Hong Kong's popular pro-democracy movement contains unpopular truth: Barring few, no one wants complete independence from China

  • Hong Kong’s leaders, mostly locally born, worked for years to introduce universal suffrage, but pro-democracy activists rejected it.

  • For many Hong Kongers, locally born or otherwise, the change in the city’s super-safe, the low-crime atmosphere has come as a shock.

  • Hong Kong is a schizophrenic place, thanks to its British and Chinese hybrid parentage.

A group of black-suited, black-masked men surrounded this writer, who was covering the Hong Kong protests for an Indian media outlet and pointed to the device in his hand.

"Delete your videos, NOW!” shouted their leader, an intimidating looking man wearing a gas mask.

It was frightening and deleting footage of protesters vandalising property was the only way to safety.

And then, as soon as they released me, I pressed a button labelled “recently deleted” on my device and recovered all the videos.

 Hong Kongs popular pro-democracy movement contains unpopular truth: Barring few, no one wants complete independence from China

Demonstrators carry umbrellas as they march along a street in Hong Kong on Sunday. AP/PTI

This is the challenge of anyone trying to deliver a balanced report from this glittering city on China’s south coast today.

By now, most news-watchers around the world will have heard about what is happening in Hong Kong. Except for the story being spread on the international news is almost the opposite of reality. In the standard media narrative, teen heroes, leading a pro-democracy movement, are demanding universal suffrage and independence from Hong Kong leaders, a puppet government installed by Beijing.

The true story is more complex.

Hong Kong’s leaders, mostly locally born, worked for years to introduce universal suffrage, but pro-democracy activists rejected it. And the vast majority of ordinary Hong Kong people strongly oppose the call for independence that underlies the campaign run by the black-suited demonstrators.

Confused yet?

It’s inevitable. Hong Kong is a schizophrenic place, thanks to its British and Chinese hybrid parentage. Yet it remains peaceful most of the time, with an extremely low crime rate and an industrious, largely unpolitical populace. As with Kashmir, the influences of both parents co-exist peacefully most of the time but friction sometimes causes a sudden conflagration.

The real story: Hong Kong civil servants managed to negotiate a deal with mainland China to introduce universal suffrage in the city. It provided for Hong Kong’s leader to be chosen by universal suffrage by 2017: a genuine, classic, one-person-one-vote election, with no vetos or bloc votes. Beijing had only one condition: the candidate should “love China”. This is a well-known code phrase with a simple meaning: “No separatism campaigners, please.”

This should not have been a problem: all the political parties in Hong Kong strongly opposed independence at the time, and still do now.

But pro-democracy candidates fired up by an almost religious conviction that the existence of any proviso meant that this was not 100 percent “true” Western liberal democracy, rejected the deal. Many moderate voices on all sides argued that this was the closest thing to universal suffrage possible for any territory that was a sovereign part of China but to no avail. The government’s legal infrastructure to introduce democracy in Hong Kong was kicked out of parliament in 2014.

Ironically, many political scientists say that the world has fallen out of love with Western liberal democracy since then, and has gone back to its traditional preference for stronger, more inspiring leaders instead. Many people in Hong Kong now feel that the rejection of China’s offer was a mistake, says Daniel Vukovich, an East Asian studies scholar in Hong Kong. He warns against the “arrogance” of assuming the existence of “supposedly universal norms and political forms”.

That’s the real Hong Kong story, but it is too nuanced for a quick TV news-bite so dispatches from the city are shoehorned into the Teen Heroes Fight Evil Empire narrative.

Yet even that Hollywood-worthy tale is starting to splinter now. After 10 weeks of protests, the number of protesters has shrunk dramatically, leaving a hardline group containing many masked men whose preferred activity is to vandalise police stations. (Conspiracy theorists tried to blame violent incidents on “secret provocateurs” from the police, but the allegations didn’t ring true – police officers don’t set fire to each other with petrol bombs.)

More worryingly, the call for independence has become the protesters’ main cry: “Liberate Hong Kong: this is our era’s revolution!” Both conservatives and pro-democracy activists have been uncomfortable with that obvious pro-separatism sentiment, causing a further drop in support.

But it was a series of incidents at Hong Kong’s airport that caused the biggest rush away from the protesters, known as the black shirts. One was a viral video of young men bullying an elderly traveller who did not share their anti-China sentiments; another was the cancellation of all flights on more than one occasion, and a third was a sustained physical attack on a journalist from mainland China. Protesters even blocked paramedics trying to reach him.

“The protesters dealt Hong Kong a very serious black eye the past week,” admitted Tim Cheng, a local man with sympathy for the activists, writing on social media.

For many Hong Kongers, locally born or otherwise, the change in the city’s super-safe, the low-crime atmosphere has come as a shock. “For the first time in 30 years, I am afraid of violence at the airport when my husband is returning from an overseas trip,” said Sheri Witthoft, a mother of three. “For the first time in 30 years, I worry about my daughter travelling to and from work on the train. For the first time on a Sunday night, I was afraid to walk through Central, afraid of mobs, of unexpectedly getting caught up in a demonstration or riot.”

The Hong Kong government, meanwhile, has been low key. Despite the fact that so many anti-government rallies have ended in violence, it continues to quietly grant permits for them, as it has always done. It is as if the government is using the ancient Daoist principle of “wu wei” – pro-active inaction. Or taking a step back and letting things work themselves out. Judging by the fall in support for the protesters, it may be working.

“I hope we are seeing light at the end of this dark, seemingly endless tunnel,” resident Suzanna Hung said.

But others warn that smaller, more focused groups will carry on. Already university student leaders have called on young people to ignore the semester opening date of 2 September.

Protesters will need to be busy preparing something to catch the world’s attention, because soon after that, on 1 October, today’s current incarnation of China will be celebrating its 70th birthday.

Judging by previous occasions, most Hong Kongers have been content to go along with the celebrations.

But a smaller, angry group won’t—and the rest of Hong Kong will have only weeks to try and build a peaceful consensus with them.

The author is a journalist based in Hong Kong since the 1980s.

Updated Date: Aug 19, 2019 09:02:10 IST