Hong Kong Demands Democracy: An interview with Michael Davis, University of Hong Kong

Mass pro-democracy protests broke out in Hong Kong in late September, which sparked when university and secondary students boycotted classes. Protesters are demanding the right to democratically elect their next Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s highest elected position, in response to China’s announcement that they will vet all candidates. This, say pro-democracy activists, is not the universal suffrage promised by Beijing in a 2007 white paper. Law professor Michael Davis teaches at the University of Hong Kong, has lived in Hong Kong for 30 years and has been involved in other pro-democracy political movements in the administrative region. He spoke with the Journal about the latest developments on 1 October 2014.

Editor's note:

This interview is a condensed and edited version of the exchange between the Journal and Michael Davis.

Protestors hold up their hands to show riot police they are unarmed. Photo courtesy of Anjie Zheng. More photos >>

JIA Editorial Board
October 14, 2014

Journal of International Affairs:I know you’ve spent some time out in the protests. Can you describe the atmosphere right now?

Michael Davis: Actually, it’s very festive; it’s not tense. It was obviously quite tense when the police were tear gassing people. But at present there’s a lot of young people walking about and many of their parents have come down. There’s several protest venues. The main one that I’ve been to is near the center of Hong Kong, in the Admiralty district. In the mornings, it tends to be fewer people, but by late in the day, it’s tens of thousands of people. No one really has a clear estimate, but people have guessed 100,000. And there are several sites, so we’re kind of watching to see what comes next.

Journal:You’re describing parents joining the students. Is there a lot of support across the city then, for the protests?

Davis: Oh yes. The people who started it were students doing a class boycott; university students boycotted for a whole week, and for secondary students on Friday, September 26. While boycotting they’d gather in various places, but mostly near the government headquarters. So crowds of these students were there on the Friday that the crowds were the largest because the secondary students joined them. These students are led primarily by a group called the Hong Kong Federation of Students, which is like a student union, and by another group called Scholarism.

Scholarism was founded earlier when China, through the Hong Kong government, was trying to impose national education on Hong Kong. This was about three or four years ago. The government was changing the student books to be friendlier to Beijing. And so secondary students, 15 and 16-year olds, launched protests and the government backed down and withdrew this education plan. This is important because one of the leaders of the current protest, Joshua Wong, was the founder of Scholarism and was arrested last Friday as well.The Occupy Central movement was really planning to start protesting later in what it called a banquet in Central. But then it accelerated its plans when the students and others were gassed. This became like a recruiting poster for the protests. The train stations were just jammed with young people coming down to support the protestors. And then the police were trying to stop them, cordoning off the protest area and blocking the passageways over the highway. So the result was a bottleneck of people trying to get in, the people stopping them, and eventually the young people pushed over the police barriers onto the highway itself. At some point the situation became sufficiently tense that police used tear gas. The media was all over it and then thousands more showed up. So the police really did themselves a disservice trying to control the protest.

Davis: I’ve been involved with many protests here, and often, it’s hard for pro-democracy or other people to motivate people to go out to these protests unless the government does something stupid. So when the government does things like this, people get annoyed. Around a decade ago, I was one of the lawyers part of the Concern Group that was trying to stop the government from passing laws on Article 23, the basic law on secrecy and sedition. And we published pamphlets, and tried to have a protest over this, and it was only when the government showed complete indifference, and was kind of sarcastic, and ignoring these concerns that the civil groups got involved. And before it was over, there were a half a million people on the streets, and the government backed down. So Hong Kong has a background of this kind of behavior by an unelected government, which makes the democracy concerns very pertinent.

I think there’s one big difference that’s related to that, and that is, in 2007, China said the basic law in Article 45, has language that says the ultimate aim for electing the chief executive is universal suffrage on nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee. And China had dragged its feet on allowing this for years, and then in 2007 it said it could happen in 2017. So during the past six months, the government is in the process of trying to launch this, and had a consultation. A lot of people were very suspicious that Beijing was going to try to manipulate this nominating committee they have to vet candidates. So there were lots of proposals of radical forces for civil nominations, or public nominations. And then others tried to find a modern middle ground to see if at least the result would be an election where people had a genuine choice. But Beijing slapped it all down, and lectured Hong Kong people constantly.

And then in June, it issued a white paper, which essentially said that Beijing is the boss. All the authority comes from Beijing. We’ll interpret the basic law the way we want, and we will amend it when we want to. And then along with this was a lot of Beijing officials coming to Hong Kong, and telling us there were no international standards for democracy, and that Hong Kong people who want civil nominations are violating the basic law. So all this tension built up, as Beijing took charge of this process, and so that’s the big change. Beijing now, in a sense, is the target of the protests. In the past protests over Article 23 and other things, Beijing was in the background, and the Hong Kong government was at the front of the matter.  By taking authority, claiming authority over everything, Beijing in fact took ownership over the opposition problem. And this was not a smart move. And so now I think everyone knows that this protest, in effect, is directed at Beijing. The Hong Kong government is just floundering about, not sure what to do, because it can’t offer a compromise that violates Beijing’s conservative model.

Journal:There have been calls for the chief executive of Hong Kong to step down, but based on what you’re saying, it seems like you think Beijing needs to act to placate the protests?

Davis:They’re demanding two things: The chief executive should step down, and then that Beijing should withdraw its decision – the NPC Standing Committee decision. That was the decision of this nominating committee with mostly pro-Beijing members, who would vet the candidates and essentially eliminate the pan-democrats. So they would also ask for that decision to be withdrawn. But people are realistic. This government in Beijing is not one that typically gives in to public sentiment. And so there’s some cynicism by the protestors in whether Beijing could be persuaded to do that.

So the nearer target is the Chief Executive, who is viewed as very complicit in bringing about this debacle. He was constantly speaking on behalf of Beijing throughout the consultative process. And then when he issued his report to Beijing regarding the changing of method for choosing the chief executive, he said Hong Kong people support, more or less, what Beijing wants. And of course, everyone in Hong Kong knows that’s not true. So there’s a sense that he misrepresented Hong Kong peoples’ views – although that may not have mattered because Beijing may be of the view that it wants to control Hong Kong. And that’s precisely what Hong Kong people want to stop. They don’t want Beijing controlling everything. They don’t trust Beijing to run Hong Kong the way it’s supposed to run. So they are insisting on Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy and that the people of Hong Kong in fact rule Hong Kong.

Journal: Have there been any signs that you’ve seen from Beijing that they might give in to some of these requests?

Davis: There are not really any signs. There were some rumors that a Beijing official may be appointed to handle the matter of the protests. But I’ve seen no reports that verify that this is happening, so at this stage, I’d put it as rumors only. There are also rumors that Beijing has essentially told the Hong Kong government to leave the protestors where they are. That rather than trying to expel them or crack down, to just leave them there long enough – they will tire of what they’re doing, and the public will tire of supporting them. But at this stage, Beijing seems to be largely quiet on the matter.

Journal: And from a legal perspective, is there some way that universal suffrage could be better codified into the law, or is it really just a question of whether Beijing implements the policy?

Davis: Beijing claims the ultimate power to determine the basic law. The basic law language is fine. The ultimate aim is election by universal suffrage, and Beijing has said now we can realign the ultimate aim. It’s just that they’re interpreting those words in a way that no one finds acceptable. Beijing can amend the basic law, but one would expect they would amend it in the wrong direction, if that were the case. So nobody promotes that idea. It’s forced the matter onto the street, because when an authoritarian government claims full control and full authority over the matter, then there really are no other institutions to challenge them. There are just no alternative routes.

Journal: What misconceptions do you think are surrounding the protests right now?

Davis: I think the analogy that some have drawn to Tiananmen Square is not appropriate. It could be, physically, the facts on the ground, if Beijing were to send in troops. But the nature of the situation is just dramatically different. This is a free society. Hong Kong is not Beijing. It’s an open society with a free press. So when China tried to control what happened in Tiananmen Square, clamp down on it, then they had absolute control. Here, all of this is being publicly debated, and so Beijing is having, to live with an open and free society, and this – the rule of law, human rights – it’s just missing full democracy.

And when Beijing tries to deal with Hong Kong by increasing control, it really undermines those institutions that Hong Kong has. The rule of law means that everyone is subject to the law. Obviously, if a government says that it’s not subject to the law, that it can do what it wants and it’s not bound by it’s own basic law, then the rule of law is put in jeopardy. I think Hong Kong people understand this. They’re a pretty sophisticated population, and they understand that Beijing interfering too much in Hong Kong affairs puts the whole city at risk. It puts their very identity at risk. So this is why it leaves them little option but to object.

Journal: Do you see the idea behind Occupy Central drawing influence from other protest movements?

Davis: It is drawing very much so from other movements. The ICNC, the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, that was active in a lot of training programs for protestors in Egypt and Belgrade, is not here in Hong Kong, but their literature is widely circulated.

The activists here will have seen their literature. In many cases, people who been involved in protest movements have used that literature, and sometimes regimes accuse these people of somehow trying to undermine their governments, when it’s often the case that the protestors are simply reading this literature, or watching videos. So these nonviolent strategies of how do you do nonviolence is not simply do nothing and lay down. It’s much more of a form of activism. And it’s widely used around the world. I know the protestors, especially in the Occupy Central movement, have “drunk the tea,” as you might say, and have read the literature. They know what’s going on.

There are a number of areas where we can question the strategies they’ve used, such as declaring they’re going to occupy Central a year and a half ahead of time. You could question whether that was a wise move or not because it may have made them the target instead of the government. So there are strategic questions here as well. The globe is a village that’s really shrinking. Everybody is aware of these things and this body of literature, and social action is now widely crossing borders.