Hong Kong’s July 1 Spirit Has Run Out of Steam

Old ways of dealing with the territory’s authorities are no longer working, but pan-democratic forces are incapable, or unwilling, to come up with new ideas

As the initial impact of the July 1 democracy rally in Hong Kong slowly recedes, people must find new ways to hold the government to account.

After sovereignty of Hong Kong was ceded back to China on July 1, 1997, the First of July subsequently became a holiday in the Special Administrative Region. The first July 1 march was held on that same day, and the annual protest reached its peak in 2003. Politically, the new government, in stark contrast to the period under British rule, failed to perform its fundamental duty — that is, to govern.

In 2003, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass the National Security Bill as a way of implementing Article 23 of the Basic Law, or the “anti-subversion law,” causing a major public outcry. Meanwhile, the SARS outbreak that same year hit Hong Kong hard, severely affecting its economic performance. The real estate industry and the stock market, which the middle class relies on to maintain its socioeconomic status, were the principal victims of the crisis, leading to a demonstration in which half a million protesters participated.

The leaders in Hong Kong and Beijing were taken aback, so much so that Article 23 was shelved, and those who had promoted it had no choice but to step down. Many parties from the pan-democracy camp seized this opportunity and went on to win the election with landslide victory. In 2005, the territory’s first Chief Executive, Tung Chee-hwa (董建華), resigned for “health reasons.”

The 2003 protest showed the potential to shake the “status quo” and created a tradition that has been observed ever since on July 1. From then onwards, the turnout was regarded as the barometer of public approval rates for the government. Each year, the weeks between June 4 and July 1 is the pan-democracy camp’s most active period, when they mobilize members and supporters. As the patron of many major democratic parties, the Apple Daily spares no effort in advertising the march, and always includes a free insert for protest slogans on its front page.

The pan-democracy camp and many residents of Hong Kong furthermore tend to believe that the July 1, 2003, march compelled the Beijing authorities to abandon the controversial article and Tung to resign, giving the annual protest an aura of mysticism. Everything about the landmark demonstration has become a powerful symbol. People always emphasize how orderly the procession was, how no trash was left behind after the rally had concluded. These characteristics of political participation are to this day considered as a sacred rule that must not be violated if any improvements are to be made to the current political system. The idea has developed into the dogma of “peaceful, rational, and non-violent,” which the pan-democracy camp has fully embraced.

In the last decades of British rule, the Hong Kong political system was meritocratic, slowly progressing toward the well-groomed indirect democracy, or representative democracy, currently found in the U.K. Most of the time, whenever pressure groups and opposition parties unfurled their banners and organized protests, the British-run Hong Kong government showed some willingness to accept the requests from society. This was because British governance in Hong Kong was essentially foreign, and the legitimacy of its rule therefore depended on its performance.

On top of that, the authorities in Westminster needed to maintain at least the illusion of an open society. Through various advisory bodies, it created more access points and successfully created the desired image, thus establishing a sense of collegiality between the government and the people.

Hence, pressure groups and political parties during that period did not follow the examples of South Korea, Taiwan, and Japan with the tear gas, water cannons, and resistance against riot police. As long as they petitioned peacefully, they were guaranteed a benevolent response from the government. However, by 2003 this virtuous circle had all but vanished.

Starting that year, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing abandoned the policy of non-intervention that had characterized the first few years following handover, and the powers of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the SAR were increased. Consequently, Hong Kong ended up with two centers of jurisdiction: the local government and the CCP-appointed body, both with equal legitimacy. A power struggle between the two organizations was nevertheless inevitable. After half a million people took to the streets demanding the authorities address their grievances, the CCP responded with economic means. Among those was the Individual Visit scheme. The hot money generated by mainland visitors quickly brought about an economic recovery.

A few years later, Hong Kong’s economy had become completely reliant on China. Today, government officials and visitors from China feel no need to be courteous; Chinese tourists run wild in Hong Kong. The central government in Beijing constantly sticks its nose into Hong Kong’s affairs, and it is an open secret that the local government merely carries out the orders handed down from Beijing and does nothing else.

This extent of the interference from Beijing has reached a point where China has no desire whatsoever to take the political climate or public reactions in Hong Kong into account. China is not affected, nor bothered, in the slightest way, by popular calls for a true adherence to “One Country, Two Systems.” The constant delays in implementing universal suffrage, the disruptions of elections, and the repression of protesters, are all signs that Beijing has become numb to the feelings of ordinary people in the territory. The infamous White Paper published in June on the “One Country, Two Systems” was clearly a statement by the CCP declaring that “the country” — China — came before the “two systems.”

Residents of Hong Kong continue to participate almost religiously in the annual July 1 protest, yet we see no improvements in the political system. In fact, the political situation is worsening, so much so that some members of the public are starting to wonder whether the traditional way of protesting—peaceful, seeking compromise through negotiation — adopted by the pan-democracy camp can still work. Hopes that Hong Kong can act as an advocate for democracy are, after all, just an ideal, as the CCP has left no room for discussion on the matter. The official definition of “Hong Kong returning to China” appears to be a way for mainlanders to justify Chinese domination in Hong Kong. But since blood ties and race are unchallengeable, the Chinese treatment of Hong Kong is not as cautious or prudent as that seen under the British. At the end of the day, if you’re not satisfied, the patriots will say, “Do you not consider yourself Chinese?” which is not to be mistaken as a question, but rather as an insult, an accusation. The CCP’s “Chinese dream” is essentially nationalism, the ultimate refuge for authoritarian thugs and gangsters. Chinese governance of Hong Kong long ago dispensed with the agreements reached between London and Beijing prior to retrocession. Today, it is nothing but militancy and diehard racialism.

The salt of the earth, the generation that now forms the “adult” population, is an economic animal that was baptised by the British Empire. They indulge in the good years of quietness and peace, and compared with those who were once ruled by authoritarian governments, they fail to understand the true nature of contention. They engage in wishful thinking, believing that the government will compromise after citizens come together and protest about the status quo. “Occupy Central with Love and Peace” is clearly an amplification of this mentality.

Compromise (and failing that, emigration) is how the people of Hong Kong believe they can resolve social issues. They are infatuated with the glory of 2003, hoping that more people will join their side next July 1. They await the next miracle, a miracle in numbers. Sadly, this kind of blind hope has led to failure. Civil society, or the pan-democrats, has grown reluctant to oppose and has increasingly relied on student movements to interfere with government functioning. They use sweet words like “Hong Kong’s future depends on you” to lure the young population, and slogans such as “Peaceful, Rational and Non-violent,” to hide their cowardice.

Whenever organisers seem ready to bring protest activities to the next level, a smear campaign organized by the pan-democracy movement inevitably follows. They discredit the participants and the movement altogether, saying that the latter have a hidden agenda. Ironically, the Democrats saw Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement against the Cross-Strait Services Trade Agreement (CSSTA), the anger sparked by the deal with China, and the upsurge of youth activism, with admiration. Many of them even flew over to Taiwan to experience it first-hand. Yet the moment they return to Hong Kong, they ruthlessly criticise their own.

Our society is filled with these hypocrites, who are the reason why the July 1 rallies have failed to have any impact on the government. The annual protest has been reduced to a beautiful, but in the end awfully impractical, fantasy. They have no game plan, and Hong Kong’s society has yet to find a way out.

Lewis Loud is a graduate of the Hong Kong Baptist University and a regular commentator on the territory’s political scene.

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