On a rain-soaked holiday Tuesday, Hong Kong’s fight for democracy has all the subtlety of a street carnival. Demonstrators in matching T-shirts chant in unison over ear-splitting blasts from rival megaphones. Students with a “we are all equal” banner belt out demands for the right to vote while a business group, more interested in stability than a public fight, loudly warns that the push for democracy is illegal and will lead to riots.
Behind them towers the North Point Methodist Church, where for a day a cross-section of Hong Kong has gathered beneath dark skies to debate the growing call to freely elect the chief executive – the most powerful position in the territory of 7.2 million, and one that is rigidly controlled by Beijing.
Seventeen years after it was transferred to China by Britain, Hong Kong – a critical Asian financial hub, not to mention home to 300,000 Canadians – is preparing for a battle that could reach beyond its borders. China has pledged some form of universal suffrage for Hong Kong by 2017. But the shape of that change remains very much in question. Will the Communist Party retain the ability, explicitly or implicitly, to control who can stand for office?
The democratic hopes of those who want universal suffrage rest in the oddly named “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” – a group that has said that, if Beijing does not relent, at least 10,000 people will take to the streets as soon as July to shut down the heart of Hong Kong.
They have consciously styled themselves as Asia’s successors to Martin Luther King. If they are arrested, they say, they won’t fight the charges. “We will go directly to jail,” says Chan Kin-man, a professor of civil society studies who is one of the three men leading Occupy Central.
“We are not challenging the rule of law. We just see civil disobedience as an advocating process.”
Opponents accuse Mr. Chan of masterminding a plan to turn Hong Kong into another turmoil-plagued Bangkok. “It’s crazy,” says Robert Chow, a suave broadcaster who has led efforts to stop the occupiers. “We don’t want an excuse to go into a revolution.”
It is a local struggle that is giving wider voice to resentment over the Communist Party’s autocratic rule, both on the mainland and in places like Taiwan. And it has echoes of something even larger: the battle to stem China’s rising global influence, and the hope that China itself can one day rewrite its political system to give people a greater voice.
Will the Communist Party, in other words, give the citizens of Hong Kong more say? Or will it crush their hopes of change in the name of leaving its supremacy untouched? It’s a question that stands to define the contours of China’s future.
“If you look at what [former Chinese president] Hu Jintao said when he stepped down, he said very clearly China is not going to adopt a western style of democracy,” says Mr. Chow. “But China is going to go with its own democratic system. Now, what is that? Nobody knows.
“So the question then is, how can you test the waters?”
Love your country, or else
Beijing has sought to strike first. In a white paper released this month, China described Hong Kong as plagued by “many wrong views” and tightly circumscribes the city’s ability to act independently. Hong Kong has “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership,” the paper says. But, it adds, “Loving the country is the basic political requirement for all of Hong Kong’s administrators.”
The baldly worded paper only served to raise tensions in a dispute that was already ugly. This week, Occupy Central claimed a website it created to collect votes in an informal referendum on its demands, with voting set for this weekend, was the victim of a concerted and massive cyber-attack.