July First: End of the Road or a New Beginning?

Suzanne Pepper

Now that the July First anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty has been transformed into a day of competing partisan street demonstrations, all morning-after spin naturally follows in the same spirit. This year’s post-mortems have only been more intense than usual because they are not just burnishing memories for posterity but laying down markers and mobilizing support for the next round of Hong Kong’s never-ending political reform debate due to begin later this year. Toward this end, attention focused overwhelmingly on pan-democrats’ afternoon protest march and its political significance.

Disinterested observers accept neither the police estimate of only 28,000 participants nor the organizers’ 76,000 claim. Conventional wisdom says take a number in-between, which happens to dovetail nicely with my 50,000+ estimate based on the crowds gathered in the Victoria Park staging area (see previous post). But the need for a low official estimate became clear on the morning after when Hong Kong’s main pro-Beijing daily, the Wen Wei Po (pinyin: Wenhui bao; English: none) carried a rare full page account of the afternoon march topped by the banner headline proclaiming the lowest of all figures: “26,000 people march with at least 15 different complaints,” none of which were about political reform, universal suffrage, or better governance. Nine photographs pictured marchers with various livelihood demands; the tenth featured a group of loyalists from the morning parade denouncing democrats for disrupting social harmony and creating chaos everywhere.
If the public cannot be stopped from marching, then the next best thing is to minimize the impact and deny its political significance. The implications were clear to everyone else, however, which was why the lower than 100,000 expected turnout was so disappointing. Hong Kong has learned that the only thing capable of deflecting Beijing from its announced course is a really large crowd of people in the streets. The dreaded Article 23 national security legislation was deferred by this means in 2003, but that year’s mass protest also precipitated Beijing’s post-2003 ultimatums that have now delayed full universal suffrage elections until 2017 and 2020 at the earliest.
Nevertheless, democrats continue to put their faith in popular mass action and if one march disappoints, they say, call it a preliminary skirmish and try again. Apple Daily’s morning-after headline defiantly proclaimed the 76,000 turnout figure along with the pervasive marching chants against Chief Executive Donald Tsang and for universal suffrage. “To the streets at year’s end, for universal suffrage in 2012,” proclaimed another headline (July 3), reminding everyone that July First had been about marching for democracy and in preparation for more to come. The reference was to the next phase of the struggle due to begin later this year when Donald Tsang unveils the government’s interim political reform proposals.
Despite Beijing’s decisions to delay full universal suffrage elections for many years, interim adjustments can be made along the way. The next selection/election of the chief executive and legislature will be held in 2012 and in past years, before Beijing’s delaying decisions, democrats had called for full elections by that date. The slogan is now being used as a rallying cry reminder and standard for judging the proposals already rumored by loyalists to be “even more conservative” than a similar exercise rejected by democrats in 2005. The debate, in other words, will not be about full democratic elections in 2012 but only about which incremental adjustments seem the least likely to inhibit progress toward that end by the faraway elections of 2017 and 2020!
So tenuous an aim will naturally make mobilizing public interest all the more difficult, which is doubtless the reason for the endless delays in a goal that democrats have been pursuing like a desert mirage since the mid-1980s. Each time they seem to be nearing their destination, it then slips further back into the distance once more. But the coming incremental adjustments will actually mark a crucial precedent-setting step because once the way forward is fixed and formalized in this way, by a vote in the Legislative Council and with Beijing’s approval, significant design changes thereafter will be all the more difficult to achieve.
Other more moderate democratic voices offer a more sober assessment. Some government sources have said that only about 30,000 people are really committed to universal suffrage, editorialized the Chinese-language Ming Pao Daily News (July 3), noting that the figure just happened to match the carefully constructed conservative estimates of protest march participants. If this view of public opinion is reflected in the government’s coming reform proposals, concluded the editorial, and if they try to reverse course on democratization as a result, we can only wait to see how strong the public’s reaction will be. The conclusion was written more in hope than conviction.
Doubts obviously remain and these are carefully nurtured by conservative opinion polls that ask the perennial question about whether people care more about political reform than livelihood issues, a question that always receives the same response. One such poll, conducted by the Chinese University’s Hong Kong Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies soon after July First, found that those who did not march (94% of all 1,000 respondents) said economic development was their highest priority followed by several other non-political issues. And only 39% of those who did march said political reform and governance were major concerns for them. What’s more, just over 80% of all respondents said Hong Kong’s political system was already either very or generally democratic (http://www.cuhk.edu.hk/hkiaps/csp/press.html).
This survey may or may not be indicative of how public opinion will respond to the coming package of proposals. The government has been relying on these “political apathy” polls since the mid-1980s and policies have been based on their assumptions, with the most spectacular failure occurring in 2003. But democrats should heed the lessons of 2003 and also of 2005, when they voted down a conservative government reform without ever bothering to explain its long-term implications to the public. In contrast, the government’s 2003 publicity for its Article 23 legislation was also based on the assumption that its complex issues were beyond the comprehension or concern of “taxi drivers and McDonald’s staffers.” But after a slow start, democrats ran an effective public information campaign that spelled out clearly what the legislation would mean for everyone.
As of now, the Hong Kong public is lamentably ill-informed about the basic institutional features of the mainland’s party-led political system, and about the challenges these will pose as Hong Kong is slowly integrated within that system. Meanwhile, the local loyalist media is already building its polemic based on the official Beijing view of Western-style adversarial democracy as a colonial remnant antithetical to the Chinese way of governance, which is said to constitute a more appropriate form of universal suffrage-based people’s democracy. Ming Pao’s editorial writer was correct to suggest that the public will ultimately decide, and democrats know that “voting with their feet” is still the most effective means whereby Hong Kongers can express their opinion. But between now and year’s end, if they are to succeed, democrats will have to devise some ways of adapting the public’s generalized notions about dictatorship and democracy for practical use in assessing what will be a dry package of seemingly innocuous electoral reform proposals. Specifically, democrats will have to translate the dreary mesmerizing details of the government’s July 2007 Green Paper on Constitutional Development, which laid the foundations for the coming reform proposals, into a public information campaign that spells out the clear political implications both for this and later generations from now until 2047 and beyond.

(July 28, 2009)