Was it a grim defining moment when Leung Chun-ying, variously known, among more flattering titles, as the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and the Chief Puppet of Beijing, ruled out any prospect of China changing its mind or allowing concessions to the limited version of “democracy” it has promised for Hong Kong in 2017, when voters are to choose his successor?
He sternly warned demonstrators to give up their “illegal” protests that have taken over large areas of Hong Kong for several days. Just before the midnight deadline that students had set him, Leung agreed to dialogue but the concession was late in coming.
Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people celebrated the Oct. 1 National Day holiday by joining the thousands who had been camped on the streets for days to protest against Beijing’s failure to grant true democracy to this sophisticated world city.
Some commentators are talking of Hong Kong’s Tiananmen Square moment, referring to the 1989 student protests crushed by the Chinese military.
Others are saying that this will inevitably lead to the death of Hong Kong as a separately autonomous territory within China.
A very few others claim that the protests pose such a challenge to President Xi Jinping and Communist Part rule that they could lead to the end of Xi, if not the end of the party, if Beijing does not assert control.
Leung demonstrated how wooden he is in his responses to the protests and how his masters in Beijing have left him to hang in the wind.
The chief executive denounced the initial demonstrations, which were largely by students and schoolchildren, some as young as 14. He sent in riot police, who used pepper spray and then tear gas and went in and rounded up some of the leaders, including the charismatic 17-year-old Joshua Wong.
Luckily for him, Wong has parents with the wherewithal and wit to employ a lawyer who applied for habeas corpus and got him out of police custody after 40 hours.
The judge ruled that it was lawful for the police to arrest but not lawful for them to detain him for so long: they should charge him or release him. They set him free without charge.
The police overreaction merely outraged other potential supporters of the pro-democracy movement, who then spilled out on the streets in support of the kids and brought forward the plans for the adult “Occupy Central” protest, which was intended to paralyze the Central area, the heart of Hong Kong’s financial and banking hub.
By China’s National Day, Day 6 of the protests, there was not just one demonstration, but several gripping different parts of the city and with their denizens calling for Leung’s resignation, holding banners showing him as a wolf or a latter-day Adolf Hitler.
Foreign media, seeking for a catchy tag, had run out of colors, so they called this the “Umbrella revolution” in tribute to the number of people who had brought umbrellas, initially as makeshift protection against pepper spray and tear gas, but useful later to ward off the hot sun during the steamy days (32 degrees Celsius and 90 percent humidity) and the drenching thunderstorm that lit up the night sky before National Day.
The demonstrators were peaceful and polite, caring for one another in handing out masks and wet towels to keep the tear gas from stinging, preparing and sharing water bottles, cleaning up their rubbish at the end of the day, a tribute to the good manners taught in Hong Kong schools.
Some of the students offered to share food and water with visiting tourists who were overwhelmed by the heat and humidity. On National Day, families with young children joined in what was a festival protest.
In many ways the protests were reminiscent of the early days of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
The Chinese students there had believed in their cause. They thought they were on the same side as the people and some of the more enlightened leaders who wanted to get rid of the rampant corruption rushing through China’s doors that Deng Xiaoping’s had opened to the world.
The Hong Kong students and demonstrators also see themselves as representing the people with the overwhelming feeling that they are mature enough to be allowed to think and vote for themselves.
But their polite passion was met by Leung’s obduracy. He resisted demands to step down, saying that any change of chief executive would not make a difference to the China’s chosen election model for Hong Kong.
That may be true — and the Hong Kong demonstrators must be careful — they could force the resignation of Leung and get another tougher stooge in his place as Beijing decides to make one concession only.
Leung should remember first that he is chief executive responsible to the people of Hong Kong, not merely to the puppet masters in Beijing.
Through the long secret deliberations in Beijing over what kind of universal suffrage to impose on Hong Kong, he should have spoken up for Hong Kong to achieve something that would be more like democracy as popularly understood outside China.
Is Leung the only person in Hong Kong who believes that what Beijing is offering is democracy?
He repeated that it was a big step forward to allow the entire people to vote for the chief executive in 2017, forgetting that they could only vote for two or three candidates who had gone through a strict vetting process by a committee of 1,200 people mainly Beijing loyalists. It is a measure of Leung’s incompetence and political tin ears that he was not listening to the popular voice.
A more sensitive leader would have offered earlier to meet the student demonstrators and to take their demands to Beijing.
A more imaginative leader would have tried to seize and widen the wiggle room that is still available.
One option is to widen the nominating committee so that it is more representative of the people of Hong Kong. Another would be for Beijing to be more relaxed about who can be nominated.
Beijing sympathizers point out, reasonably, that no place in the world allows a free-for-all where every Chan, Lim and Cheung can stand for election. Candidates are filtered through a political process, which in the United States means having a great deal of money and powerful backers in a system that is almost as crude as vote-buying in the rotten 18th-century British elections depicted by Hogarth.
But the fact that the U.S. democratic system is flawed does not mean that Hong Kong’s must be. Leung should be badgering Beijing to loosen its grip, or Hong Kong — and China — will be saddled with another tin-eared stone-brained leader.
Hong Kong’s leaders have failed to let Beijing understand that, almost without exception, leading Hong Kong politicians are good Chinese patriots. Beijing should be persuaded that loving Hong Kong and loving China, its prime condition for being a candidate, is fulfilled unless it can be demonstrated otherwise. After that, Leung should be working to encourage Beijing to allow proper hustings for candidates to be tested before, as well as after, the nominating committee chooses.
And why stop at two or three candidates? What’s wrong with, say, six or eight? The crunch question is what happens when an irresistible force meets an immovable object?
All the signs are ominous. Beijing has moved to censor social media posts about the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Before National Day, Xi himself hosted and toasted a Hong Kong delegation of mega-rich business leaders. That these are the Hongkongers whom Beijing feels comfortable with speaks volumes about the state of China’s Communist Party.
Commentators in Beijing, including BBC correspondents, repeat supinely that Beijing will not back down on its electoral system — when the aim should be to tweak, modify and improve the system in the interests of Hong Kong and Beijing.
If Beijing persists in its hostility, then the best solution being advocated is that the demonstrators tire and walk away to their daily schooling and jobs, persuaded by businesses that point out the damage that a prolonged protest will do to Hong Kong’s livelihood and reputation. But this would be a Band-Aid solution: Simmering volcanoes have a tendency to erupt.
Forcibly breaking up the demonstrations, whether by riot police or, worse, by soldiers from Beijing’s garrison in Hong Kong, would effectively kill the one-country, two-systems formula that Beijing promised and still has 33 years left to run.
It raises the leading question as to whether Xi is so scared for his own and the Communist Party’s future that he cannot make imaginative concessions to keep Hong Kong as the loyal goose supplying China’s golden eggs.
Kevin Rafferty is author of City on the Rocks: Hong Kong’s uncertain future.