The Question for Hong Kong Protesters: Principle or Pragmatism

BN-DM986_hkprot_G_20140701220857Despite Occupy Central’s high profile threats to carry out an “era of civil disobedience,” Hong Kong protesters still have taken this city by surprise in the last 8 days, the largest student-led demonstrations on Chinese soil since 1989. The crucial question facing protesters now is what comes next.

It has now been more than a week since the Occupy Central movement has demonstrated that it could muster enough support to shut down key areas of Hong Kong. In its stand against the world’s largest nation, it has garnered widespread international attention and much global sympathy. A generation of Hong Kong young people is now highly politically engaged and has gained a sense that they can take concrete action towards creating a better future for themselves. Now the question: what’s the next step in the fight for universal suffrage?

As SCMP analyst Alex Lo has argued, while similar protests in the past have yielded tangible and important results, this time is different. In July, 2003, a half-million Hong Kongers fought against the imposition of the Article 23 anti-subversion bill, which would have allowed the police to enter people’s homes without a search warrant. Hong Kong people power won; the bill was never called to a vote. In 2012 a smaller but sustained campaign against a National Education curriculum caused the proposed changes to be rescinded.

This time, however, the situation is more complex. First, there isn’t a clear message what the protesters want besides CY Leung to resign, which would accomplish little in the long-term, and “international standard” universal suffrage, which means anyone can run for the chief executive position and the public can vote on these candidates. The latter demand is in conflict with the specifics of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, which states that a “broadly representative committee” must vet the candidates first. The kind of universal suffrage protesters want wouldn’t hold up in Hong Kong courts; it would be deemed unconstitutional. Even Occupy Central admits that China will not even entertain passing a law that violates the Basic Law.

Second, the aforementioned conflicts were primarily local affairs, but now that Chief Executive C.Y. Leung has been sidelined and mainland officials are now speaking directly to Hong Kong people for the first time, the Hong Kong situation has gained considerable national attention from Beijing. Official mouthpieces have made it clear that Xi Jinping will not be bullied into concessions that would only encourage Tibetans and Uighers in the restive western provinces to press harder in their quest for self-rule.

The real question is a matter of principle vs. pragmatism. When a vote is called in Legco on Beijing’s offer in the coming months, should the pro-democratic camp reject this flawed system, attempt to take the moral high road, and be on record as demanding more than Beijing is willing to offer, or should they approve Beijing-sanctioned candidates that Hong Kong people can then vote for?

It’s an unenviable choice, and my sympathies are with the protesters who certainly are mature enough to make their own political decisions. However, my advice is for the protesters to retreat and allow Hong Kong to get back to some form of normalcy, a choice for which they would win considerable respect from the vast majority of moderates in Hong Kong. Focus instead on the question of whether to vote for some small measure of expanded political participation or remain true to a higher standard.

Given this limited choice, my view is that Hong Kong Institute of Education Professor Sonny Lo’s recommendations suggest the only sensible way forward: approve the bill and allow the unpredictability of even flawed elections with an expanded populace inch Hong Kong forward on the path towards universal suffrage. It’s a bitter pill to swallow and may be politically untenable for the pro-democratic camp, but approving the bill appears to be the best option. Live to fight another day.


About martinschmidtinasia

I have served as a humanities teacher at Hong Kong International School since 1990, teaching history, English, and religion courses. Since the mid-1990's I have also come to assume responsibility for many of the school's service learning initiatives. My position also included human care ministry with the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in Hong Kong, southern China, and others parts of Asia from 1999-2014. Bringing my affluent students into contact with people served by the LCMS in Asia has proved to be beneficial to students and our community partners alike. Through these experience I have become committed to social conscience education, which gives students the opportunity to find their place in society in the context of challenging global realities.
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