Monday, September 29, 2014

The September 28 Protests in Hong Kong

History looks different to every participant, so I wish to record what I saw at today’s protests, and some of the aspects that surprised me.

We went to the protest in part to support the students and partly out of curiosity. I have no intention of getting arrested, but I do think nonviolent support is important, and that it can make a difference in the long run if perhaps not immediately. We had already heard by 2:00 pm that the police had “locked down” the area at the government building, and were not allowing people to join the protesters. The radio did not explain why, but it said that many legislators and democracy figures, including Democratic Party chair Emily Lau, and the very moderate and soft-spoken former legislator Fernando Cheung, had been arrested and taken away to a police station in Aberdeen. The police had arrested the leader of the student group Scholarism, Joshua Wong, and had denied him bail. It is not clear what crimes they were being charged with.

Students directing people in MTR station
At the Admiralty MTR station, there were students telling people to go to Exit C2 and to walk by a circuitous route towards the protests, because the police had closed exit A. When we got out at ground level (now about 3:10), there were hundreds of people milling about, seemingly waiting for something. We soon realized, from their chants, that they were waiting for the police to “open the road” to allow them to cross Connaught Road to join protesters in Civic Square on the north side of Connaught Road (closer to the water). A few dozen police officers, with no weapons or shields, just riot helmets, were at the end of the road preventing this.

Police blocking protesters from road
While we were there, taking pictures, the protesters periodically chanted, but mostly waited. The crowd kept growing, but it was not restless. Volunteers started collecting water, food, masks, umbrellas, and other first aid materials, in a makeshift control center under some overhead passageways.

One odd thing was that the police kept walking through the crowd, for no apparent purpose. At one point, a dozen or so plain-clothes officers wearing “Police” vests and backpacks walked through the crowd (using the same corridor on the edge of the area, next to the new MTR station construction site) and joined the uniformed officers on Connaught Road. Then a group of over 20 officers walked quickly into the area, also down the same corridor but in the opposite direction, and stationed themselves as if they were guarding the construction site entrance to the MTR site. The crowd at time booed or gave thumb down signs to the police, and changed “retreat” to them, but did not harass them. Other police officers, sometimes in small groups of 5 or so, also pass through the group going who knows where. Thus, there was no front line, and it was not clear what the police was doing.
More police arrive to block protesters from Connaught Rd

We were thinking of leaving, and decided to have a look on the western side of Admiralty. I noticed that there were some fire department vehicles arriving, in particular an aerial rescue truck with ladders. Seemed odd, for a protest. When we got to Connaught Road, we saw that a man was standing on the edge of the overpass connecting Admiralty to the Central Government Offices. We surmised that he was threatening to jump. By the time I first saw him at 4:00, there were already officers talking to him. One in particular, with no hard hat or other equipment, held out his hand trying to get him to give up. We waited to see what would happen; it took longer than I expected.

Underneath, the traffic completely stopped. Already when we were there at 4:00, there was a yellow rescue cushion on the street level below him. Though Connaught Road is a 6-lane highway, there is a barrier in the middle dividing the two directions, so cars and buses could not turn around. Drivers could see what was happening, so they got out of their cars.
Protester on footbridge threatens to jump

While we waited, many tourists tried to walk down Connaught Road, but the police (there were only half a dozen) told them to go around. Bizarrely, two Mainlanders got very angry at the police too, and yelled at them in Mandarin. One woman said, “I’m a tourist! Where am I supposed to go?!” (我是旅游客,我怎麻走?)  One person yelled out, "Go home" (回家), which is essentially an anti-Mainlander slur. I felt like someone should say "I'm sorry our struggle for democracy has inconvenienced you!" but she would not have grasped the sarcasm.

At about 4:30, two officers in red, with helmets and wearing harnesses, crossed over the barrier and began to approach the protester from both sides. Oddly, the protester seemingly could not see what was happening, and at 4:32, the two officers in red jumped him and pushed him away from the ledge onto the ground, where he was presumably tied to a gurney we had seen earlier and then wheeled away.

We decided to have another look at where we’d been before leaving, and when we got there, we were shocked that the crowd was much smaller than before. But as we moved forward, we realized that what had happened is that for whatever reason, the line of police protecting Connaught Road had left, and the protesters had moved into the road. They had moved plastic temporary road barriers (used for the MTR station) and put them on their side to make a ramp to cross the cement barriers on the road. Then as we moved forward, we realized that there were several thousand people on the flyover leading from Wanchai to Admiralty. The crowd had gotten huge.
Students collect donated water & supplies

But not everyone is willing to be involved to the same degree. At one point, we noticed a lot of people leaving, so I asked someone next to me what had been just been said (it is all in Cantonese, and I understand maybe 20%). They explained that they had urged people to sit down as a protest, but that those who backed up did not want to sit down. They were there for support, but not to “Occupy Central” (of course, we were not in Central but Admiralty, so the “Occupy Central” movement has a bit of a marketing problem. Some protesters were complaining about this on the evening news).

We left at 5:30, feeling that this would go on well into the night. There had already been spurts of pepper spray from police into the protesters on the far side of the street. The police’s red banners were out several times warning that the police would use additional force if the protesters continued to charge. A human chain passed umbrellas and water to the front line, and we saw a police officer being led away, apparently a victim of heat stroke, and a young protester being taken on a wheeled gurney to an ambulance. When we arrived in Sham Shui Po for an errand, we saw on the TV of a shop (showing an underground station’s live footage) that the police had started using tear gas (and that it was blowing back into their own faces).
View left towards Central district, 17:23

View towards Central Government Square

View right, towards Wanchai
Crowd in Sham Shui Po watching protesters getting tear gassed

Earlier today, my wife was surprised when an acquaintance complained about the students. He said that Hong Kong is now part of China, we just have to get used to it. Michael Chugani, a columnist and Hong Kong gadfly, has been taking the same line. Some people take this “realist” position. Of course, many of them are wealthy, and prefer Communist style elections so as to preserve their privileges. Interestingly, no one in Hong Kong actually says the proposed reforms are actually good. To keep any semblance of credibility, all political figures have admitted that the NPCSC decision was disappointing. CY Leung and others try to claim that because everyone can vote, it will be better than the previous system (in which only 1200 generally pro-Beijing representatives voted). They may be right, but because no one trusts Beijing to liberalize further in the future, democrats will find it impossible to approve the NPCSC-proposed framework. Pan-democrats feel tricked because Beijing constrained “universal suffrage” with a Nominating Committee, which is the same old Electoral Committee, and increased the threshold for nomination from one eighth to one half of Nominating Committee votes.

At the same time, the pan-democrats and Occupy Central activists did not help their cause by insisting on “civil nominations,” even after Beijing had insisted that civil nominations did not comply with the Basic Law, and that the Nominating Committee had to have a role. They could have argued for a larger and more representative Nominating Committee. They could have argued to keep the one eighth threshold. But I wonder if anyone anticipated Beijing would raise the threshold to one half.

But now, Hong Kong is dividing in two: one either supports the students, or opposes them. Some critics insist the students are being manipulated by teachers or even by foreign forces. But others are inspired by the students. I am on an email list of Hong Kong professors, and I’m struck by how many have written that the students make them feel embarrassed that they have not done more up to now. They were saying that they were going to go to support the students today, because they were inspired by their courage.

The news tonight says the protesters are still at Admiralty in the thousands. I’m sure the government wants to clear them by the start of work tomorrow morning. I’m not sure they will be able to. And even if they do, what if they show up in Central tomorrow? How will this end? We got an email rumor claiming the PLA was moving into positions; that is very unlikely now, and would be a disaster for Hong Kong and for China. Surely, though Beijing was foolish in promulgating such conservative election rules, which have provoked the protests we see today. Right?

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Fading overseas staff in Hong Kong

People often ask what has changed in Hong Kong since 1997, and I have always said that the first and biggest change was the change in immigration rules that made it difficult for Commonwealth residents to work in Hong Kong. Until April of 1997, anyone from Canada, Australia, the UK or other Commonwealth countries could work in Hong Kong without having to get a visa. That changed overnight, and the waiters at bars and restaurants suddenly changed from knowledgeable foreigners ("guailo") to Chinese. I remember that at the British pub "The Bull and Bear," we had to ask for ketchup for an order of fries and the waiter (and older Chinese man with poor English skills) could not understand why we wanted ketchup. Not a big deal, but it marked a difference.
Many of these travelers stayed on in Hong Kong and contributed a lot to the city's arts and cosmopolitan feel. Many worked in government, of course. And many were no doubt taking the places that qualified Chinese could have filled. It was colonial. But it also is part of what made Hong Kong different. These people are now increasingly retired or retiring. The SCMP reports that there are only 150 overseas officers in the force, compared to almost 800 at its peak. The manditory retirement of 55 will see most of these officers retire in the near future. I'm sure Chinese officers will be just as good, but many say that having two ethnic groups in the force made for a sort of "checks and balance" that gave people more confidence in the police.
The government has a mandatory retirement age of 60. The latest to be forced to retire was Bryan Curtis, who turned 60 on Sept. 18th. September 17th was his last day. Bryan Curtis had worked for ICRT in Taiwan, and I had heard him on the radio when I lived there in the 1980s. If I remember correctly, Curtis came to Hong Kong around 1992 and first worked for Commercial Radio, where I was happy to hear a familiar voice. It was like meeting an old friend. Later, as Commercial Radio dropped the English (it originally was bilingual, which was great for learning Cantonese, but that did not last), Curtis was on RTHK Radio 3. He is a natural on radio; he has great articulation, and is funny in a self-deprecatory way. He pronounces words like "what" as "hwat", which I think is the officially correct pronunciation.
Curtis has hosted a great program of financial news, "Money for Nothing," from 8:03 to 8:30. Each morning, he speaks with several guests. Some are regular, like Barry Wood, the US correspondent who was interviewed every Monday, while others are occasional guests, like Frances Cheung of Credit Agricole CIB (who is crazily articulate and concise). He had fun musical interludes like the start of "Pick up the Pieces" by the Average White Band, or the first line from "You Never Give Me Your Money" by the Beatles, and of course, "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits.. It was live radio, so not perfect, but very well done, interesting and informative.
Whenever Bryan Curtis was away reporting or on vacation, the program was difficult to listen to. They tried various alternative hosts, but none really worked. They were tentative, stumbled on names and facts, asked poor questions, and generally seemed to lack the knowledge and confidence to pull it off. Most of all, they were stiff and made the listener cringe.  On the 18th, the first day sans Bryan, they brought back a former replacement  host and a guest, trying to use two people to replace one Bryan. All I can say is that I could not listen. I turned on my BBC and NPR podcasts instead.
I once complained that one of the replacements was really dreadful and not up to the job, and was told that it is hard to get talent with the restrictions on visas. Only people with permanent HK IDs can now be hired at RTHK. As the more experienced old hands retire, the radio station is thus declining. It is clear that, from one point of view, an English language radio station is a remnant colonial institution. But it is also what makes Hong Kong a cosmopolitan city.
Change is always difficult, so retirements are not fun. Bryan got choked up as his colleagues thanked him for his many years of work at RTHK at the end of his last show.  For me, radio voices are like friends, even if they don't know me. Bryan Curtis will be missed.

Friday, September 05, 2014

What is "Universal Suffrage"?

A good sign of the surprise and disappointment at China's NPC Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong's election for the Chief Executive is the tone of coverage in the SCMP. The paper has become much more conservative in recent years, but both articles and commentary reflect the shock and pessimism that most people (I know) feel at Beijing's decision. Even The Economist had predicted Beijing would issue some vague guidelines, to avoid creating a confrontation. Instead, they have placed severe restrictions on who can run, requiring over half of the Nominating Committee to endorse a candidate, and only allowing 2 or 3 candidates to run.

At the root of the problem is the definition of "universal suffrage." Some say that giving everyone "one person one vote" is a big step. After all, there are no such elections in China. On the other hand, as Emily Lau put it, Hong Kong is not North Korea. We all know of many countries where they hold "elections" which are not really elections at all, because the choices have been so circumscribed that the decision is essentially pre-ordained. On the third hand, even in Iran (2009) and Burma (1988), such tightly controlled elections can lead to surprises. On the fourth hand, in neither of these cases did the people's voice triumph.
It is clear that Beijing's fear of a "color revolution" and its need to be in total control won out over the view that a more democratic way of selecting the Chief Executive will lead to more accountability, a stronger mandate to rule, and better government. From this point of view, Hong Kong Pan-Democrats should veto the proposed election format. Margaret Ng has an excellent NY Times Op-Ed piece that expresses this view.

But now Beijing is trying very hard to peel away the democrats' resolve. Tung Chee-wah gave a press conference for the first time since he stepped down as Chief Executive, urging Hong Kong to accept the proposals as a "step forward." And in today's SCMP, an anonymous source claims that Beijing's conservative decision reflected the views of conservative cadres who thought the 2007 decision to allow Hong Kong to have "universal suffrage" had been a mistake. "The source also told the South China Morning Post yesterday that many cadres would be pleased to see Hong Kong lawmakers veto reforms for the 2017 chief executive election."

We can call this the "Brer Rabbit" argument. In an old story of Brer Rabbit story (see here), the rabbit is caught by Brer Fox and says, "I don’t care what you do with me, Brer Fox. Just don’t fling me in that briar patch over there. Roast me, Brer Fox, but don’t fling me in in that briar patch." Of course, the fox does through the rabbit into the briar patch, but since the rabbit grew up in the briar patch, he was not cut by its thorns but escaped unhurt. Similarly, Beijing is "letting it be known" that some cadres would want LegCo to veto the proposals, so Hong Kong would not have universal suffrage.  The democrats should therefore, the argument goes, accept the proposal to spite these conservative cadres.

One fact that has not been commented upon is that with the Nominating Committee still composed of the 1200 predominantly pro-Beijing representatives of tycoons and professions, it is unlikely that any election would actually have more than one candidate anyway. How will more than one candidate get over 50% of the nominations, even if multiple nominations are allowed? Most members of the Nominating Committee will have a clear opinion of who they think will be the best CE candidate. And the candidate will urge them to nominate only one person. Nomination Committee members will not submit a second nomination unless a) they are somehow related or beholden to two candidates and cannot chose only one without offending the other, or b) a second candidate is so weak or unpopular, that nominating him or her does not risk that this person will actually be elected, or c) Beijing tells them nominate a second candidate to make the election look like a real election (in which case this would be related to point b), because this would only happen if it was fairly clear who would win the final election).

The issue in the end hinges on what one understands to be "universal suffrage." Is the act of voting most important? Or does there have to be real choice before the vote is meaningful? Beijing is trying to focus on the "process" of voting. The Pan-Democrats insist that there has to be real choice. Beijing could have avoided a color revolution in Hong Kong by allowing elections that offered choice but were stacked in their favor. Instead, they have gone for total control and a fairly meaningless version of "universal suffrage" that ironically may cause unrest like in "color revolutions" because the election does not let voters let off steam. But Beijing may be right in its calculation. Even Anson Chan is so dispirited that she is quoted in the SCMP as recommending that her family members emigrate.

One other dispiriting aspect of the whole saga is the rapid erosion of "one country two systems." Many in Hong Kong like to think of the city as part of China but not really. Many say they don't want Hong Kong to be "just another Chinese city." So it is striking that it has been a series of Mainland officials like Li Fei who have been doing all the talking about the CE election reforms. CY Leung and Carrie Lam just sit there, in the audience. I'm sure they are happy not to have to act as mouthpieces for Beijing. And this makes clear where these decisions are coming from. But it also makes clear where the power is. When Beijing officials complain of a lack of "dialog", one can only wonder what they mean, because from Hong Kong's position, it seems like Beijing does all the talking and Hong Kong is just supposed to listen. Many will say that that this is not surprising, now that Hong Kong is part of China (certainly that is what they are saying in Taiwan). But it is not what Hongkongers expected by "universal suffrage" and "one country two systems."