Makings of a serious mass movement
On 1st October, the People’s Republic of China’s founding day, Zhang Xiaoming, director of Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, told the media with a smile, “The sun rises as usual”. This was an indirect comment on the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong. Is it only wishful thinking from Beijing?
Three days later, Xinhua published an article accusing the Western media of carrying biased articles on the recent protests in Hong Kong and “promoting democracy”. The Chinese news agency writes that the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong is one example of the West’s partiality. The article blasted the US “for providing media and financial support” to the protest movement; it further warned that, as the “color” revolutions in Egypt, Thailand, Libya, and Ukraine, all assisted by the West, ended up in domestic chaos and social turmoil, a “Hong Kong Spring” would inevitably lead to a similar situation.
Nobody can deny that the change of regimes in the above examples brought instability to their respective countries, but there is another side to the coin. First, contrary to what Beijing believes, democracy does not belong to the West or the United States; it is a universal value practised the world over (though not in China as yet). India practised it since times immemorial. Was not Suddhodana, the Buddha’s father the ‘elected’ raja of the Sakyas? The small republics of northern India were ruled in a ‘democratic’ way, long before the US existed, so why always associate democracy with the West.
Then, the Indian experience shows that democracy can deliver a strong and decisive leader who, with the backing of the masses, can lead the nation. Beijing should have noticed this when Xi Jinping visited India!
Recently again, President Xi Jinping dismissed the notions of ‘Western-style’ political reform for China and affirmed the importance of one-party rule for China.
One can however seriously ask: Can the scheme, ‘One Country, Two Systems’, work? Can there be ‘Two Chinas’? One communist and the other democratic? This question is crucial not only for China’s future, but for Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia too, aspiring to ‘another system’, if not a separate country.
Let us look at the recent ‘pro-democracy’ incidents in Hong Kong. During the ongoing Occupy Central movement, tens of thousands of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets in the former British colony to pressure Beijing to keep its promises.
The latest news is that Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has appointed his deputy Carrie Lam to lead a team of senior officials to meet with student leaders. Though the pro-Beijing leadership affirms that the students’ protests are dwindling, talks are on for ‘reforms’.
What will happen if the police uses riot gear, teargas or rubber bullets tomorrow or in the future? The police will not be different here than in Tibet or Xinjiang. Can it use another ‘system’? It probably cannot, and the younger generation in Hong Kong is certainly not ready to become another of China’s ‘minorities’.
When, after years of negotiations, the UK returned Hong Kong to China, the colony was promised “a high degree of autonomy” for the next 50 years (similarly, the Dalai Lama today asks for a “genuine autonomy” for Tibet).
The former British colony came under ‘One Country, Two Systems’, which supposedly guarantees freedom of speech, of assembly and of religion and a free press. All this is enshrined in the Basic Law, which governs Hong Kong since 1997. But in 2004, Beijing warned that it would have to “approve” of any change to Hong Kong’s election laws.
Today, the pro-democracy activists believe that, in ‘One Country, Two Systems’, the second part of the promise is more important than the first. This is not the case with Beijing.
When Leung announced that the nominating committee will be modelled on the existing election committee, loyal to Beijing, which selected him in 2012, former Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten said that Beijing was not keeping its commitments “by hiding behind flexible legal language”.
On 31st August, the National People’s Congress had asserted that only after approving candidates, would it allow direct elections in 2017. This brought the differences between the different parties to the fore; candidates for Chief Executive must gain the support of a majority of a ‘nominating committee’ (packed with Beijing supporters); further, only two or three candidates can contest. Beijing’s blessing is, thus,
The young demonstrators sing another song, “Give us real universal suffrage”. Interestingly, one observes a change of pattern in the protest movement. The New York Times reported the case of a 17-year old student, Joshua Wong, who has been at the forefront of a student movement for democracy in Hong Kong: “He was born less than nine months before this former British colony’s handover to China in 1997, and raised here at a time when the party has tried mightily to win over the people and shape them into patriotic Chinese citizens. His prominence in the protest movement also embodies a shift in politics. [It] has confounded the local government and infuriated its communist supervisors in the mainland.”
This is what worries Beijing: Another generation is ready to take over the struggle. Further, could there be another Tiananmen in the making despite the tight censure of Hong Kong news in the mainland?
There is no doubt that if the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model fails, it will have serious repercussions for other parts of China (particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang). And in Taiwan too, which has recently been offered a similar scheme (though Taipei immediately declined).
In April 1989, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, The People’s Daily, published a front-page editorial denouncing the students on the Square, using the word “chaos”, a notion violently objected to by the students. The same newspaper says now that Hong Kong would “fall into chaos if the protests were not dealt with according to law”.
Beijing’s language may not help in the long run, especially when it says: “[The protesters] should not be so blatant in undermining the rule of law, stability, and order.” The fact that Beijing is not ready to stick to its promises could have other consequences. Several years back, during an interview with the Dalai Lama, I asked the Tibetan leader: “If, tomorrow, you sign an agreement with the Chinese, do you think that they will respect this agreement more than they did the 17-Point Agreement with Tibet in 1951?”
The Dalai Lama had said that he was quite certain that “international pressure” could force China to keep its promises. This does not seem to be the case today.