By Charitha Ratwatte –
Joshua Wong is a charismatic, small-made, teenage schoolboy, going on 18 years, who wears rectangular glasses and sports a soup-bowl haircut. The other night he stood before an ocean of protesters who had taken over downtown Hong Kong, holding two microphones and addressing the massive crowd. His deep voice was drowned out by cheers. The crowd did not mind, they knew him and his message well.
Young Joshua has been at the centre of the democracy movement in Hong Kong which has rattled Beijing’s hold on the city. On 1 October, the day on which the People’s Republic of China – of which Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region – celebrates the takeover of China by the Communist Party 65 years ago, the Beijing-appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong Leung Chun-ying raised the Chinese flag as the National Anthem played at the location from which the protesters were barred. Leung is the CEO of Hong Kong, chosen by a Beijing-appointed committee, by 689 votes – the protestors’ derisive nickname for Leung is ‘689’!
Joshua Wong’s reaction: “When I heard the National Anthem starting to play, I did not feel moved as much as angry. When it tells you, ‘Arise! All those who refuse to be slaves!’ – how is our treatment today any different from slaves?”
Fighting for freedom
The protesters in Hong Kong, who wear yellow ribbons, are fighting for the right to free elections in Hong Kong, one man one vote and the right to elect a candidate who will be CEO of Hong Kong in 2017, who is not vetted and approved by Beijing. Leung has said that the Government of China will not agree. The protesters have also called for Leung’s resignation; their posters show him as 689, like Dracula with fangs!
Leung has said that he will not resign as he has to ‘continue my work on universal suffrage’ for the people of Hong Kong. But he proposed that the protesters hold talks with his Deputy, the Chief Secretary of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam. At the time of writing, the protesters had agreed to talks, but after they were attacked in one of the upmarket shopping areas of Hong Kong by a group which claimed to support the Government’s position, with its members sporting blue ribbons, they threatened to call off talks.
The protesters alleged that the Beijing Government had set up the attackers and that they were members of Hong Kong’s notorious Triad Gangs. The Hong Kong Police said they have arrested some Triad Gang members. The attackers claimed that they were annoyed with the protesters due to their livelihoods being affected by the disruption caused by the protests in what is the virtual Golden Holiday Week for retailers, due to business from Mainland shoppers visiting Hong Kong during the Chinese National Day holiday.
Leung had set Monday 6 October as the deadline for the protesters to voluntarily vacate protest sites. If not, what next? No one knows. Beijing’s formula for dealing with dissent on the Mainland, a combination of astute bargaining, thuggish violence, ruthless treatment of ringleaders, tight control of media and internet, will be too risky to be applied in Hong Kong. Beijing may not want to risk Hong Kong’s reputation for stability.
President Xi recently met with 70 of Hong Kong’s super rich to assure them of his awareness of their concerns. The British ran Hong Kong, while a colony, by playing up to the Tai-pans (tycoons) and suppressing the masses.
Joshua Wong emerged as a figure in Hong Kong’s activist circles two years ago, when he rallied Hong Kong students against a move by the Government to introduce what was called ‘patriotic education’ in schools, opposing it on the ground of it being an attempt to introduce Communist Party indoctrination into Hong Kong’s schools.
Wong and his classmates formed a youth group, calling itself ‘Scholarism’ to fight the imposition proposed. Initially an internet-based movement, as more students joined it became a potent force. After massive street protests in 2012, the Government shelved the plan. Since then Scholarism has been a major force in the protest movement for democratic elections.
Young Joshua galvanised the protesters by suddenly leading a charge on a Government building in Hong Kong that resulted in his arrest by the Police. A writ of Habeas Corpus application filed before the Hong Kong courts resulted in his release two days later. The Hong Kong establishment, and that part of the business community which supports Beijing, are incensed that so much disruption is being caused by protesters led by a ‘bunch of kids’. One tycoon, in a TV interview, questioned: “Joshua Wong is just 17 years old – has he got no homework to do?”
The reality is that Joshua and his generation of students, the first that grew up in Hong Kong after it shifted to rule from Beijing, in 1997, after being a British colony, is one of the sectors of society most alienated from Beijing’s influence. The Communist Party has tried its level best to win over the people of Hong Kong and turn them into ‘patriotic’ citizens of the People’s Republic.
Joshua Wong embodies a shift in politics, which is taking place worldwide – youth anger and alienation amplified over the internet, completely beyond the orbit of traditional political parties.
The Hong Kong Government and Beijing has been confounded and infuriated by this development. Joshua Wong is a political upstart – a hybrid of a solemn politician and a bashful teenage sensation. He recently told the New York Times: “Electoral reform in Hong Kong is a generational war.”
Chen Yun-chung, Associate Professor of Cultural Studies at Lingnan University, Hong Kong, said Wong’s generation of high school activists had “outflanked both the Government and the older, more cautious generations of democrats. Their mentality is different from the older generation; they represent a culture of resistance that is idealistic and very persistent among high school students in Hong Kong. There is always a danger of an even harsher crackdown that will scare the hell out of Hong Kong people. But at the same time I don’t think these student leaders are just daydreamers. They know they might not get what they want, but most of them are prepared to fight on.”
Wong in an interview earlier said: “Compromising before you even begin fighting is illogical. I have no problems with negotiation. But before you do that, you better have some bargaining chips. If you don’t have that, how do you fight a war?”
Occupying key areas in Hong Kong just may be those chips! The Hong Kong authorities first tried to violently drive away the protesters, using pepper spray and tear gas, but that strategy failed and they seem to be now trying to wear down the protesters.
China is worried about the Hong Kong situation due to other parts of China showing the same type of opposition to the Communist Party – the Tibetans and the Uighurs in Xinjiang are in ferment.
The unification of the democratic Taiwan with the People’s Republic is also a dream of the Chinese rulers. For that to be achieved, the ‘One country, two systems’ agreement, hammered out by Deng Hsiao Ping and Margaret Thatcher, has to be shown to be workable.
An exiled leader of the Uighurs of Xinjiang has said that “the Hong Kong protests were very inspiring to the Uighurs”. In Taiwan there have been demonstrations in support of the Hong Kong protesters.
Three plausible outcomes
There are three plausible outcomes of the Hong Kong situation. First, that the protesters will be able to win small concessions of democratic processes from Beijing. Second, that Beijing does not show flexibility and Hong Kong will revert to an uneasy status quo ante, in a sullen and volcanic spirit. Third, Beijing will abruptly decide to call off the whole ‘One country, two systems’ experiment and smash the protests with the People’s Liberation Army backing up the Hong Kong Police.
The chances of the third option are remote, as Hong Kong’s openness – both financial as well political – is what makes it important to China. Beijing knows that the only guarantor of a stable country is a people satisfied with its Government.
For the present, China is taking a hard line. Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said “no country would allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That’s the situation in the United States, and that’s the same situation in Hong Kong.”
The People’s Liberation Army has been garrisoned in Hong Kong since 1997. In fact some of the protesters’ demonstration took place in form their barracks. China’s National Tourism Administration has told mainland tour operators to suspend tours to Hong Kong, probably to put pressure.
A front page editorial in Beijing’s People’s Daily said that the protesters had “blasphemed” against Hong Kong’s law and “disrupted society”. It said that the protest movement “will have negative consequences for Hong Kong and all its people”. If it continues, the consequences will be unimaginable.
An extremely small number of activists had, for their own self-interest, ignored the law. This is not communication, it is confrontation. A small number of Hong Kong people are insistent on resistance and provocation, and in the end they will suffer because of it. The Monday deadline set by ‘689 Leung’ is awaited.
Arab Spring similarities
Is there a similarity between the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong protests? A young unemployed youth, Mohamed Bouazizi, in Tunisia, one among thousands, who was unable to find a job consonant with his qualifications, did the next best thing, he started a business. He rented a cart and brought some fruits and vegetables from a wholesale trader, with some borrowed capital, and started a retail business in a one of Tunis’s markets.
Things went well until the city’s municipal market inspectors came on one of their regular rent seeking raids. The young graduate trader refused to pay them a bribe; the inspectors assaulted him brutally and seized and took away his fruit and cart. Frustrated, the young man doused himself in petrol and set himself on fire in front of the Tunis Governor’s office in protest. This was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.
Riots broke out against the repressive dictatorship of President Ben Ali. This made even more historic and stunning by the fact that Ben Ali was a military man, but he made the fatal error of distancing himself from the professional Army and used a more politicised Special Presidential Police Force as his tool of choice for the brutal repression of the people of Tunisia, at the same time indulging in a particularly extreme type of venal crony capitalism to enrich his relatives and cronies.
It is reported that McDonalds, of Big Mac fame, had decided not to invest in Tunisia as they were being compelled to have a sleeping partner from Ben Ali’s family! An increasingly-educated population – between half and two-thirds under the age of 25 – was hostile to the Ben Ali kleptocracy. Economic hardship combined with high youth unemployment and food and fuel price inflation was the trigger that ignited the firestorm in an environment which was metaphorically tinder dry with frustration. Huge banners of Ben Ali’s face festooning Tunis’s streets are being torn down and burnt by angry crowds.
Ben Ali’s abrupt departure
Zeine al-Abidine Ben Ali, until a few years ago, for more than 23 years, was dictator-in-chief of Tunisia; he is now in exile in Saudi Arabia with his family. Ben Ali seized power in a ‘medical coup’ against his sick and ageing predecessor in 1987 and turned Tunisia into an even more repressive brutal police state. Now he is history.
The ‘Jasmine Revolution’ in Tunisia (Jasmine is the national flower) is the first time ever an Arab dictator in North Africa has been driven out by a popular uprising. It is the Arab world’s first popular uprising in 50 years. The internet, Google, Facebook and Twitter played a major role in mobilising young Tunisians for the demonstrations and keeping people abreast with the fast-breaking news, especially of Ben Ali’s abrupt departure.
Dictators and autocrats the world over pored over the sequence of events which drove Ben Ali out and looking at their own states wondering whether the day of reckoning is around the corner. There have been copycat self-immolations in other Arab cities following Bouazizi’s example in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania.
The ailing president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt is one such autocrat, who was ousted from power. He was trying to have his son Gamal to succeed him. But Gamal is not a military man unlike the father and the Egyptian armed forces did not fall in line. Post-Arab Spring, elections were held, which elected President Morsi from the Muslim Brotherhood, whom the military later ousted, and held a pro forma election to elect their Field Marshal as President.
The Arab Spring was focused on Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria. Colonel Gadaffi of Libya said that the Tunisians were too hasty to get rid of Ben Ali. He too, was soon gone, caught hiding in a road side culvert.
Revolt of young people
Are Joshua Wong and Mohamed Bouazizi comrades in revolt? There are certainly commonalities and also distinctions. The revolt of young people against the establishment is fundamental. The fact that Bouazizi had to kill himself and Wong is alive, though arrested and released, is a primary difference.
The writ of Habeas Corpus is probably not heard of in Tunisia, leave alone a judge who will have the courage to release on bail a protester against the Government! So Hong Kong’s heritage of the Rule of Law and good governance is a positive, which, when compared with the People’s Republic, the activists are fighting for. More strength to their elbow!
Technology played a huge part. The internet, Facebook, Twitter, Google and 4G mobile phones fired up both the Arab Spring and the Hong Kong uprising. One young Hong Kong protester put it succinctly: “I’ve heard the first we’ll know of a crackdown is when our phone signals are cut off and there are no internet connections.”
We in Sri Lanka have firsthand knowledge of revolts by young people. The People’s Liberation Army being under the control of the Communist Party is another danger, like the military domination in West Asia and North Africa. Remember the role of the People’s Liberation Army in Tiananmen Square? The Arab Spring led to a slaughter of the innocents in most cases. In Sri Lanka we have similar historical causes for concern.
In Hong Kong, the photo of a policeman in a gas mask using his water bottle to rinse the eyes of a protester after the Police had used pepper spray says it all! One hopes that this same spirit of compassion will be sustained in Hong Kong, and the situation will not descend to levels of what is reported from Xinjiang and Tibet or even a replay of Tiananmen Square.
Visitors from mainland China also sympathise. One demonstrator said: “People coming from China ask what we are doing, when we explain it to them, they say they like what we are doing and they take our Yellow Ribbons to wear.” The student said she handed out 2,000 yellow ribbons to mainland shoppers at Sogo department store, a favourite haunt of mainland shoppers. Of course there were others who wore the Blue Ribbons of the anti-protesters.
Dictatorship, autocracy and a partial democracy – the Arab Spring differs from Hong Kong in this way too. When thunder and lightning ripped through Hong Kong skies and rain drenched the protesters, they chanted in Cantonese : “Man is being blamed because the heavens are angry.” The meaning was clear; the gods were angry at the behaviour of the Hong Kong authorities and brought down the deluge! Similar to our ‘Devo Wassatu Kalena – Raja Bhavatu Dhammiko’ – ‘may be the ruler be just, may the rain fall on time’.
Prognosis not good
The prognosis for Hong Kong on the Arab Spring example is not good. West Asia and North Africa, especially the Islamic parts, are in chaos. Post-Arab Spring the terrorist Islamic State is widening its area of control, notwithstanding air and land attacks by a coalition of states led by the USA.
China worries that its Beijing Model, which President Xi is promoting – stable, predictable, Communist Party domination, an honest Confucius type meritocratic bureaucracy and every 10 years a peaceful change in the leadership within the Communist Party – is better than the political gridlock found in the USA or the confusion and chaos in other populist electocracies worldwide and the mayhem in West Asia and North Africa. What happens in Hong Kong will set the trend.
Talks on talks took place, but the Government has suddenly backed out, perhaps thinking that the protests have lost momentum. The students have called for renewed protests. It would be sensible for the protesters to parlay their success hitherto into meaningful concessions from the Government – affordable housing and education, a redress to inequality, improved public services and a genuine framework for political reform and engagement with Beijing.
If it works, Joshua Wong can demonstrate that they took on and gave Goliath in Beijing a good fight and achieved something substantial – unlike his late comrade-in-arms in Tunisia, the late lamented Mohamed Bouazizi.