Hong Kong’s government buildings have flown the Chinese flag since 1997, but the territory is governed separately from the mainland, retaining a legal system inherited from the British and a wide range of civil liberties. One of those liberties, freedom of assembly, may be on display later this year. Advocates for popular elections of Hong Kong’s top leader — the chief executive — plan sit-in demonstrations in the heart of the city, one of the world’s most important financial hubs, should China’s national legislature set conditions that limit voters’ choices.
The last time the chief executive was chosen, in 2012, it was by an Electoral Affairs Commission made up of fewer than 1,200 of Hong Kong’s more than seven million people. But the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress decided in 2007 that the election of the chief executive in 2017 “may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage.” And on Tuesday, Fu Ying, a spokeswoman for the National People’s Congress, told reporters in Beijing that “achieving universal suffrage in Hong Kong is a major event, and it is linked to Hong Kong’s future stability and development.”
But organizers of the so-called Occupy Central movement say a nomination process that excludes candidates viewed as not friendly to Beijing would render broader voting rights meaningless. They are prepared to demonstrate and even go to jail, drawing inspiration from Henry David Thoreau’s essay “Civil Disobedience.”
In the essay, the 19th-century American transcendentalist philosopher wrote: “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison.’’
Albert Ho, 62, a member of Hong Kong’s legislature and a prominent lawyer who represented the former National Security Agency contractor Edward J. Snowden during his stay in Hong Kong last year, is one of the supporters of the Occupy Central movement. Should Beijing impose restrictions on who can run for chief executive — something that may happen this year, possibly in September — that will trigger the protests, he says. In an interview, he explained the rationale behind the movement:
When the proposal comes back from Beijing, and it has conditions, that may spark the Occupy Central movement?
If the conditions have the effect of enabling Beijing to screen out candidates holding different political persuasions — in other words the result of imposing political criteria for the purpose of screening — that would make the ultimate system totally incompatible with international standards. Then I think most of us would find it no longer necessary to wait for the model being tabled by the chief executive at the later stage, because the model has to be subject to the restriction of the conditions, so we would possibly immediately prompt the Occupy Central action to take place.
In a way, having the Occupy Central movement happen is a last resort, and everybody loses in a way, right?
Yes. We made it quite clear. We just want to put all the cards on the table. We don’t want to take Beijing by surprise. We know that the Beijing government is a huge organization. There is often a lack of communication between the people of Hong Kong and those at the top of that hierarchy.
Are you optimistic that something good is going to come out of this?
We are now in the situation where we have the best possible fighting chance for the realization of universal suffrage in electing the chief executive, because we are fighting for the realization of a timetable promised to Hong Kong solemnly by the highest decision-making body in China in 2007. That is the timetable given to us.
So you are prepared with Occupy Central to go to jail?
We are prepared to go to jail. We are not going to avoid police arrest. We are not going to seek bail in the police station after we are detained. We are not going to defend any charges against us. We are not going to seek mitigation of sentences. We are quite prepared to go to jail. And not only me, there are many other people who are going to crowd the prison. When Hong Kong has become so unjust, the prison has become a place of justice for us, which was said by the famous American philosopher Thoreau. He said in an unjust place the only place for justice is the jail.
We are going to do it. They know that we are serious. And Beijing really has to make a serious decision knowing the consequences. We don’t want them to make a misinformed decision, so that’s why we put all the cards on the table. I have no grounds to be optimistic, knowing that Beijing is now under an authoritarian rule and they have a lot of antagonism towards democracy. But I am not unduly pessimistic. I still do hold certain hope that we will able to succeed because even the Chinese leaders will find the whole nation is very much on the crossroads. It is time that the whole country must look for a new direction for reform, and allowing Hong Kong to become democratized as a model is important.