bothered to ask Hong Kong people what we want. Hong Kong was simply handed by the UK over to China like a gift box with its people rattling about inside. And “handover”, yes, what an amazing metaphor: Here you go! Seven million people in a nice tidy box, just as you please! In these days when the UK has neglected to so much as utter a peep about the CCP’s implementation of its end game for Hong Kong (oh, sorry, there was a peep, a very faint peep- what did you say? Oh, yes, something about genuine choice mumble mumble trade agreements mumble mumble), it’s astounding to remember that Britain resumed negotiations with the CCP over the handover only seven weeks after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989. Seven weeks.
At that time (July 1997), Hong Kong 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. But Britain was apparently blithe. Oh, everything should work out OK in the end, give or take a massacre or two. (And since then it’s repeated the self-hypnotizing mantra, “Everything’s working out OK.”)
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, by that time, Hong Kong will be so fully assimilated into the mainland that there will be virtually no difference between it and any other mainland city. Or so the CCP’s game plan goes. Which is why they’re so furious with Hong Kong people for maybe having a different idea. The CCP perceives us attempting to thwart its plan.
What the freedom struggle in its current manifestation is all about is Hong Kong people saying, “Hey, no one’s ever bothered to ask us what we want, and you still don’t want to hear it, but we demand that you hear it. And we are demanding firmly but rationally, ‘with love and peace,’ having already made substantial concessions you don’t seem to recognize.”
It’s 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 keep its promise, 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 Hong Kong people (indeed, it was never so much as put to the Hong Kong people for approval).
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, far too willing to work within a system that is rigged against us. Now we’re saying, “Enough! We’ve had enough!”
But will that be enough? I suspect not. In terms of “real power” (the only kind the CCP recognizes and takes seriously), what do we Hong Kong people have going for us? Not much, I’m afraid. Perhaps only the power of the powerless, whatever that’s worth.
Hong Kong in light of Gandhi and Martin Luther King and ’89
Before looking at why nonviolent direct action (often referred to by the less satisfactory term, civil disobedience) is perhaps the only hope for Hong Kong, let’s put things in perspective and compare the nonviolent direct action movement for genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong to famous historical antecedents elsewhere.
Gandhi and he people of India knew it was just a matter of time. They could outwait the Brits. 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 obviously doesn’t. There are 7 million Hong Kong people, and 1 billion mainlanders (or, maybe more to the point, 86 million Chinese Communist Party members). These days, Hong Kong people feel almost inundated by the number of mainland visitors. The number of mainland immigrants per year is about 54,000. One cannot help but think that part of the CCP’s end game for Hong Kong involves the “mainland-ization” of Hong Kong’s population, much as in Tibet and Xinjiang, the process very different from the type of immigration from the mainland that occurred in the mid-20th century.
Martin Luther King and the U.S. civil rights movement had, as their allies, consistently favorable 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% of the population. Then, to top it all off, President Lyndon Baines Johnson, a southerner from the state of Texas, “got religion” and the mountain was moved. 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 (NPCSC), the very same big gorilla standing in the way of genuine universal suffrage. The CCP has never been very big on separation of powers or checks and balances–maybe the NPCSC should be renamed the Standing-in-the-Way Committee. As a result, the most we can hope for from the Hong Kong judiciary is that it manages to maintain its current modicum of independence. We don’t have the democracy the U.S. had so 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. On top of this, the prospect of a Hong Kong Chief Executive “getting religion” à la LBJ is remote, to put it mildly.
Even in the case of the nonviolent direct action movements in India and the U.S. which are today widely regarded as successful, it is important to remember that it took them literally decades to achieve success, and for years, both of these movements appeared to be going nowhere. It took dei ex machina– that is to say, circumstances not within their control (for India, the toll of World War II on Britain; for the U.S. civil rights movement, LBJ) to put them over the hump.
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, without blinking or closing my eyes. June 4 casts a long, long shadow of sadness and horror on Hong Kong, and we cannot contemplate a nonviolent direct action campaign on CCP-ruled territory without, in the back of our minds, the prospect–however remote–of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tanks rolling the streets.
The Chinese demonstrations of ’89 failed just as the Soviet Communist empire was in the process of collapsing, but it’s actually China’s ’89 demonstrations that are the rule and the collapse of the Soviet Empire the exception. Successful nonviolent direct action movements are quite rare. They happen, yes indeed they do, and they give tremendous cause for hope, but most of the time, most nonviolent direct action movements fail. That is the simple truth. Just as most political movements fail. Sorry to be such a downer!
(For a good counter-argument, to perhaps improve your mood, see Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict by Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, available free online. Gene Sharp’s classic From Dictatorship to Democracy is also there.)
So where does that leave us here in Hong Kong? What do we have going for us? If India had numbers and the civil rights movement had the courts and widespread support in a democratic country, who are our allies?
Perhaps leaders of the Hong Kong business community? That’s a laughable notion. If you were ever under the illusion they might be secret democracy lovers, the Anti-Occupy Central Movement has definitely put an end to that. Local chambers of commerce, foreign chambers of commerce, multinational accounting firms, local businesses, mainland-owned businesses, the list goes on and on. They’re lining up to get in thick with the big bully across the border. They know on which side their bread is buttered (or think they do).
The Hong Kong media? There are lots of great journalists and reporters in Hong Kong, but they’re not the ones with the power. With precious few exceptions, Hong Kong media leadership is either outright hostile or indifferent (sometimes with the alibi of “objectivity”). There is the explicitly pro-CCP media (actually very small in terms of audience) and then the media that believe it’s commercial suicide to be pro-democracy because those very same businesses which are de facto pro-dictatorship will withhold advertising. Case in point: big international banks like HSBC and Standard Chartered have done this with Apple Daily, the only pro-democracy publication with any substantial market share.
Foreign governments? From the U.S. and UK about as much as we can expect is “Gee, it sure would be nice if there were genuine choice! “ The European Union isn’t even as “radical” as that. It just says it’s “monitoring the situation,” with a very serious look on its face. As Hamlet said, “Words words words….”(Or, as my young daughter says, “Blah blah blah…”)
International media? The international media has actually been pretty amazing over the past few months. It’s gone from basically thinking nothing ever happens in Hong Kong that’s worth covering except business and finance, and that everything was pretty much hunky-dory with “One Country, Two Systems,” to educating itself quickly and reporting with striking accuracy and insight. But how far is that going to take us? First of all, international media attention is fickle and fleeting. Secondly, what comes to mind is a recent conversation with a journalist from a major international newspaper. I thanked him for his great article on Occupy Central for getting the word out there about what’s going on in Hong Kong. He laughed and said, “No one cares about Hong Kong at home. In fact, the average guy doesn’t even know what’s going on here.” There’s some nice bracing perspective to snap you back to reality. The international media has very limited influence on foreign governments, especially in regard to a place like Hong Kong—a place that foreign ministries file as a minor matter under “China policy.”
So the Hong Kong democracy movement has no real allies to speak of that would help to leverage the situation in our favor. It’s rare for nonviolent direct action movements to succeed without powerful allies or other forms of leverage (like the size of India’s population). The anti-Occupy Central campaign is largely an artificial crock, but it‘s important insofar as it has made the most powerful forces in Hong Kong society formally declare themselves for the oppressor.
It’s just we ourselves and us. Power of the powerless. (Thanks, Havel—a lotta good it will do us.) But then again, as Nelson Mandela said, “It seems impossible until it is done.” He just failed to add, “Of course, most things never get done. “And therefore, remain impossible.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot: We have truth, justice and international law on our side, none of which, unfortunately, have much power here. But just so you know!
What we’re up against
On top of this bleak prognosis, pit the Hong Kong democracy movement against the CCP, the biggest, wealthiest, and most powerful political organization in the world, which just happens to be dictatorial as well.
The CCP’s end game for Hong Kong is full assimilation. According to the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, this is not scheduled to occur until 2047, but in fact, it has been steadily and gradually, and often invisibly but increasingly palpably, happening ever since the 1997 handover, if not before. The CCP seeks to fully control Hong Kong and govern it for all intents and purposes just like any other mainland city. Politically speaking, what this means is that it wishes to implement an electoral system that mirrors the “elections” on the mainland. Yes, they do have “elections” on the mainland. They differ slightly from elections elsewhere in that the result is predetermined from above, always in favor of the ruling power. This is what the CCP wishes to see in Hong Kong. There would be a small variation from the mainland in that the CCP would allow the Hong Kong electorate to “choose” between Puppet A and Puppet B, but all that means is legitimizing a charade. Very few of my Hong Kong friends understand the expression, “putting lipstick on a pig”—it doesn’t translate well into Cantonese– but that’s what we’re talking about here.
The CCP seems to have been a bit startled that a rather large number of Hong Kong people don’t like its plan. It had thought it had sufficiently tranquillized us, divided us, bought us off. But no matter, it has still other means. In the topsy-turvy world of Hong Kong politics, the ruling party of the country to which Hong Kong belongs is underground. That’s right, the CCP has no legal presence anywhere in Hong Kong (then again, it’s not legally registered in the mainland either, for it is above the law). There is no Hong Kong branch of the CCP (unless it is secret), but the CCP is everywhere, most obviously through its control of the Hong Kong government, but also through its alliance with Hong Kong tycoons and chambers of commerce as well as through an elaborate system of front organizations.
Unfortunately, there has been almost no recent journalistic investigation into this murky world or how it works (that would be a juicy story indeed, but the Hong Kong mainstream media is too compromised and scared and the international media doesn’t have the attention or see the importance). For starters, the CCP essentially created the DAB (I can never remember what it stands for—oh, yes, the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong. “Democratic” here used in the same sense as the Democratic People’s Republic Of Korea). The DAB has become, both in terms of number of elected representatives to District Councils and the Legislative Council (Hong Kong’s pseudo-legislature) and in terms of funding and number of permanent offices open around the city, the biggest political party in Hong Kong.
I presume the CCP, whether directly or indirectly, is also the main funder of the DAB, though since there is no political party law in Hong Kong (political parties are registered under the Companies Ordinance—that’s right, legally, they’re companies) or law regulating funding of political parties, there is no legal requirement that parties publish their accounts, funding or donors. The CCP has also played a major role in the founding and support of pro-business parties such as the Liberal Party and (once that proved to be a miserable failure) Regina Ip’s New Party. (Regina Ip was the the former Hong Kong government Secretary for Security who in 2003, only six years after the handover, tried to force down Hong Kong’s throat draconian security legislation that would have brought Hong Kong in line with mainland security laws and restricted a number of civil liberties. Once we beat that down, she resigned, went to Harvard to launder herself, and magically reappeared with a new political party and think tank a couple years later.)
The CCP also has its own unions and community organizations and has very close relations with so-called patriotic associations, usually named after the part of China that the members originally came from (such as the Longyan Association after Longyan, Fujian Province, which recently gained some notoriety for offering members top dollar—$400 in Honk Kong currency–to participate in the August 17 anti-Occupy Central rally).
After the CCP was taken aback (or enraged) by the enormous number of people (792,808) participating in the June 20 to 29 Occupy Central referendum on genuine universal suffrage, and the annual July 1 democracy march (a turnout of half a million), the CCP mobilized more brazenly than ever before. It created, out of nothing, the “Alliance for Peace and Democracy” (one of the great misnamed organizations in the world–“democracy” here again in the sense of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) to carry out an anti-Occupy Central petition campaign. All pro-CCP elements in the city, from top government leaders to business leaders to political parties to patriotic associations to unions and community organizations have dutifully pledged their allegiance. If anything, the campaign has shown the true extent and depth of the CCP’s infiltration of Hong Kong society. But that wasn’t enough for the CCP’s Leninist rage for control. It has almost certainly been behind a number of cyber attacks on pro-democracy groups and media, as well as 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, the promise made to Hong Kong in the Basic Law in the form of a clear legal obligation, the promise the CCP appears dead set on breaking. What it wants is our complete and full capitulation.
It knows 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’s got 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, to give in, to give up, to gulp and say, “Well, OK, maybe this fake democracy is not so bad after all; at any rate, it isn’t worth standing up to the CCP over.”
It’s unclear whether this current anti-democracy 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. The people in the middle may look at them and ask themselves, “Eegad, Do we want them to run our city?!“
But whatever the results of this spectacular barrage (I often feel I am hiding under one of those old tin garbage can covers with a steady rain of rocks pouring down on me), it is pretty clear that the CCP thinks that in the long run, it’s got Hong Kong check-mated. It may be right.
But the CCP may be wrong. It’s a victim of its own success. It has so artificialized and falsified large swathes of Hong Kong society, creating a “movement” out of thin air, that it doesn’t know what it has on its own hands. It can’t tell false from true, and therefore can never quite be sure what it’s up against. Thus, its consternation that rather than rolling over and surrendering at sight of the White Paper, Hong Kong people were provoked to stand up in larger numbers than ever before. As it peers into the hall of mirrors which is the Hong Kong created by its falsification, all it can see an infinite number of reflections of itself. (What a scary thought!)
On top of that, its victories, whatever they may be, are by definition Pyrrhic, since it must destroy so much in order to succeed. If the CCP has its way, Hong Kong will clearly be a much worse place for the vast majority. Of course, it probably just doesn’t care—control is of the utmost importance; everything else is of secondary priority.
But it’s constant work to maintain a monopoly on power through coercion and deception. The old people, some of whom are your only possible “popular base’” to speak of in Hong Kong (if, by popular base, we mean the generally apolitical folks who enjoy attending the DAB’s complementary banquets and seafood excursions and can be shuffled out to vote or sign any old petition put under their noses), will die. The young people are already entirely alienated from your bullying ways. You might succeed in co-opting them in middle age, but you have nothing to buy them off with now. Low social mobility, low-paying and thankless jobs, unaffordable housing, marriage and children financially out of reach, no power to change anything for the better, all-around low quality of life getting worse by the da–thanks a lot, CCP!
Still, can’t you hear that clock is ticking? Or is that just the beating of our hearts pounding ever harder? Time is not on our side; it’s on the side of the adversary.
Why nonviolent direction action is probably the only option left, however futile it may prove to be
Which is why nonviolent direct action is necessary. Or not so much necessary as the only real option left, the only chance. We’ve 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, to give power the benefit of the doubt, to think of ourselves as inferior, unworthy, and if we can’t make it, then it’s down to our own personal failure. As said, much of the struggle is with this side of our own selves. And because of our better nature (which is also our worse), we’ve put up with a postponed promise, for seventeen years, and as we all know, justice delayed is justice denied.
We’ve put up with an obviously rigged system, which the CCP has tried to stack even more against us, moving the goalposts with its NPCSC add-ons to the Basic Law (if you don’t know about these, don’t worry; all you need to know is one way the CCP prevents progress is by making everything so damn complicated it’s like being bound up in knotted twine—it’s all you can do to move your little finger), and we’ve tried to work within the system. To no avail. You’d think the CCP would at least throw the dog a bone to encourage the dog to delude 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 of this nonviolent direct action campaign?
The thinking goes like this: If the CCP manages to ram through mainland-style “elections,” it will cement in place a precedent from which there’s no return short of full-on revolution. It is the first brick in the wall of formal mainland-ization of the political system. It would really be a huge accomplishment, especially if achieved right under the noses of the Hong Kong people. And the pro-democracy cause would essentially be sunk.
As long as the pro-democracy groups stay united (a big if, considering the Democratic Party broke ranks and compromised the last time around, sinking us even further in the muck of the detested Legislative Council of Hong Kong’s functional constituencies—see above for the knotted-twine policy), the CCP won’t be able to do this. The CCP is currently trying to trick so-called “moderates” on the pro-democracy side into going along with its “pocket it first” ploy: take a bit of “improvement” now and more “improvements” can be made later. But this ain’t improvement, mister–it’s your grave.
For the pro-democracy side, zero electoral reform would be better than fake universal suffrage. (This view flies in the face of the proliferating screamers who say, “Oo oo oo, if we don’t take scraps this time, there might be nothing next time.”)
This is also the CCP’s second option (after mainland-style “elections”), for then it can blame Hong Kong 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: “Those people in Hong Kong just can’t seem to get their act together!”
And genuine universal suffrage, what are the chances of that? Only a truly starry-eyed idealist could believe that we will bring it about through nonviolent direct action, only someone who doesn’t grasp what the CCP’s all about.
So what’s the point of nonviolent direct action, then, if it stands so little chance of achieving its declared aim? (Of course, historically, in the short term, most forms of nonviolent direct action stood little chance of achieving their aim. They were not the first choice but a last resort for people with little to no access to formal political power.)
The point is, first of all, to draw a line in the sand: You can’t steamroll us.
Secondly, the only thing the CCP understands or will even take into consideration is power. Working within the system in Hong Kong, pro-democracy groups have no power, so the CCP doesn’t take them seriously. Stepping outside of the system and presenting the prospect of an occupation of the central business district changes the equation and forces the CCP to take heretofore inoffensive little gadflies seriously. (And if you don’t believe that, how do you explain the gigantic fit it’s throwing right now?)
Thirdly, it draws the attention of Hong Kong people who might otherwise be checked out (a depressingly large number, but then, considering most Hong Kong people spend long days just trying to make ends meet, unsurprising) and the rest of the world to the severity of the situation here. Both groups have paid more attention than ever before.
Fourthly, if it is successful (a big if), it will force the CCP to react. Exactly how it reacts, of course, is an open question. The very worst scenario is that it sends in the PLA. That seems farfetched, but the People’s Liberation Army liberating people from their lives seemed equally far-fetched to many demonstrators in Beijing in 1989. More likely is that it will be compelled to devise a face-saving compromise or climb-down. It doesn’t want to look too ruthless with the rest of the world watching (even if they won’t do much). By rest of the world, we also mean Taiwan. Taiwanese are watching what the CCP is doing in Hong Kong with great wariness.
And fifthly, you never know what will happen. And at this point, there’s little to lose.
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. Like what, exactly? Almost nothing that it isn’t otherwise already considering, short of sending in the tanks. For that reason, I don’t think the nonviolent direct action freedom struggle is acting irresponsibly or toying with Hong Kong’s future. One cannot predict or determine every aspect of the future, especially when it comes to politics. It is simply unknown, but the actions we take can’t make it worse than now, or worse than it would otherwise be if the CCP gets its way.
And lastly, if the pro-democracy movement stands firm (a big if), it will be difficult for the CCP to implement anything smoothly here, short of sending in the tanks. It could, of course, all collapse like a house of cards. (In fact, sometimes it’s amazing to think that with the CCP blowing its hot, foul-smelling breath—“I’ll huff and I’ll puff and I’ll blow your house down”–it hasn’t already.) Pro-democracy groups must stay united.
Sometimes I wonder (and I am one of them), “Do they really understand what this is about? Do they really understand that this is Hong Kong’s Last Stand?” We are stronger than ever but infinitely fragile. Unlike the CCP, we leave too much to chance: Will people really turn out to Occupy when the time comes? We hope so; the referendum and July 1 march were encouraging, but we don’t really know. And it’s 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? Which is why so much depends on the young people, not only because they are among the most passionate and dedicated and least likely to be tricked into false compromises, but because they don’t have jobs and don’t have to support a family.
I spoke of what’s happening in Hong Kong as the development of a culture of democracy and citizenship, as a psychological shift from being subjects to citizens. But Occupy Central is a high-risk gamble, for if it fails, especially if it fails spectacularly rather than nobly, it risks sealing the fate of the pro-democracy movement.
If you can think of a better strategy, let us know, please! None of our trenchant critics, of whom there are quite a few, have managed to do so yet—generally, they’re much better at criticizing than proposing. (And here, I mean strategy, not tactics. We have stumbled often and badly already, and perhaps it is ironically a sign of the movement’s strength that we haven’t yet done ourselves in. We need help on tactics too. But on strategy, I can’t think of better than nonviolent direct action, given our limited options.)
If nothing else, it is important to show we are citizens, not subjects, and refuse to be treated as subjects.
And if it fails, if we fail?
I think of how demonstrations just seem to burst out of nowhere in other places, and I have to laugh: Ours must be the least spontaneous nonviolent direct action movement ever–in existence for 18 months without ever yet having taken nonviolent direct action! Then again, when you think that for a decade and more, some of the biggest demonstrations for democracy in the world have taken place here in Hong Kong, without hardly anyone noticing, least of all, it seems, our own government, then it looks different: Occupy Central is the logical conclusion of trying by almost every other means conceivable for a decade and more.
Anytime you ask the leaders of the nonviolent direct action movement, they will tell you that the very last thing they want to do is take nonviolent direct action! Sometimes I think we will have to drag our own leaders kicking and screaming to the sit-in. The most powerful political organization in the world, the country’s ruling party, is clandestine in the city, and the most striking characteristic of the city’s nonviolent direct action movement thus far is its reluctance to take nonviolent direct action. Too funny. You couldn’t make this stuff up.
And if it fails, if we fail, what happens next? The CCP has its way. Hong Kong is changed irrevocably. The pace of mainland-ization will be stepped up. More mainland immigrants will arrive. More mainland visitors will come. The already fragile walls between the CCP and the media, business and the Hong Kong government will all but disappear. Who knows about the judiciary, but it’s hard to imagine it won’t be affected.
The demographics of Hong Kong will change substantially. To put it simply, anyone who can get out, will. Most of the population is trapped and will continue to be a source of captive, exploited labor. Inequality—Hong Kong is already the most unequal developed society in the world—will be exacerbated. Hong Kong will suffer brain drain. Many of the people already making money in Hong Kong will stay, but the educated classes will begin looking for opportunities elsewhere as it becomes harder and harder to go against the grain, as opportunities here lessen, as the general environment becomes ever more hostile, as it becomes more and more thankless to be a Hong Kong person with ideas and a willingness to contribute. People are already looking for the exit. As I say, most people are trapped, with no other options, so the exit-seekers are a minority, but in terms of what they have to contribute to the society, the impact of their exit would be great.
This is why we must realize the power of our powerlessness. It is our own society that’s up for grabs. It really is Hong Kong’s Last Stand. It’s a point at which people have to make difficult decisions between putting their own interests and those of society first. Even if, in the long run, the two coincide, in the short run they often seem to diverge. One can often ask oneself, “Why bother? What’s the point? There’s little chance of success. The situation is already so bad. I could probably be enjoying myself more doing something else. And there are so many Hong Kong people who just don’t seem to get it–why bang my head against the wall? Why waste my time?”
I can’t convince myself (or you, or you…) with one simple answer. The only answer I have goes something like this: Because 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 that lies beyond my control. Or to put it another way, it beats sleepwalking to my doom. 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: Will Hong Kong and the world become more like the CCP-ruled mainland over the course of this still-young century, or will the CCP-ruled mainland become rights-respecting and democratic? Are we entering into a new era in which authoritarian rule will dominate much of the globe, or will the world become increasingly democratic? I don’t know. Much is uncertain. So much is beyond my control.
Havel wrote his long essay (much much longer than this one), The Power of the Powerless in 1978. At the time, he believed Czechoslovakia was so deep in the Communist deep freeze that it didn’t 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 circa 1979 and Hong Kong circa 2014 couldn’t be greater. Havel’s strategy was essentially to wait out the repression–Communist dictatorship, the thinking went, couldn’t warp the society anymore than it already had–and while doing so, exercise (and exorcise) the spirit to prepare for when the time was ripe for political action. In Hong Kong, the time is ripe now. We have everything to lose by waiting, and who knows what we stand to win by acting. Let’s begin to act freely. Let’s begin.
I don’t know if we will win this time, or next time, or the next, or the next, but we (HongKongese, Chinese, human beings) will win.
Or so I think on better days….
Kong Tsung-gan (江松澗) is a pro-democracy activist based in Hong Kong. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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