HONGKONG-CHINA-POLITICS-DEMOCRACY
Police officers face off with pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014  Alex Ogle—AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kong Is Ready for Democracy, but China Isn't Ready for a Free Hong Kong

Sep 30, 2014
Ideas
Anson Chan was a Chief Secretary of the Hong Kong government, both before and after the city's return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. She is also the founder of the Hong Kong 2020 democracy advocacy group.

For me the most heart-breaking aspect of the current unrest in Hong Kong has been to see our police force, kitted out in full riot gear like Star Wars Stormtroopers with gas masks donned, firing pepper spray and tear gas indiscriminately into the faces of crowds of very young unarmed student protesters, most of whom had their arms in the air to show that they were not holding any weapon. These pictures have shamed our city and its government in front of the whole world.

Hong Kong has a long tradition of peaceful protest, dating back to the outpouring of grief following the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown, and now including annual June 4 candlelight vigils, and pro-democracy marches that take place each year on the July 1 anniversary of the return of sovereignty to China. Hong Kong protesters don’t hurl rocks and Molotov cocktails, they don’t burn tires or set fire to police vehicles, they don’t smash windows and loot shops. Fulfilling their side of the bargain, they have trusted that the police will fulfill theirs by managing the demonstration with a light touch and supporting their right to peaceful demonstration.

Photographs of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
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In a few short hours last Sunday, our police sacrificed decades of goodwill; their mandate having clearly changed from one of supporting freedom of expression to acting as a tool of an increasingly repressive and authoritarian government that seems committed to rule by law, rather than the rule of law. These sorts of tactics may be par for the course in mainland China; they are totally unacceptable under the policy of "one country, two systems" laid down by the terms of the Sino-British Joint Declaration — the treaty signed by China and Britain that paved the way for Hong Kong to be handed back to Chinese rule in 1997.

As I write, the protest is ongoing. This is no longer just about the Occupy Central movement, which planned to block roads in Hong Kong Island’s main business district. Peaceful sit-ins have spread uptown and across the harbor to Kowloon. The numbers of students are being swelled by supporters of all ages and walks of life.

For the time being, our government seems to have recognized the error of its ways. Riot police have withdrawn and the mood of the crowds is more relaxed.

The question now is, Can trust be repaired? What will it take to defuse the current standoff?

First, the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing must acknowledge that Hong Kong's people have a right to be angry. Our constitution, the Basic Law, promises that we will have the right to elect our head of government and all members of our legislature by universal suffrage. Yet, 17 years after the return of sovereignty to China, we are still being told that we are not really ready for full democracy. We can have one person, one vote — to elect our next head of government in 2017 — but the two or three candidates allowed to stand for election must all be prescreened by a nominating committee loaded with pro-Beijing sympathizers.

Having waited so long, Hong Kong people are outraged at this insult to their intelligence. Not surprisingly, it is young people, the students, who are most incensed. They can see that Hong Kong is slipping down a perilous slope toward becoming just another Chinese city. This is about their future, the preservation of their way of life and the core values and freedoms they want to be able to pass on to their children and grandchildren.

The truth is Hong Kong is more than ready for democracy; it is China that is not ready for a democratically governed Hong Kong it fears it cannot totally control.

Hong Kong’s government has paved the way for the current crisis by acquiescing in a phony process of public consultation on constitutional reform, the results of which were completely ignored by Beijing. The vast majority of protesters want nothing less than for our current head of government, C.Y. Leung, and his senior ministers, to step down. Realistically, this won’t happen — at least anytime soon. In the meantime, he and his team must come up with something that will give the protesters a reason to pack up and go home. And they must come up with it soon.


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