Civil disobedience became a real possibility in Hong Kong after a local law professor recommended “Occupy Central” as a last resort if the Hong Kong government failed to introduce substantive democratic reform for the 2017 election of the region’s Chief Executive. In mid-January, Professor Benny Tai, constitutional law associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, wrote of organizing a 10,000-strong road blockade in Hong Kong’s financial district. Occupy Central would pressure the local and central governments into backing broader notions of universal suffrage, particularly in relation to the hotly contested constitution of and Election Committee which many believe wards away candidates deemed uncooperative by Beijing.
Tai’s proposal, if followed through, is unfeasible and inadvisable. It is nevertheless opportune. As long as Occupy Central remains theoretical, it has strategic value for those pushing for broader notions of universal suffrage. A brief glimpse into the coming years, however, tells us that timing is everything. Hong Kong district councils and legislative council elections take place in 2015 and 2016 respectively. It is therefore imperative to both the pan-democratic and pro-Beijing camps that a consensus on constitutional reform, inter-camp and with Beijing, is sorted out before then. Tai has indirectly handed the pan-democratic camp an additional bargaining chip. Occupy Central’s precise impact cannot be gauged as of yet but it ought to clear to all parties involved that it is worth more on paper. The pan-democratic camp would be prudent not to go all-out too soon.
Occupy Central has gathered substantial momentum in the last two months in light of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung omitting to mention any substantive path towards democratic reform in his maiden Policy Address. In early March, Albert Ho, ex-chairman of the Democratic Party and Legislative Council member, announced that he would voluntarily resign as legislator to trigger a pseudo-referendum in Hong Kong, as a prelude to the movement, if in future the central government refused to accept reform proposals deliberated and accepted by Hong Kong people.
Proponents of the movement would be wise not to overrate its feasibility though. The disparity between socio-economic and political conditions in Hong Kong could prove fatal to its implementation. Tai wrote that participants of Occupy Central must be willing to accept criminal charges. While this may be a fundamental characteristic of civil disobedience and possesses in itself powerful strategic value, proponents of the movement ought not to underplay this key difference between Occupy Central and previous legal large-scale demonstrations in Hong Kong. Tai went on to argue that, for the movement to achieve maximum effectiveness, its participants should consist of not only leaders and affiliates of the pan-democratic camp but also comparatively moderate political figures, religious figures, academics and most importantly the normally politically inactive middle class.
Evidence over the last decade suggests, unfortunately, that the majority of Hong Kong people want democracy but not badly enough to willingly accept potential criminal charges. Targeting the middle class is not a realistic course of action. The degree to which Hong Kong promotes the right to political participation deserves to be challenged, as it currently is, but its people are disproportionately affluent socially and economically. Our material situation and attachment towards stability is incomparable to that of, for example, Gandhi’s generation. Hong Kong’s middle class have too much to lose.
Impatience from slightly hot-headed proponents of the movement also runs the risk of counter-productivity. Some suggested in late February that Occupy Central be rehearsed on a smaller scale on the annual July 1 March later this year instead of, as Tai suggested, in 2014. Tai himself was not supportive, commenting that social discontent then would be suboptimal. It makes strategic sense to keep the movement theoretical until, at the very least, the Hong Kong government announces its constitutional reform proposal. A disappointing turnout, especially in the premature stages, could set Hong Kong a long way back in its negotiations with Beijing. Hong Kong cannot afford to take that risk.
Even if Occupy Central is executed as planned, the movement is unlikely to be in Hong Kong’s best interests. Members of the pro-Beijing camp have asked whether Hong Kong can afford to paralyze Central, its financial district, for an unspecified amount of time. This point is not mere rhetoric. For one, the Occupy Central described by Tai would have disastrous economic consequences for Hong Kong and China. The livelihood of Hong Kong people would be indirectly damaged by reputational damage caused to Hong Kong as an international financial centre. International investors would be drawn away from Hong Kong to rival financial centres such as Singapore and Shanghai during and long after the movement.
For another, Hong Kong might in fact find its political bargaining power in relation to Beijing weakened as a corollary of an economic catastrophe, contrary to the good intentions of its proponents. Beijing has a lot to lose from having its offshore trading hub paralyzed. Hong Kong, however, will not be running off scot-free either. Its economic worth to China, one of its most invaluable political bargaining chips, would be irreparably diminished. Hong Kong is already struggling in its dialogue with Beijing. Occupy Central is a politically double-edged knife; Hong Kong should be cautious about towards whom the sharper edge is pointing.