Dr. Kin-man Chan on losing the hearts and minds in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Revolution began with the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement started by Kin-man Chan, Benny Tai, and Yiu-ming Chu.

Dr. Kin-man Chan is an associate professor of Sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Occupy Central with Love and Peace Campaign in Hong Kong to pressure the Chinese government for universal suffrage in the Hong Kong Chief Executive Election. He was interviewed on April 6, 2016 by Andrew Sheets CMC ’17.

Photograph courtesy of Professor Chan

The “Umbrella Revolution” ended more than a year ago. What are the most important developments in Hong Kong since the end of the revolution?

People were very disappointed after the movement because the government did not respond to the movement even though more than 1 million Hong Kong people were involved. So the movement activists were disappointed and even puzzled about what we should do next. 

On the positive side, many new political groups formed after the movement. There are around 18 professional groups established after the movement, including medical doctors, accountants, and engineers. They are committed to democracy and social justice and they were very much affected by the movement. Many young people formed community groups to participate in the district council elections held late last year. The coming challenge is the legislative council election, in which many young professionals and activists are going to participate. This is the positive side. 

Earlier this year we also experienced a kind of riot in downtown Kowloon. Some people called it the Fishball Revolution or Mong Kock riot. It was related to a controversy over where hawkers should be allowed to do business during the Chinese New Year. There was a confrontation between the police and the supporters of these hawkers. One of the groups supporting these hawkers is a Localist group fighting for independence. This confrontation was not explicitly linked to the fight for independence. It was just the explosion of dissatisfaction that had been accumulating for so long, particularly after the Umbrella Movement. Young people are unhappy with the situation, with the government. It is not exactly about Hong Kong independence or about hawkers; it is a way to express their general dissatisfaction. It was quite confrontational in that it was violent and it spurred a lot of debate in the communities. 

Chan, Tai & Chu commence Black Banner protest march on September 14, 2014

Is the electoral arena becoming the new battleground for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces? In Hong Kong’s recent Legislative Council by-election, Pan-democracy candidate Alvin Yeung won the vacant legislative seat, while Localist candidate Edward Leung won fifteen percent of the vote. Could you speak about the significance of this election and explain what these results mean for Hong Kong’s current domestic political landscape?

In the early 1990’s when the British government started to let the Hong Kong people join the elections for the District Council and the Urban Council, there was a debate among social movement activists whether they should participate in this type of election. Some people were worried that if they joined the political institution they might be coopted by the government and could not be a formidable force pushing for democracy. But after that debate, most pro-democracy politicians and civil society activists believed that elections were a good way to solicit support from the public and to pressure the government. After that, elections have been a tool for the pro-democracy movement to explain our cause to the public and consolidate our support in the community. Participating in elections is already accepted among these pro-democracy activists. After the Umbrella Movement, I expected young people might give up this idea. They might believe that it is only useful to use direct actions instead of joining the institution. Contrary to my expectation, even young people now believe elections provide an important platform for them to explain their ideas to the public. I’m glad to see this. 

During the by-election, not just the Pan-democratic camps sent a candidate to join the election. The Localists, the most radical group, also sent a candidate, Edward Leung, to join the election and they got quite a decent vote in the by-election. It is a positive sign that even radical groups believe they should make use of every opportunity to explain to the public the importance of democracy or independence and through the electoral process consolidate their support in the community. 

After the by-election, Edward Leung mentioned that the political landscape is divided into three pieces. The first is the pro-government group. The second is the traditional pro-democracy camp, and the third is the Localist group fighting for Hong Kong independence. I believe this is an overly simplistic view. I believe there is going to be another new political force, a group of young people that have been involved in social movements. They may not accept the idea of Hong Kong independence, but are equally dissatisfied with the traditional pro-Democracy camp. These young people from the social movement sector are going to form new parties competing with the Localists as well as the traditional pan-Democratic camp. There will be at least four pieces– the pro-government force, the traditional pan-Democratic force, the social movement sectors, and the Localist groups. The social movement sectors and Localist groups are going to have very serious competition because they both appeal to the younger voters and to the more radical voters. In the coming election they are going to split the vote among young people and radical supporters. I do not know who will win but it will be complicated. There are many people who are interested in the coming elections. 

Edward Leung, a Localist candidate won fifteen percent of the vote in Hong Kong’s 2016 by-election. 

Elections and protests seem to be the major tools used by pro-democracy activists, would you say there are other tools available? 

It is important to establish new media because most traditional media in Hong Kong, including TV and newspapers, are either controlled by China or practicing self-censorship because of their investments in China. They became very careful in making commentary and reporting negative news about China’s Hong Kong government. This is why the young people and the pro-Democracy camps have to rely on social media or news media on the Internet. They are facing serious obstacles because many companies are afraid to put their advertisements on these new media because of political pressure. It is critical that they find a way to maintain more independent news reporting, storytelling, or blogs or Facebook pages for people to have more free and independent political communication. Some of these groups are practicing Crowdfunding, asking people to donate money little by little in order to create independent news groups. It is very important to maintain independent media in this area.

What are the likely outcomes of the upcoming legislative council elections in September? What implications could the elections have on the future of Hong Kong’s political system and on its relationship with China? 

Now is a very critical point, a transitional period of Hong Kong political history. The traditional pan-Democratic camps need to rejuvenate themselves by letting young party members replace senior politicians in order to face the competition from young people in the social movement sectors and Localist groups. It is now fragmented, and voters will feel confused because there will be many pro-Democracy candidates to choose from. 

This is a transitional period that should settle down with time. In another four or ten years, we will see a new generation of politicians. They will be younger, more progressive, and they will talk more about Hong Kong identity, if not Hong Kong independence. Unlike the traditional pro-Democracy politicians, they still see themselves as Chinese, they are loyal to China, they just want a Democratic China, and they are using better tactics in fighting for democracy. This younger generation will talk more about Hong Kong identity and are willing to adopt more radical tactics in fighting for democracy. 

Do you have any predictions for the chief executive elections in 2017? Who are the likely leading candidates? Who do you think Beijing favors?

CY Leung still strikes me as very hot in his office in the next term. My hunch is that Beijing will not be that stupid to let him continue his office in the next term. He is not just the enemy of the pro-democracy supporters; he has alienated himself from the business community as well. So he is very isolated. Why should Beijing handpick someone who cannot work with the people and cannot work with the business communities? I would say that he has less than a fifty percent chance of having the opportunity to stay in office. Judging from the stance of Beijing during the Umbrella Movement and the Mong Kok Riot, Xi Jinping seems even more rational than CY Leung because I believe it is Beijing that stopped him from using gunshots on the people. After the Mong Kok Riots, Jinping also issued an internal statement saying that the Hong Kong government should pacify the participants of the riot because of the likelihood of a problem. He said that those fighting for independence should be punished using legal means, not escalating the means of suppression by shooting at people. Since I find Beijing to be more rational than CY Leung, I do not expect him to stay. But that does not mean Beijing will choose someone who is very liberal, that is not Xi Jinping’s style. He is still in the process of consolidating his power; he is very high-handed in China. I believe that he will still handpick someone who is conservative, loyal to Beijing and not very fond of democracy, but who is more skillful in maintaining stability in Hong Kong instead of someone who is creating more enemies. 

Do you think current media, for example the South China Morning Post, are not as independent as they should be?

It is very worrisome when one of the very important Chinese businessmen, who decided to invest in the South China Morning Post, mentioned that he wants the SCMP to have a more comprehensive view about China. In one sense, it means that in the past some believe the SCMP was too critical of China and they need to report more positive stories about China. It is very worrisome to me because we already have a lot of pro-China, pro-government newspapers in Hong Kong. We do not need one more. We need something more critical, more independent. But because of this investment, the SCMP has lost its independent stance, which is very sad because it is the only English language newspaper in Hong Kong. 

How will Beijing try to influence the upcoming Legislative Council elections in Hong Kong and the Chief Executive elections? How might the Hong Kong government or citizens be able to mitigate Beijing’s influence?

As in the past, in every single local election, the China liaison office in Hong Kong will coordinate different pro-government forces so they can win more seats in the elections, and I believe they will continue this work. I’m very sad to say that it is violating the “one country two systems”, because this kind of local election has nothing to do with our defense or foreign affairs. It is something purely internal and Beijing should not intervene. 

I hope that Hong Kong people can be aware of this and understand that voting for those pro-Democracy candidates is a way to defend “one country, two systems,” and to say no to this unreasonable intervention from Beijing. But we still need time to convince people. In the Legislative Council elections, we usually get around 60 percent of support from the voters. Even after the Umbrella Movement, I do not see that we have more support. Fortunately we have not lost support from our existing supporters. More or less, I believe the result will be like before, that we will still get support from a little more than half the voters. I hope that this time more young people can register as voters and then vote for young candidates, no matter if they are Localists or from the student union or from the social movement sector. This will send a strong signal to Beijing that we want change and we will not give up democracy.

How has Hong Kong’s political tension affected its economy? Is the economy going to be a major issue in the upcoming elections?

Up to this moment, our economy is still quite vibrant. The unemployment rate is low. The concern is that our economy concentrates too much on property and finance, and many young people could not get career opportunities because of the unhealthy overconcentration of the economy in these two sectors. For these two sectors, only a tiny percentage of people will enjoy the fruit of economic growth. They do not employ as many people as other industrial sectors. It is the responsibility of our government to diversify our economy in order to create more opportunity for educated people to make good use of their talents. We do not have good technology sectors, although it is a well-educated society. Many people are fond of creativity and art creations. It is important to consider how we can create more opportunities or make art creation a kind of industry. 

We have lost so much time in the past fifteen years or so because in every single election people focus on the issues of constitutional reform. We spend so much time debating about democracy that we do not have time to talk about education, technologies, cultural industries and so on. Until constitutional development is resolved, it will keep bothering people and we will again spend time in the coming legislative council to debate about democracy instead of talking about important issues like economic development. Even someone like CY Leung has the idea of taking on some more fundamental issues, but he is unable to solicit support from the legislative council and the communities. At the end, it is just empty talk; it cannot make his policy platform work. It is important that we create a democratic system so that the government can enjoy legitimacy and can work with the legislative council and the communities to make policy work. 

Some people in Hong Kong appear to be increasingly radicalized, even to the point of seeking independence from the mainland. Can you explain why such radicalization is occurring and whether radicalism resonates with the broader Hong Kong public?

It is logical for them to think that if they want democracy, they need independence. Once Beijing said that under the present constitutional arrangement of “one country, two systems,” we could not have true democracy. They would say they want to give up China, not democracy. But it might not be very realistic. Even in early 1980, when China relied so much on Hong Kong in terms of foreign investment, China was just starting its reform and opening up itself at that moment. And still Beijing decided to take back the sovereignties of Hong Kong from the British government. Nationalism is such an important ideology in China, and if China would not give up its sovereignty over Hong Kong in the 1980s, it won’t now. I do not see any opportunities to fight for independence in Hong Kong now that China has become one of the most important superpowers in the world and is less and less reliant on Hong Kong’s economy. It is not realistic, but to young people, that is unimportant. It has become a kind of identity politics. Saying “no” to Beijing is a way for the youth to define themselves. Many of these young people understand that it is unrealistic, but at least it shows Beijing that we will not yield, even to the point that we are fighting for independence. 

In terms of using violence, look at what happened in the Umbrella Movement. It was a very peaceful movement involving more than 1 million people, but in the end the Beijing and Hong Kong governments did not respond. It is also logical for some young people to think about using violent means to create more pressure. Look at what happened after the Mong Kok riot. According to one survey, around 90 percent of Hong Kong people did not support using violence to fight for their cause. However, among the 90 percent, around half were sympathetic. They understood why young people were so angry. Even if they believed that using violence would lead nowhere, they were sympathetic. Look at the result of the by-election. Edward Leung from the Localist group, who is also one of the leaders of the riot, got a decent vote from the public. It seems that day after day people have become more sympathetic to using radical means to fight for democracy or other social causes. It is because our government refuses to listen to the people. When the government is so closed, of course people will think about using more radical means to fight for their ends. 

What would be the best course of action for Beijing to take to prevent the total collapse of the “One Country Two Systems” model?

Oh my god, it is almost at the verge of collapse. Look at what happened with the bookstore incident. We believe Chinese authorities abducted the booksellers. How can we say that “one country, two systems” is alive? It is almost dead already. Beijing has to take very serious steps to convince the Hong Kong people that Beijing really honors the promise of “one country, two systems.” There are two ways to do so. First, Beijing has to give Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy. Giving Hong Kong democracy is the most critical step to show the sincerity of Beijing in respecting a high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong. Every single country will be worried that if you give a region too much autonomy there will be a rise of separatism. The second measure to create integration among different regions is to let the autonomous regions have equal rights to participate in the affairs of the central or federal government. If China one day let the Hong Kong people elect their own representatives to the National People’s Congress, then we will believe that we have equal rights in affecting national affairs. It might help to integrate or maintain a national unity if China really practiced this kind of democratic means. We have to wait for it. When China becomes more democratic, honors “one country, two systems,” gives Hong Kong a high degree of autonomy and equal rights in participating in the affairs of the central government, Beijing and Hong Kong will be saved in making “one county, two systems” work. 

What developments should we watch out for in the coming year?

The election of the chief executive is particularly important. If CY Leung remains in office, young people will become more radical, the Localist movement will have even more room to grow, but middle class people will become very cynical. They will believe that is going to hopeless if CY Leung continues in office. Many of these middle class people might consider moving out from Hong Kong to the U.S. or Canada. The development of radicalism, Localism, and cynicism will become more serious. The next chief executive elections will be critical.

Andrew Sheets CMC ’17Student Journalist
Featured Image Source: “Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution” by Studio Incendo — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr Creative Commons First Image Source: "“Chan, Tai & Chu commence Black Banner protest march on 14 September 2014” by Sirlanz — Own Work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons"
Share this:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *