By Adam Connors
One year on from the pro-democracy protests that brought Hong Kong to a standstill, organisers admit that China’s Communist leadership shows no sign of budging on reform, but a spark could reignite the movement.
Traffic has returned to key roads in Admiralty, Causeway Bay and Mongkok once occupied by tens of thousands of people for 79 days, calling for fully free elections.
Frustration stalks the so-called umbrella movement, a loose collective that took to the streets after Beijing said it alone would choose candidates standing for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017.
But protest leaders Joshua Wong and Benny Tai agree that political awareness among the young generation was the movement’s biggest achievement.
“It looks like Beijing won, but the cost was that you have a much more politically engaged population, which is not at all what they wanted,” Hong Kong University assistant professor Yvonne Chiu said.
Monday September 28 marks the day when Occupy Central was launched following more than a week of student protests, but Hong Kong’s dreams of universal suffrage goes much further back.
Britain agrees to return Hong Kong to China
December 19, 1984
After nearly 150 years of British control of Hong Kong island and the New Territories, the lapsing of Britain’s 99-year lease of the Kowloon peninsula from China was approaching, drawing jitters from the very businesslike leaders of Hong Kong.
If the New Territories — by then long established as the world’s manufacturing hub — were to revert back to China, what would that look like for the hyper-industrialist Cantonese under the Communists?
The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed by the leaders of both China and Britain in 1984, laid out the formula for the return of the whole of British Hong Kong at the lapse of the 99-year lease on July 1, 1997.
‘One country, two systems’ was its mantra, with British capitalism and laws enshrined for a period of 50 years from 1997’s ‘handover’, including an undated promise of universal suffrage — all protected by a so-called Basic Law.
China subsequently promised universal suffrage by 2017 to choose the city’s leader, the chief executive.
But as Professor Kerry Brown of the University of Sydney said in 2014: “The highly abstract commitment in the Basic Law … to consultations and then some form of extended franchise for elections of the chief executive after 2017 was a promise, it is now clear, that the Chinese government intended to observe with minimal commitment.
“Their final announcement … that a small committee of screened people would then approve two or three candidates to stand in 2017 seemed like the weakest of weak outcomes.
“While not in violation of the Basic Law, it certainly showed little imagination and a Beijing leadership that prizes control over everything else.”
It is well worth noting that Hong Kong’s citizenry never voted for their leader under British control either.
Fears realised on Tiananmen Square
June 4, 1989
As the world watched on in horror, the Chinese military brutally cracked down on student protesters on Tiananmen Square in central Beijing just eight years out from handover.
A million Hong Kong residents — a fifth of its total population at the time — took to the streets in May, donating money and tents in support of the students’ aims.
Sir Percy Cradock was a UK foreign policy advisor and the architect of British policy in keeping China on side in the lead-up to handover.
“We had to somehow balance our condemnation of the barbarities of Tiananmen with the need to go on talking quietly, sensibly, with Peking, in the interests of Hong Kong,” he told Four Corners in 1997.
“I recall that Jiang Zemin took me to the window of the Great Hall of the People, pointed out to the square and said ‘there were the tents and they were put up with Hong Kong money’, and I couldn’t deny it. It was a fact.”
Beijing’s successful crackdown had hardened its resolve against the democracy movement in Hong Kong.
Tens of thousands of people annually began to flee leading up to handover, and for those who stayed, every year, massive demonstrations rose on the anniversary of Tiananmen.
July 1, 1997
As walls of rain came down, the Chinese flag was hoisted and Hong Kong’s incessant fireworks began.
“The people of Hong Kong had good reason to believe that democracy was guaranteed,” said the ABC’s Sally Neighbour in 1997.
“The Joint Declaration said the legislature, until then appointed, would be constituted by elections and would have the power to hold the government accountable.”
But as former governor Chris Patten told the UK Select Committee in November 2014: while the argument for democracy was not “specifically addressed in the Joint Declaration”, the implication and the understanding of British officials during negotiations between 1984 and 1997 was that “things would move in that direction”.
Veteran legislative councillor Martin Lee told Four Corners: “I think the sun will go down in shame on the 30th June 1997 over the way a British government has sold us down the river.”
John Walden, Hong Kong’s former director of home affairs, said: “We have in the end handed over a free people to a despotic Communist regime.”
But as its citizenry awoke on July 1, 1997, there was no outward appearance of change — apart from the unnerving lines of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop vehicles moving through the streets to take over security responsibilities for the former British outpost.
They have remained in barracks.
In 1997, at handover, future student leader Joshua Wong was less than one year old.
Anti-subversion act mothballed
July 1, 2003
Just six years after handover, half a million marchers questioned if ‘one country two systems’ was going to last the 50 years.
The cause of the fear was anti-subversion law Article 23 and its possible enactment in the Basic Law, prohibiting “any act of treason, secession, sedition, or subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets”.
It called for the banning of groups outlawed in mainland China on national security grounds and gave police wide search and seizure powers without a court order.
Professor Michael De Golyer from Hong Kong’s Baptist University, part of a group that monitored the effects of handover, said authorities believed the timing was right “in what looks like taking advantage of the changes in the international situation after September 11 in the United States and the Bali bombing.”
By early September, the much maligned secretary for security, Regina Ip, was dumped, and chief executive Tung Chee-hwa was forced to postpone the introduction of the bill indefinitely.
New security chief Ambrose Lee told the ABC: “I think the only regret is that it did not come out as satisfactory as we hoped for.”
Chinese patriotism classes plan scrapped
September 8, 2012
A Hong Kong government plan to make school children take classes in Chinese patriotism is dealt an embarrassing backdown by new chief executive CY Leung a day after high school students encouraged tens of thousands onto the streets.
According to the AFP news agency, course material as part of the Patriotic Education Reform extolled the benefits of one-party rule and equated multi-party democracy to chaos.
Three students at a Hong Kong high school, including 15-year-old Joshua Wong of the recently formed Scholarism student organisation, embarked on a hunger strike against the initiative.
Mr Leung cancelled his APEC trip to address the issue.
‘Democracy poll’, another half-million march draws ire
July 1, 2014
An unofficial referendum run by pro-democracy groups allowed residents to choose between three options on how they want to directly elect their head of local government from 2017.
In response, Mr Leung said his government would do its “utmost” to move towards universal suffrage and stressed the need for stability after nearly 800,000 voted for full democracy.
Chinese state-run media dismissed the referendum as an “illegal farce”, insisting that the proposals violate the Basic Law.
Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s number two official at handover, told ABC’s Radio Australia: “What little autonomy we enjoy is for Beijing to give and to take back at its pleasure.”
“So it’s little wonder that we in Hong Kong are extremely concerned,” she said.
Days after the polls closed more than 500,000 people, according to organisers, took part in a march through Hong Kong’s central business district to demand electoral freedoms on the 17th anniversary of handover.
Tens of thousands of pro-Beijing supporters gathered to protest against the civil disobedience campaign by pro-democracy activists weeks later.
In a Whatsapp message seen by Reuters, people were offered $HK350 ($45) to attend the latter rally.
Beijing rejects open nominations
August 31, 2014
“It is a precious offer from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee,” said chief executive CY Leung upon the release of the Chinese leadership’s ruling setting the terms for the 2017 chief executive and 2020 legislative council elections.
It rejected calls for open nominations for the city’s next leader.
China’s state news agency Xinhua said candidates would be nominated by a “broadly representative” committee.
A vote by universal suffrage must have “institutional safeguards” to take into account “the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong”, it said.
Student class boycott begins
September 22, 2014
A student class boycott coincides with a trip to Beijing by some of Hong Kong’s most powerful tycoons, expected to discuss politics with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Wearing yellow ribbons, students from more than 20 universities and colleges packed into the grounds of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“Perhaps in the near future students or other NGOs will initiate another huge wave of civil disobedience to call for genuine democracy,” said the president of the Hong Kong University Students’ Union, Yvonne Leung.
Confidence in “one country, two systems” is found to be the lowest it has been since the University of Hong Kong’s public opinion program began tracking the issue in 1993, it said in a survey.
March on government offices
September 27, 2014
Hong Kong police charged pro-democracy protesters with pepper spray as they struggled to gain control of a key government enclave in the Asian financial hub.
The charge pushed the demonstrators back, but they did not flee.
The protesters were trying to break a police blockade shutting in the core leaders of the ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’ protest group, which threatened to shut down Hong Kong’s Central financial district.
Pro-democracy lawmaker Lee Cheuk-yan said three fellow legislators were among a small group of activists detained by police, including democratic leaders Albert Ho and Emily Lau.
The clashes came after CY Leung told the gathered protesters that the government would launch a new round of consultations on electoral reform shortly. No time frame was given.
Occupy Central begins
September 28, 2014
Police fire repeated volleys of tear gas to disperse pro-democracy protesters and baton-charged the crowd blocking a key road in the government district after official warnings against illegal demonstrations.
Police had not used tear gas in Hong Kong since 2005, and the actions were seen as the most tenacious civil disobedience since 1997.
Mr Leung pledged “resolute” and “lawful” action against the Occupy Central movement.
Organisers said as many as 80,000 people, galvanised by the arrests of student activists, thronged the streets in Admiralty district, bringing traffic to a standstill and opening up a significant flash point.
Police warned they could use greater force if the tens of thousands demonstrators did not leave the area.
Mr Leung dismissed rumours of possible military intervention from mainland China.
“Some rumours are spreading non-stop, for example, the People’s Liberation Army will take action, the police have fired, etc. These rumours have no basis in fact,” he said.
Taiwan’s president Ma Ying-jeou, who was born in Hong Kong, said the Taiwanese people were paying close attention to the events and hoped Hong Kong and China could come to a mutually acceptable solution on democracy.
Banks and schools closed while some companies told employees to stay home.
Anti-Occupy violence breaks out
October 3, 2014
Scuffles between pro-democracy protesters and groups supporting Beijing broke out most violently in Mongkok, but also Causeway Bay and elsewhere in Kowloon.
Around 200 demonstrators faced off against a larger group of anti-protesters after they started to dismantle barricades in an apparent backlash against the demonstrations which have brought parts of the city to a standstill.
Just north of the Tsim Sha Tsui shopping district on the Kowloon side of the harbour, Mongkok is the most heavily populated place on earth, hugely popular with tourists from mainland China.
ANZ economists sent out a research estimating the protests may have cost retailers $400 million in just the first few days, with retailers of luxury goods, cosmetics and consumer durables hardest hit.
Student leaders called off talks with the government after angry scuffles at the demonstrations, criticising the government and police for not protecting them.
Secretary for security Lai Tung-kwok denied police acted in concert with gangs, having arrested several people with links to the city’s notorious triad criminal gangs after the attacks.
Meanwhile, the official mouthpiece of China’s ruling Communist party said that authorities will not make concessions to pro-democracy protesters, and that their cause is “doomed to fail.”
In a defiant front page editorial, the People’s Daily newspaper said the protesters’ demands for unfettered elections were “neither legal nor reasonable.”
China’s official military newspaper, the People’s Liberation Army Daily, reported on its front page that more than 1000 troops in Hong Kong had received “political training,” stressing loyalty to the Communist party.
Televised debate draws no breakthrough
October 21, 2014
Protests were now in their fourth week with no sign of a resolution, despite a scheduled meeting between government and student protest leaders that was to be broadcast live.
“This is an historic moment because it’s the first time ever in Hong Kong that a group of protesters are able to sit on an equal footing with the government, to say: ‘we don’t agree with you, we want democracy’,” said Nathan Law, a member of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS).
Ahead of the talks Mr Leung, who did not participate in the meeting, said the panel chosen to pick candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 election could be made “more democratic.”
“There’s room for discussion there,” he told a small group of reporters.
“There’s room to make the nominating committee more democratic.”
Giant screens were set up in protest zones to beam the talks to demonstrators.
The government’s chief negotiator Carrie Lam, who called the talks “constructive”, said the government’s firm position was to follow China’s insistence that candidates for the city’s next leadership election must be vetted by a pro-Beijing committee.
“If the students cannot accept this position, I am afraid we will continue to have different views,” she said
Meanwhile, the High Court ordered demonstrators to leave protest sites which were sealed since the student-led movement began as scuffles between demonstrators and police continued.
Student leaders prevented from petitioning Beijing
November 15, 2014
Three leaders of the Hong Kong Federation of Students were prevented from boarding a plane to Beijing where they hoped to meet China’s leaders as part of their campaign.
“Airline officials informed (the leaders) they did not have the required travel documents to get on the plane,” HKFS deputy secretary-general Lester Shum said.
A Cathay Pacific spokesman told local media that Chinese authorities had told the airline the students’ travel permits were invalid but did not elaborate.
Scholarism said that one of its members had already been turned back trying to cross the Chinese border, with officials saying he had taken part in “activities that jeopardise national security”.
In Beijing, Chinese president Xi Jinping voiced support for Hong Kong’s embattled leader and his handling of the protests, the official Xinhua news agency reported.
China “fully affirms and supports” Mr Leung’s efforts to safeguard the rule of law and maintain social order, Mr Xi told Mr Leung in Beijing while attending APEC.
But the protests that drew well over 100,000 people at their peak had now dwindled to hundreds.
Occupy organisers turn themselves in
December 3, 2014
The three founding leaders of Occupy Central surrender to police for their role in democracy protests.
But after a short meeting, Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Chu Yiu-ming were released without charge.
“We three urge the students to retreat, to put down deep roots in the community and transform the movement,” Occupy Central leader Benny Tai said.
The announcement came after hundreds of pro-democracy protesters clashed with police the previous weekend leaving dozens injured in one of the worst nights of violence since rallies began over two months earlier.
“To surrender is not to fail, it is a silent denunciation of a heartless government,” Mr Tai said.
Jean Pierre Cabestan, an expert in Chinese politics at Hong Kong Baptist University, said the Occupy movement was “in tatters”.
“The trouble and one of the weaknesses of the movement is there’s not much coordination between the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the pan-democrats,” he told foreign correspondents in Beijing.
British politicians said also been told by the Chinese embassy they would not be allowed to enter Hong Kong as part of an inquiry into Britain’s relations with its former colony and progress towards democracy.
The protests sparked a diplomatic row between London and Beijing, with China describing their planned trip to the former colony as “overtly confrontational.”
Police clear Occupy site
December 11, 2014
Authorities began clearing the main protest site that choked roads into the city’s finance district for more than two months.
Hundreds of police stood by in the Admiralty district next to government buildings and the Central business area as workers in construction hats used wire cutters to remove barricades erected by protesters after a court injunction.
“The movement has been an awakening process for Hong Kong. People who weren’t interested in politics before are now and aren’t afraid to get arrested, especially the young people,” said Labour Party politician Lee Cheuk-yan as barricades were removed.
On December 15, Hong Kong’s leader declared an end to the demonstrations after police cleared the last remaining protest site.
Police arrested more than a dozen protesters, including some elderly people, after they sat down and refused to move.
One protester played drums next to a cardboard cut-out of Chinese president Xi Jinping as onlookers stood by.
June 18, 2015
In April 2015, the Hong Kong government formally announced its proposal for a new voting system, ignoring calls for a more democratic process.
Then in June, the blueprint was rejected after it failed to gain a two-thirds majority in the Legislative Council — “The starting point of another wave of democratic movement,” pro-democracy legislator Alan Leong said.
It leaves Hong Kong with the same system that brought CY Leung to power.
Long-time activists like Joseph Cheng, one of the organisers of Occupy Central, thinks that China must ultimately accept the pro-democracy movement.
“We have been telling the Chinese authorities that it is not difficult at all to implement democracy in Hong Kong,” Mr Cheng told ABC Radio National.
“Hong Kong people are moderate, they are pragmatic, they don’t want to confront Beijing, they fully accept Chinese sovereignty.
“All they want is to be left alone to enjoy a high degree of autonomy.”
–Original story on ABC News