The dramatic opening of the Occupy Central movement five weeks ago, complete with liberal use of batons, pepper spray and tear gas by the police against unarmed students, triggered a surge of support for the young pro-democracy protesters. Hundreds, sometimes thousands, of demonstrators still occupy several of the city’s main traffic arteries, camping out in neat lines of colorful tents.
That police brutality unexpectedly heralded the amazing rise of a new socio-political force. Already dubbed the Occupy Central Generation, its members, drawn from the cohorts born during and since the 1980s, are mostly students and young workers, many of them professionals. While also dedicated to democracy and deeply wary of Beijing, they are more localist and have less affinity for the cultural identity of mainland Chinese than their elders, including the original proponents of Occupy Central and stalwarts among Hong Kong’s Pan Democrats, as the pro-democracy camp is known here.
Last week, when top government officials held a dialogue on political reform with the protesters, five university students and leaders of the movement were invited as its representatives. The civility displayed by both sides could not mask what was in large measure a generational face-off, and the talks utterly failed to bridge the gap.
The officials rejected the students’ demand that candidates for the 2017 election for chief executive, the territory’s top post, could be nominated by independent citizens’ groups. Quoting verbatim from a recent ruling from Beijing, the officials maintained that potential candidates must first be vetted by a nomination committee of 1,200 persons, chosen from specially defined interest groups mostly favorable to Beijing. Neither the student leaders nor the wider public were impressed.
There appears to be no easy resolution to the standoff: The government seems hesitant to use force again to end the occupation, and the students are not backing down.
Earlier fears that the People’s Liberation Army would come in to do a Tiananmen II have been dispelled by spokesmen carrying word from Beijing. The reason for this self-restraint is obvious: Mainland-controlled companies account for some 60 percent of Hong Kong’s stock market capitalization, and the Communist Party’s princelings own many private equity funds and much prime real estate here. They are in no mood to see a bloodbath in Hong Kong, which could trigger a flight of capital and a collapse of the asset markets.
The protesters, for their part, seem resolute. Unlike their parents and grandparents, most of them have grown up middle class in a city-polity with good governance, and mostly during what is widely deemed to be its golden period — from the late 1970s to the handover in 1997. Well-educated, well-traveled and well-informed, they have a surprisingly strong disdain for what they see in mainland China: an authoritarian government, corrupt, uncivil, lacking in the rule of law and controlled by an elite much inflated with a misbegotten sense of cocky patriotism.
These young people have been further alienated in recent years by the intrusion of the mainland’s economic clout, which among other things has driven real estate prices incredibly high. Immigrants from China keep arriving, and young Hong Kongers perceive the government’s preferential treatment of them as depriving locals of educational opportunities, health care and other benefits. They deplore seeing shops that used to serve their daily needs being turned into pricey outlets for well-heeled mainland tourists and bootleggers — “locusts,” as the latter are sometimes called. In fact, the more young Hong Kongers depend on the mainland economy for employment and income, the more they resent Beijing.
A generational fissure also runs through the wider democracy movement itself. Leaders of the biggest pro-democracy parties have for some 30 years endorsed a mild form of pushback against Beijing: mixing struggle with dialogue and accepting the mainland’s sovereignty over Hong Kong in exchange for promises of more democracy. In light of Beijing’s recent hard-line rulings regarding the 2017 election, the Occupy Central Generation looks upon the strategy of its elders as completely futile: They gave away much and got nothing in return. Civil disobedience is this generation’s starting point.
This has widened the gulf between the Pan Democrats and the ruling class and explains the new intensity of emotion in the movement. Making things worse is the fact that on the government side stands a chief executive, C.Y. Leung, long seen by many as even more hard-line and divisive than some old-school communists. Mr. Leung enjoys scant support from the local business sector and key players within the civil service. Indeed, in his two years plus as chief executive, Hong Kong society at every level has become more politically polarized than ever.
Were the chief executive a person at once responsive to the needs and aspirations of Hong Kong’s people and who knew how to be tactful in Beijing, he could perhaps find a way to resolve the standoff. Some existing electoral laws in China, though rarely applied, provide for forms of nomination by groups of citizens and members of legislative bodies. If these provisions were extended to Hong Kong, it would take the signatures of just 100 registered voters or just three members of the Hong Kong legislature to nominate one candidate in the election for chief executive. But it is not apparent that anyone could persuade Beijing to lend this page in its own playbook to Hong Kongers.
For now the Occupy Central movement seems to have entered an equilibrium. The occupied areas contract and expand as police and protesters feel out each other’s bottom line. Occupiers have refined their shift systems. Taxi drivers now know how to circumvent blocked roads. Business has returned to shops in the affected areas. A new normal has set in.
This could last until next spring, when the government is to present its political reform bill to the legislature, where the Pan Democrats hold enough seats to defeat it. If they do, Beijing has promised that the next chief executive will be chosen in 2017, as C.Y. Leung was in 2012, by a group of 1,200 special-interest electors. This is a game the pro-government camp certainly knows how to play, but also one that would feed more public discontent.
By the time the Occupy Central movement is eventually dissolved — by force or of its own resolution — and its leaders make good on their promise to submit themselves to arrest, an entire generation of pro-democracy citizens will have arisen: young and dynamic, dauntless and relentless. It is a force that the Beijing plutocrats and their emissaries in Hong Kong will have trouble getting used to. Political business will no longer be as usual.
Lian Yi Zheng is a columnist on economic and political issues in Hong Kong.