With student leaders deciding to commence talks with the Hong Kong authorities following warnings by Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, who set a deadline for dawn on Monday, October 6, the large-scale protests that had disrupted normal life in Hong Kong’s Central, Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui districts began to dissipate. Amid mounting pressure from Beijing, Leung Chun-ying had earlier warned that law and order could deteriorate beyond control if the protests continued.
The demonstrations, which attracted up to 200,000 people on October 4, were led mainly by students who had criticised Leung Chun-ying and his daughter in web posts and the Facebook and demanded his resignation. Separately, basing its report on an anonymous tip an Australian newspaper claimed Australian engineering company UGL had secretly agreed to pay Leung Chun-ying before he was appointed chief executive over US$ 7 million for lobbying activities.
It is ironic that Hong Kong, which as a Crown Colony did not have the semblance of democracy, was first granted democratic rights by China in the 1990s under the Basic Law. This included the commitment that Hong Kong would elect its chief executive in 2017 through universal suffrage. The Basic Law additionally specified that nomination of candidates would be a matter for a nominating committee. These provisions embodied the concept of “one country, two systems” under which Hong Kong would maintain its distinctive legal and political system for 50 years, while at the same time being clearly subject to Chinese sovereignty.
The protest demonstrations, soon dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution”, were triggered by Beijing’s decision that a committee approved by China would select a panel of candidates from which Hong Kong residents could choose their chief executive. Long suspicious of Hong Kong’s potential as a base for anti-China activities, including the smuggling of Bibles into China, Beijing viewed the protests with concern and feared the possibility of their spilling over into cities in mainland China and fuelling anti-China sentiments among Tibetans and the already restive Uyghur ethnic minority. Exiled Uyghur leader and president of the World Uyghur Congress Rebiya Kadeer’s remark that the protests were “very inspiring” to Uyghurs and that “If Hong Kong wins, it will benefit Uighurs as well, and then the Uighurs can strengthen their own movement” must have added to Beijing’s concern.
Reports suggest at least 20 people in various cities and provinces like Beijing, Shanghai, Hunan, Guangzhou, Jiangsu and Shenzhen were either detained, or had restrictions imposed, for circulating reports or posting photographs of the protests in Hong Kong. While the Chinese media was careful in its reporting of the protests and published no photographs, Radio Free Asia (RFA) and Voice of America did slip through the firewall and reach audiences in China via TV and radio on the Telstar 18 satellite and online. According to RFA, its reports included listener feedback from Tibetan and Uyghur regions and web traffic through China and Internet anti-censorship proxies surged over 60 percent.
Meanwhile, signs of Hong Kong’s security authorities tightening control were soon visible. Diplomats in Hong Kong received a written communication from China’s foreign affairs ministry advising them to avoid interacting with protesters as it would be tantamount to interference in China’s internal affairs. Public security personnel visited the home in China of Xiaobo Yu, a Chinese student studying in Hong Kong whose article supporting the protests was published. Chinese authorities also reportedly stepped up the scrutiny of funding received by organisations from foreign sources. Interestingly, the US Congress-funded National Democratic Institute for International Affairs has given US$460,000 to “political institutions” in Hong Kong to “foster awareness” and encourage “students and citizens to explore possible reforms leading to universal suffrage”. Hinting at the involvement of “foreign forces”, some sections of the Chinese language media in Hong Kong mentioned all the leaders of the protests were Christians. The Chinese media in Hong Kong particularly highlighted that over half the territory’s population, including businessmen suffering losses because of the demonstrations, didn’t support the protesters.
A strong leader like Xi Jinping would not yield concessions and can neither appear to look weak. Articles 14 and 18 of the Basic Law provide for use of military force, including directly by Beijing in certain circumstances, but with his eye on the larger prize of Taiwan, Xi Jinping’s preference will invariably be for a peaceful resolution to the situation in Hong Kong. There was nevertheless a discernible, steady hardening in the Chinese leadership’s stance that was reflected in the official media within days of the outbreak of protests. A strongly worded article front-paged in the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily on September 29, and reproduced by Xinhua, described the protesters as “anti-China forces” “who are besotted with Western Democracy”. Calling them “extremists” who “show contempt for the rule of law”, it said “we at the Center have the ultimate power to decide”.
A tough People’s Daily article on China’s National Day (October 1) followed. It declared the “illegal ‘Occupy Centre” movement had “seriously disrupted social order, and affected the economy and livelihood in Hong Kong”. It warned that if “left uncontrolled, its consequences could be disastrous”. Raising the level of criticism, it accused the “very few ‘Occupy Centre’ people” of “neglecting the law, inciting people, impeding businesses and causing conflicts threatening the security of Hong Kong people’s life and properties”. Demanding “they must bear legal responsibilities for their violations of law”, it said “the very few people who now confront the law and stir up troubles will eventually suffer”.
While the protests appeared to have virtually ended on October 6, a few hundred people continued to remain in Hong Kong Central leaving open the possibility of a revival. Though the protests could have lost their initial momentum, reports coming on October 9 that talks between the students and authorities had failed could reignite the protests though on a limited scale and without the support of smaller businessmen. In a bid to prevent recurrence of similar protests, Beijing will probably ensure punishment to instigators and tighten controls on various outfits in Hong Kong. The protesters have in any case come very close to crossing Beijing’s “red line”.
The writer is a member of the National Security Advisory Board and former additional secretary in the cabinet secretariat, Indian government.