Pro-democracy protests continue in Hong Kong as protesters remain steadfast in their calls for fair and transparent elections of the Chief Executive and for China to stop meddling in the political affairs and electoral processes. Ahead of planned talks between protesters and government representatives scheduled for Friday 10 October, CIVICUS interviews a human rights activist resident in Hong Kong who provides an insider’s view of the dynamics of the protests and response of the authorities. The activist chooses to remain anonymous because of the delicate state of human rights and out of concern for possible reprisals from the Chinese authorities.
1) What triggered the recent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong and what at the key demands of the protesters?
The Hong Kong “Occupy Central” campaign is a Hong Kong people’s movement which calls for transparent and fair elections of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage without any censorship of candidates in 2017. On August 31, 2014, however, the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of China placed restrictions to deprive democrats from being nominated in an open and transparent manner for the Chief Executive position when elections are held in 2017.
The People’s Congress resolved that candidates for the Chief Executive position must be nominated by half of the members of the Nomination College to be eligible to stand for the election. Since members who are supposed to nominate candidates come from small circles which are under the influence of the Chinese Government, the nomination process will be used to disqualify democrats from the Chief Executive election. In September 2013, the head of Beijing’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong openly confirmed the position of the People’s Congress and dismissed any attempts by the people of Hong Kong to freely and fairly nominate candidates for the position of Chief Executive. This stance simply means that China has no intention of allowing electoral reforms in Hong Kong.
Concerned about the stance taken by the People’s Congress, Hong Kong students called for a mass boycott of classes in colleges from September 22-28, 2014. As a result, more than 18,000 students joined the first day of the demonstrations and tens of thousands of students joined the boycott of classes in their schools. More than 300 professors announced that they would offer voluntary lessons to the students who participate in the class boycott. On September 23-25, students gathered together at Timar Park, a park beside the Government Headquarters, to continue their protests. The protesters were motivated by the fact that the Hong Kong government has not been able take into account the views and wishes of the people and the incessant interference of the Chinese authorities.
2) How have the authorities responded to the protests?
The Government initially rejected any proposal to talk to the students and reiterated that the decision of the People’s Congress cannot be altered. On September 26-28, the students could not convene for protests at Timar Park because it had been booked by pro-China groups for celebrations marking the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. The students were forced to continue protests out of the Government Headquarters. More and more students and other citizens joined the demonstrations. Up until 1am on September 28, more than 80,000 people gathered in other areas outside of the Government Headquarters. In line with the people’s demands, the “Occupy Central” campaign organizer declared an immediate start of the campaign which had been planned for October 1 - National Day.
In the afternoon of September 28, about 100 people crossed the gate into the Citizens’ Square, a public area in front of the Government Headquarters and the Legislative Council Building. The Square was open to the public until the summer this year. When the people got into the Square, they sat down peacefully but the police threatened to use violence to disperse them if they did not leave. The threat of violence irritated the crowd outside the Square and they attempted to move closer the gate of the Square to support the peaceful protesters inside. The police then used pepper spray on the protesters and forcefully removed them from the Square.
To avoid reprisals from the police, protesters moved into main roads and paralysed the traffic. In the evening of the same day, the police used tear gas on the crowd. This act greatly shocked the Hong Kong public and the intentional community. More protesters went to the Government Headquarters to support the students. In addition, the people of Hong Kong spread the “Occupy Campaign” to three other populated areas. The “Occupy Campaign” is longer limited to the Central part of Hong Kong.
Police have used teargas to disperse some of the protesters and pro-government sympathisers, some of whom are members of organised gangs assaulted some of the pro-democracy protesters. As a result, several protesters were arrested and 165 were taken to hospital. Some of the pro-democracy protesters have demonstrated a strong sense of civic responsibility by cleaning-up after the protests.
3) What has been the role of China in responding to these protests and in curtailing fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong in the past?
The Chinese Government has for a long time used different measures to delay the dawn of true democracy and to maintain its control over Hong Kong through its so-called “elected” Chief Executive and his/her administrative officials. The stance taken by the Chinese authorities is in violation of the Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
In Hong Kong, there were repeated calls for universal suffrage for the election of the Chef Executive in 2007 and democratic and transparent elections for the Legislative Council in 2008 in line with provisions in the Basic Law - the mini-Constitution in Hong Kong. The Chinese Government dismissed these calls. As far back as 1 July 2003, about half a million citizens had demonstrated for political reforms in Hong Kong and this was followed by a rejection of the political proposals from China. In response to these protests the Chinese government indicated that elections for the Chief Executive in 2017 may be done through universal suffrage.
The Central Government had also conceded that democratic elections for the Legislative Council may be organised after the election of the Chief Executive. The demands by the students to have the Chief Executive elected through universal suffrage without any censorship of the candidates is indeed a demand to the Chinese Government to honour its promise.
China however continues to influence the government of Hong Kong to advance its own interests against the wishes of the people of Hong Kong. The Chief Executive remains under the control of the Central Government and the Chinese authorities are keen to continue determining candidates for this position. This action is at variance with Article 45 of Hong Kong’s mini-Constitution which allows for the election of the Chief Executive through universal suffrage.
There have been concerns about online restrictions on the reporting of the protests in China as well as the disruption of reporting by journalists by police on the ground in Hong Kong. As reporters covered the forceful removal of protesters from outside the government headquarters, police pulled journalists away and held some by the neck even after they presented their press cards.
4) Who are the key organisers of these protests and what will happen next?
Two student groups - the Hong Kong Federation of Students (for college students) and Scholarism (for high school students) and “Occupy Central” Campaign Secretariat are the key organizers of these pro-democracy protests. However, most protesters do not belong to any organised group and have joined the protesters of their own volition to press for democratic reforms.
There will be talks between the protesters and representatives of the Hong Kong government including Chief Secretary Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Secretary for Constitutional and Mainland Affairs Raymond Tam Chi-Yuen. The protesters will expect the government of Hong Kong to outline plans which allow the nomination of candidates for the position of Chief Executive through a fair democratic process in line with the Basic Law and hand over more power to the semi-democratic Legislative Council. If the Hong Kong authorities remain adamant, the strikes will continue.
5) How can local civil society groups in Hong Kong and international civil society promote freedom of assembly and strengthen the respect for fundamental freedoms?
The international community must stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong and put pressure on the government to listen to the voices of its people. Civil society groups around the world should continue campaigns calling on the Chinese government to respect the autonomy of Hong Kong and to stop interfering in its political processes. The people of Hong Kong have a right to decide on how their leaders are elected. International civil society should also amplify the voices of local civil society groups in Hong Kong and report on the restrictions imposed on freedom of expression and assembly and raise human rights concerns in gatherings of civil society groups and meetings with governments and United Nations representatives.