Hong Kong enters turbulent waters after July 1 storm

July 02, 2014 15:29
Police arrested 511 people from a street in Hong Kong's financial district early Wednesday. The sit-in protest, which came after a massive rally on July 1, is seen as a curtain-raiser for the Occupy Central blockade. Photo: HKEJ

Hong Kong is poised for further choppiness in its political seas following the arrest of more than 500 people at a sit-in protest that came at the end of a huge rally on July 1, in what is seen as a curtain-raiser to a broad Occupy Central pro-democracy civil disobedience movement.

The protestors staged a sit-in outside the former Legislative Council building in defiance of the law on assembly, demanding real choices in the universal suffrage for the chief executive in 2017.

Police carried out the mass arrests from around 3 am. The operation ended in the morning. By 10 am, police said 511 people had been arrested at Chater Road in the Central district for illegal assembly and for obstructing police officers in their duty.

Although there was no ugly violence as protestors were largely cooperative, the mass defiance of law, together with the massive procession from Victoria Park to Chater Garden on Tuesday, has sent an unmistakable warning to the Leung Chun-ying administration and the central government about the depth of public anger in the city.

Organizers of the July 1 march say more than 510,000 people took part in the rally, which started at 3 pm at Victoria Park. It was about 10 pm by the time the last group arrived at Chater Gardens, the destination of the march. Police put the peak of the rally at 98,600. Independent research institutes put the crowd in the range of 120,000 and 170,000.

Regardless of the actual turnout, the Tuesday rally marked the strongest public outcry over longstanding grievances over a range of political issues including universal suffrage, Beijing's recent white paper on Hong Kong and the stormy passage of the funding for a northeastern New Territories new town plan by the legislature last Friday.

The mix of recent and long-running resentments culminated in a perform storm on July 1 as people felt frustrated, angry and disillusioned with the empty promises for a high degree of autonomy and more say in choosing their leader.

On universal suffrage, Beijing's refusal to even consider the demand for public nomination for candidates for the chief executive race has deepened people's fears that only candidates deemed obedient to the Communist Party authorities will be allowed to run for the top post.

Insisting it has "overall jurisdiction" over Hong Kong, Beijing's white paper has stoked fears about the fate of the pledge of "high degree of autonomy" for the city. Worse still, remarks in the white paper that said judges are part of the "administrators" of Hong Kong, who should "love China", are seen as a threat to independent judiciary, one of the cornerstones of the city's success.

Meanwhile, the bulldozing of a research funding for the New Territories new-town plan amid strong opposition from affected residents and some quarters of the society has laid bare the structural flaws of the political system. Pro-democracy supporters said their voices went unheeded in a legislature dominated by pro-establishment, government-friendly forces.

Put together, the July 1 rally and the pre-Occupy Central sit-in thereafter shows the city is at a boiling point.

At the domestic level, the feeling of tolerance towards an unfair political system is wearing thin. The chaos at the Legislative Council Finance Committee meeting during its scrutiny of the new-town funding plan may emerge as the norm, at least in the short run, not the exception, in the legislature. Relationship between the government and the legislature, or more accurately, the 23-member pan-democratic opposition, looks set to be fraught with tensions and hostilities in the near term.

Whether the government is able to push through a backlog of funding plans including the formation of the new innovation and technology bureau in the current legislative year before it ends in mid-July is unclear.

At a personal level, the popularity of Chief Executive Leung, which is already at a low point, is set to slip further in the wake of the July 1 uproar, doubling the difficulties of his governance in the remaining three years of his current term.

At the central-SAR level, the July 1 rally and the overnight protest have shed some light on the looming showdown over universal suffrage.

As the protestors did not put up any violent resistance against police officers during the mass arrest operation, it may help boost the moral strength of the Occupy Central activists as they protest the undemocratic system with "love and peace".

Despite the fact Hong Kong is a law-abiding society and the idea of civil disobedience appears to be novel, the overnight protest has drawn hundreds of participants and supporters, giving a further sign that the Occupy Central protest may get a bigger number of participants ultimately.

Beijing has insisted that the idea of public nomination is not in conformity with the Basic Law. It has shown no sign of back-down over its stance.

Events on July 1 and the early hours of Wednesday suggest that political unrest in the city will grow if Beijing leaders do not allow people a say in the chief executive election and in running the affairs of the city, in keeping with the promises made 17 years ago when the city returned to Chinese rule.

-- Contact the writer at [email protected]


He was editor-at-large at the South China Morning Post and, more recently, deputy chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal.