Demosisto and other pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong

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By Leigh Crossett, NID Intern

In April 2016, Hong Kong students, Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, founded a new pro-democracy political party called ‘Demosisto’ (Branigan). Derived from the Latin words, “demos”, meaning “the people”, and “sisto”, meaning “standing up”, the movement-based party seeks to “stand united to overcome … oppressors” and “to unite citizens with the goal of obtaining autonomy for our city” (“Demosisto”). Believing Hong Kong to be “under authoritarian rule of the CPC”, or the Communist Party of China, the newly formed Demosisto seeks to ensure political and economic autonomy is implemented in the territory through “direct action, popular referenda, and non-violent means  (“Demosisto”).

Hong Kong “is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China with its own executive, legislative and judiciary branches” (Chan & McKirdy). The territory was formerly a British colony, but was returned to China in 1997, under an agreement that ensured Hong Kong would be given a “high degree of autonomy” under a proposed “one country, two systems” rule for 50 years (Branigan). The territory is now a “global and financial shipping centre that has prospered from its proximity to the world’s second-largest economy, ranking first in the world in trade as a percentage of GDP” (Albert).

While the country has a quasi-constitution, known as the ‘Basic Law’, Beijing “maintains the authority to interpret” it as they see fit (Albert). Within the Basic Law, Hong Kong is assured “freedom of the press, expression, assembly, and religion” as protected rights (Albert). However, many do not believe that these are upheld. Instead, “Beijing views all protests and pro-democracy political voices as potential challenges to China’s one-party rule, but it perceives Hong Kong’s calls for democracy as particularly threatening because of the city’s status as an international economic hub” (Albert).

Despite the assurance of a relatively large amount of autonomy, some argue that the territory runs as more as “one country, one and a half systems” (Branigan). One impediment to the exercise of democracy in Hong Kong is the lack of free and fair elections, which is a major goal of the pro-democracy movements in the city. “Experts say a source of the problem is ambiguity in the Basic Law, which Beijing continues to reinterpret” (Albert). In 2014, for example, “China’s legislature ruled… that only candidates vetted by a nominating committee chosen by Beijing will be allowed to run” for the leader of Hong Kong, the Chief Executive (Albert). In this sense, Hong Kong’s elections cannot be seen as free and fair, as only those who Beijing approves of, and thus likely support China’s control, will be allowed to run. This is because leaders in Beijing are concerned that an elected democratic chief executive “would seek to destabilize Communist Party rule in China” (Albert).

The Chinese government has “ruled out open elections in Hong Kong,” instead permitting elections based on a list of approved candidates (“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”). Since the 1997 handover, “chief executives have been selected by an election committee” (Albert). 1,200 members from areas such as the industrial, commercial and financials sectors make up the committee (Albert). However, it is criticised for disproportionately giving Beijing the upper hand, as corporate electors who support ties with Beijing have more power than individuals in electing the chief executive (Y. Chan). For example, the “the finance sub-sector has 122 registered voters and 18 seats, whereas the education sub-sector has 80,643 registered voters who will return 30 seats”, meaning the finance section has disproportionately more influence (Y. Chan).  Since the finance sector has more interests in maintaining corporate ties with Beijing and stability in the country, they are more likely to select a candidate that also supports Chinese rule over Hong Kong (“Hong Kong’s Democracy Debate”).

Despite the Chinese government promising direct elections for chief executive by 2017, these assurances have not materialized. In 2014, “China’s top legislative committee ruled that voters would only be able to choose from a list of two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee… Democracy activists argue this gives China the ability to screen out any candidates it disapproves of” (“Hong Kong’s Democracy Debate”). Hong Kong’s government created “an electoral reform package based on Beijing’s ruling” which was vetoed by pro-democracy legislators as activists “have dubbed the proposed new system a ‘sham democracy’” (“Hong Kong’s Democracy Debate”).

Beijing continues to install candidates close to their regime, including the most recent Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, on 26 March 2017. This was “despite polls showing she was less popular than the other major candidate allowed on the ballot” (“China Betrays Promise”). Furthermore, just a day after the election, 9 activists who had organized and run protests in 2014 to “demand a truly free election” were charged with crimes that carry multi-year prison sentences (“China Betrays Promise”). This was an effective “naked crackdown on dissent in a city where freedom of speech and assembly is supposed to be guaranteed” (“China Betrays Promise”). People are thus being denied the opportunity to choose their own leader and prosecuted for protesting against Chinese control, as the government is selecting the type of candidates that they want, in order to garner the results that they want.

Free and fair elections are an essential part of democracy, as a “country cannot be fully democratic until its citizens have the opportunity to choose their representatives through elections that are free and fair” (“Supporting Free and Fair Elections”). They ensure that a “government is responsive and accountable to its citizens” (“Supporting Free and Fair Elections”).  In this sense, they legitimize the government and ensure that people are able to hold them to account for their actions and policy decisions. Furthermore, “for an election to be free and fair, certain civil liberties, such as the freedoms of speech, association and assembly, are required” (“Supporting Free and Fair Elections”).  These allow for the expansion of political participation, and the ability to “share alternative platforms with the public” so that they are able to organise supporters to make their own decisions on what changes they want for their society (“Supporting Free and Fair Elections”).

Pro-democracy groups have emerged in large numbers in recent years to challenge Beijing’s interpretation of the Basic Law, and advocate for a democratic, representative government that is elected on the basis of universal suffrage. In 2012, Joshua Wong started the precursor to Demosisto while at secondary school. The group, known as Scholarism, was instrumental in protesting the introduction of a new national curriculum for schools that critics dubbed “pro-Beijing brainwashing” (Branigan). In September 2012, the Scholarism group, comprised mainly of Hong Kong youth, “successfully rallied 120,000 protestors… to occupy the Hong Kong government headquarters forcing the city… to withdraw the proposed curriculum” (Chan & Yang). The Scholarism movement was thus a “precursor to people imagining that something like the fight for democracy might work” (“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”).

Following Scholarism’s initial success in preventing the implementation of the new national curriculum, many other pro-democratic groups emerged in 2014, under the general name of ‘the Umbrella Movement’ (Branigan). As a whole, the movement advocated for “free elections for Hong Kong’s government leader”, and helped “student-run political groups like Scholarism rise to prominence” (Wong). Hong Kong saw an “unprecedented wave of civil disobedience,” that fought against the “wrath of Beijing” (Branigan).

During the growth of the pro-democracy movement in 2014, leaders such as Joshua Wong organised “non-binding referendum votes…to gauge public support and establish a plan to present to Beijing” regarding the electoral system (“Joshua: Teenager vs. Superpower”). These plans included the reform of Hong Kong’s electios, and “the right [of the people] to directly elect [their] next leader” (Chan & McKirdy). Although the referendum was denounced by the Chinese authorities, 787,767 people showed their support and called for electoral reforms to be pushed through (Chan & McKirdy). 42% of the vote went towards the proposal that “said candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive should be nominated by the public, and existing conditions requiring candidates to ‘love China’ should not be allowed” (Chan & McKirdy). In this sense, the results of the referendum can be seen as demonstrative of the public’s dissatisfaction with the policies of the Chinese government. This is supported by public opinion surveys, which “indicate that… trust in the Hong Kong and Beijing central governments is waning” and that the public instead wants universal suffrage to choose their leader (Albert).

In response to the failure of the pro-democracy groups to achieve their aims in 2014 by means of organised protests and civil disobedience, activists are now increasingly trying to enter the political sphere in order to affect change from the inside. Some argue that because “the [Umbrella] movement failed to achieve its goal of universal suffrage for the chief executive of the country, “participants turned their sights on… [the] established institutions, leading to increased numbers of pro democracy candidates” (Y. Chan). In 2016, a record number of 364 pro-democracy candidates fought to enter the Hong Kong Legislative Council (Y. Chan). “Focused on preserving Hong Kong’s autonomy and local culture”, localist politicians won “six seats out of thirty-five geographic constituencies chosen by a popular vote and combined secured nearly 20% of the vote” (Albert).  This indicates that the prodemocracy movement is increasingly attempting to enhance democracy by altering the system from within, rather than protesting on the outside.

Through the use of protests, referenda and candidacy, the public is attempting to strengthen democracy in Hong Kong. The establishment of Demosisto by Joshua Wong and Nathan Law, as well as the overarching, popular Umbrella Movement demonstrate non-violent initiatives that seek to establish universal suffrage for the Hong Kong people. “Democracy has complex demands, which certainly include voting…but also requires the protection of liberties…and the guaranteeing of free discussion” (Sen). These movements are an essential part of democracy as they ensure the people’s freedom of speech and association, as well as the ability to participate in civil society. By enhancing the public’s participation, the desires of the people can be recognized and fought for.

While Joshua Wong and other pro-democracy leaders may not have been successful in achieving their goals thus far, they certainly are exercising the freedoms that they do have to pursue the enhancement of democracy and ensure that the voices of the people will not be silenced. Demosisto continues looks to the future, with Joshua Wong planning to push for a referendum within the decade, that would allow voters to determine whether to split from China when the 1997 agreement expires in 2047 (Wong).

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