OCCUPYING HONG KONG
China says to Hong Kong we will leave you folks alone.
You’re allowed to have a system that is different from our own.
It’s OK to hold elections, the kind you’ve always sought
As long as you are choosing from the people we support.
For several weeks in the fall of 2014 demonstrators brought the business and
government centers of Hong Kong to a virtual standstill. The mostly young protesters
one group drawn from college students, another from high schools -- complained about
unemployment and gross inequality; but their central goal was to democratize the
election scheduled for 2017.
In 1997 the British had said goodbye to Hong Kong, leaving one of the last vestiges of their once-mighty empire to be joined to the Chinese mainland. The Communist Chinese government, anxious to avoid disrupting the economic prowess of this tiny but incredibly prosperous outpost, promulgated a Basic Law promising “one nation, two systems” under which Hong Kong would have a considerable array of personal and business freedoms and its own legal system as well as periodic elections. However, the chief executive would be chosen by a 1200-person committee acceptable to Beijing.
In 2014 the Hong Kong government announced what they saw as a major measure of democratization for the 2017 election: all offices, including that of the chief executive would be based on universal suffrage. The critics were unimpressed. The chief executive candidates would have to be initially approved by the Beijing-oriented committee. So everyone could now play in a rigged game. The protests began and continued. The government was unmoved. A spokesman offered the opposition advice in a New York Times op.ed: “Read the Basic Law.”
While the opposition drew heavily on “Occupy” movements from the U.S. and elsewhere, the Hong Kong version was generally polite and scrupulously tidy, careful always not to leave litter and other detritus. Even so, weeks of obstructing private and government business inevitably led to rising tensions; there were angry counter-demonstrations; and there was the use of tear gas and pepper spray by the police. Still, apart from occasional scuffles, the opposition avoided violence. They relied on obstruction, argument, and satire.
In contrast to mainland China, Hong Kong has a long tradition of ebullient satire with a political flavor including stage reviews, standup comedians, radio programs and cartoons. And in March 2014 a hundred or so Hong Kong wits presented a satirical “Communist rally”, marching through the city shouting absurd slogans and bellowing the national anthem off-key. So it was inevitable that, when the election issue erupted later that year, the protesters would use satirical humor to mock the authorities.
There was an array of symbols – yellow ribbons, crossed arms, and, most of all, raised umbrellas – a practical tool against the sun and rain but also against the pepper spray, and a symbolic, mocking defense against the machine guns pointing at them by the police. Protest posters were everywhere, many designed by professionals. There was ridicule by numbers: the Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, was Mr.“689” – the number of votes he received from the Beijing-dominated nominating committee in 2012. Of course there were protest songs. Cartoons featured umbrellas against guns. Leung appeared as an ineffectual tortoise buried under his shell; or as a “Good baby” with a Chinese mainland dummy in his mouth. Alternatively this meme depicted him as a Dracula:
A satirical statement mocking the Hong Kong triads made the rounds. It indignantly denied allegations that the triad had instigated counter-demonstrations in concert with the police: “Harassing the police has perennially been the work of our forefathers. The triad society will never cooperate with the police.” And the statement complained resentfully: “Everybody is doing something illegal. You are able to call people to your cause, publicly attack the police, publicly lay siege to the government. The subway, taxes, the bus system, banks, finance houses…we have never been able to extend our protection to these things. We will have to learn from your example. Through it all, you are still protected by the police. Wow, you guys have some mad ability.”
There was supportive satire, too, from outside Hong Kong. Within mainland China microbloggers poured scorn on the official declarations that the protests were inspired from the west. But most of this disappeared quickly into the highly efficient “Great Chinese Wall” of censorship I discussed in an earlier blog.
Satirists in the West, of course, rushed to provide moral support to the Occupation. Umbrellas versus guns cartoons proliferated. So did reminders of Tiananmen Square, with a lone Hong Kong protester holding up a line of government tanks. The Chinese dragon was featured breathing fire on Hong Kong Democracy. The Ebola scare was paralleled: A Western doctor declares that he’s trying to stop a contagion from spreading to his country, a Chinese soldier holds a protester by the scruff of the neck and says: “Same here.” Jon Stewart complained: “I can’t believe this. First the Chinese beat us with Alibaba, now they’re doing protests better than us.”
Unfortunately, no matter how well they do their protests, only the most naïve in Hong Kong can hope for fundamental concessions.. Mainland China already contains two previously hostile systems, now tortuously fused into what one commentator has called “Leninist Capitalism”. The Party may tolerate a little additional stretching to contain the turbulence in Hong Kong. But full-fledged representative democracy will not be allowed in 2017 or, indeed, as far as the Chinese Communist Party imagination can project.