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A mock tank, covered with photocopies of a controversial white paper released by Beijing on Hong Kong’s future, is displayed by local artists to symbolize China’s threat to the city’s autonomy. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)
A mock tank, covered with photocopies of a controversial white paper released by Beijing on Hong Kong’s future, is displayed by local artists to symbolize China’s threat to the city’s autonomy. (Bobby Yip/Reuters)

Hong Kong’s democracy movement is testing Beijing’s resolve Add to ...

In April, when Edward Chin, a former hedge-fund manager and Canadian citizen, made public his support for the Occupy movement in an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping, he was excoriated by the Chinese press. After allowing Occupy to use his office to film a documentary, he found the door to the building smashed. He took it as a warning.

Protest leaders, meanwhile, report strange behaviour on their phones. Mr. Chan has received repeated death threats.

More worrisome to him, though, is the language Beijing has used, accusing him of stirring up turmoil and leading a radical political force. These are the terms for “people fighting for Tibetan independence,” he says – a reflection of the significance of the movement he is helping to lead.

The Occupy Central ranks are not dominated by students with a surfeit of passion and a deficit of assets. They are, instead, suit-wearing professionals, businessmen and professors, many of them wealthy people willing to risk arrest.

“This is a moment of truth for Hong Kong’s future,” says Lawrence Wong, a manager in the construction industry. He wants Beijing to know he is fed up. Hong Kong seems to be “going down instead of up,” he says. “I want to have the central government know exactly what Hong Kong people want.”

If Beijing doesn’t listen to middle-aged men like Mr. Wong and himself, Mr. Chan says, it may risk an outbreak of something more parlous. Because the students are unhappy, too.

“Young people will be more radical than us,” he says, referring to surveys that show much stronger support for radical action among local 20-somethings. “The younger generation are very impatient. And if this reform fails, I believe we will have to step aside, and young people will use their own way to fight for democracy.”

An opaque system

Hong Kong does have democracy, of a sort. Its legislators are voted in by universal suffrage, although their powers are limited. But the chief executive is chosen every five years by ballots cast by 1,200 private citizens and representatives of industry and special-interest groups. How the 1,200 are selected is often opaque to the point of impenetrable, even for scholars of local governance.

That opacity stands in contrast to the power they wield. Not only do the 1,200 select the region’s most powerful figure, 150 of them must sign their names for an individual to stand for election.

What the Occupy crowd wants is something very different: not only universal suffrage, but also the right to vote for candidates who haven’t been screened by Beijing.

That’s directly counter to the mandate in the recent Chinese white paper, but it hasn’t cowed the protesters. Hong Kong has, after all, successfully pushed back at Chinese influence in the past. In 2012, some 120,000 people gathered in the streets to protest against the introduction of a “moral and national education” curriculum they saw as an incursion of mainland propaganda into local schools. The curriculum was dropped.

Two years later, says one of the lead voices behind the curriculum protests, sentiment in support of more open democracy is even greater. “I hope more than 120,000” will take to the streets, says Joshua Wong, the skinny teen who leads a student movement aligned with Occupy Central.

Mr. Wong doesn’t much care that China thinks what he wants is illegal.

“The most important factor is not whether it’s legal,” he says. “Because it’s a political problem. The most important thing is, what is the general public opinion.”

Just their wounded pride?

Robert Chow smiles as he takes a verbal machete to his opponents. He is a long-time Hong Kong media figure who has been a reporter, government spokesman, executive at a Chinese-run press agency and broadcast host. He is, he says with relish, Hong Kong’s highest-paid public speaker, and he likes nothing more than a good fight – which, right now, is against the Occupy crowd.

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