Written by Malte P. Kaeding.

2014 is a year of remembrance. In Hong Kong on the evening of June 4 tens of thousands will gather on the football pitches of Victoria Park to remember the Tiananmen massacre 25 years ago with a candle light vigil. The annual vigil has slowly changed its meaning going beyond a commemoration of the victims of the crackdown in Beijing. The event has become an integral part of Hong Kong’s identity, a symbol of defiance against Beijing’s rule over Hong Kong, against the Hong Kong government’s socio-economic integration strategy with the mainland and the rapid mainlandisation of the territory. June 4 is now the first rally point of local democrats voicing their demands for universal suffrage and true democracy for Hong Kong.

In 2014 Hong Kong is expected to see a huge turnout for the June 4 vigil and for the following annual July 1 march. Yet what will be different this year on July 1 is that protesters plan to stay on the streets of Central and block them to all traffic. This act of civic disobedience planned by the ‘Occupy Central’ movement is a novel attempt to pressure the Hong Kong government to finally move towards full universal suffrage in 2017 and 2020. The response by the Beijing government and patriotic forces in Hong Kong to this plan ranges from volleys of rhetorical attacks to blatant threats of military intervention. What motivates the democratic camp to resort to these novel tactics and why are the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong so worried? Will there be another ‘Tiananmen incident’ in the heart of Asia’s financial centre?

Long path towards universal suffrage

Democrats in Hong Kong have fought for universal suffrage and democracy for decades and frustration with their achievements is great. Since the 1980s citizens have braved the elements in countless marches and mass demonstrations, valiantly enduring endless rounds of government consultations. Yet Hong Kongers are still stuck with half of the legislators elected from pro-business functional constituencies (FC) and a Chief Executive ‘elected’ by a small committee dominated by pro-Beijing interests.

The Basic Law promises the eventual election of the Chief Executive and Legislative Council through universal suffrage if it is achieved in ‘accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress’. In 2004 the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress interpreted the Basic Law and ruled out universal suffrage before 2012. The following proposals for constitutional changes for the 2007 and 2008 elections by the government were rejected by the pan-democrats in the Legislative Council as insufficient. For the 2012 elections, after yet another round of public consultation, the government proposed in late 2009 a proposal remarkably similar to that of 2005. In reaction the Civic Party and the League of Social Democrats decided to trigger a quasi-referendum on universal suffrage by resigning legislators in all five constituencies and focusing in the by-election campaign on constitutional reform.

The ‘Five Constituencies Resignation’ plan was accompanied by a debate on the democratic future of the territory. The rising momentum effectively pressured the government. Yet at the highpoint of the debate the Democratic Party began direct negotiations with Beijing about amendments of the government’s reform package. Eventually a controversial constitutional reform package, including ten more directly elected seats but no further time table or reduction of FC’s, passed the legislature with the votes of Democratic Party legislators. The momentum was gone and the debate stopped. Currently the consultation on the process of elections by universal suffrage in 2017/18 is under way. Talks of requirements all potential Chief Executive candidates must fulfill and the importance of FC’s, strongly suggests that the government attempts to limit universal suffrage again. As a reaction the Occupy Central movement and an all-party alliance of pan-democratic parties for true democracy was set up. It plans several stages of public engagement that should then culminate in the possible road blockade as the last resort. This means civil obedience as a final attempt to get the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing to adhere to its promises.

Civil obedience against a rigged system

The pan-democrats have made great progress in recent years in engaging citizens, educating the public about the problems with the current political system. The democracy movement has been reinvigorated thanks to the more street movement oriented tactics of the League of Social Democrats (LSD) and People Power (PP) and through the anti-national education movement in 2012. The annual pro-democracy rallies in summer are very well attended with a large number of young people participating. Pan-democrats realised that it were mass demonstrations against Article 23 and national education that were most effective, triggering society-wide debates about Hong Kong’s democratic status quo and attracting international attention.

The Hong Kong and Beijing governments fear that once a debate is initiated and public opinion is on the side of the pan-democrats, the status quo of the political system is in real danger. The post-1997 system is designed to be executive-led with little power given to the legislature. Yet structural constraints render the current electoral system as deeply flawed, further limiting even the little influence the Legislative Council has. In fact elections can now be regarded as a means of managing the democratic development of Hong Kong in ways that will benefit the Beijing government. The 2010 constitutional reform package is a perfect case study. On the surface democratic progress has been made with additional directly elected seats. Yet at the same time the importance of the District Councils (DC) as a nominating body has increased. The DC’s are mere consultative bodies dominated by pro-Beijing forces through their superior grass-root resources based on large networks of patriotic associations, providing daily services to constituencies. These associations offer a massive volunteer pool assisting in the mobilisation of ‘iron votes’ in all elections, rendering electoral competition between poorly resourced pan-democrats and extremely well-funded pro-establishment parties very unfair.

It has also become evident in recent elections that the central government’s Liaison Office has directly managed and helped candidates from the pro-Beijing camp, by gathering support in the constituency and allocating votes. Following the 2010 constitutional reform, the Hong Kong government began to shape electoral regulations in a way that benefits pro-establishment candidates, for example by discouraging the use of the internet, a preferred and inexpensive medium used effectively by the LSD and PP. The United Front strategy of the Communist Party has so far been assisted by the inability of some democrats to properly recognise the long-term mainland Chinese tactics. Pro-Beijing parties dominating the grassroots, a preference for small constituencies that allow better control and vote allocation, the rise of indirect elections and screening mechanism that effectively bar pan-democratic candidates from standing for Chief Executive Elections. Under these circumstances the outcomes of elections are controlled even if Hong Kong is allowed universal suffrage.

Chinese democracy

Occupy Central does highlight this evolution towards a democracy with Chinese characteristics, effectively an empty shell of an electoral democracy. The central government is worried that this will jeopardise its grand strategy for Hong Kong. The territory should demonstrate to the world that Beijing is a responsible partner adhering to international values and respecting the wishes of its people, even accepting liberal democracy on its soil.

In 2014 the territory sees a rapidly growing dissatisfaction with the central and local government, anti-mainland sentiments rising and identification with China among young people dropping to record lows, daily protests and a growing support for the Occupy movement especially among youngsters. Events this year will reveal how Beijing will deal with the formidable challenge of the democratic movement in Hong Kong. Will China intervene? It seems highly unlikely, but not even the hardcore pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong expected the military to shoot students on Tiananmen in 1989.

Dr. Malte Philipp Kaeding is Lecturer in International Politics at the University of Surrey.