In September 2014, thousands of Hong Kong university students sat on The University Mall of the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The Mall is a landmark boulevard with special meaning. At the end of the boulevard, a dark brown historical sculpture, The Gate, which signifies the wisdom and knowledge conferred by a university education, stands tall throughout the years. On the day when the students gathered on the Mall, a stage was set up next to the sculpture. The stage was specifically decorated with a green backdrop, on which the white and classy calligraphy, “To Determine Our Own Destiny”, was written. The eye-catching slogan ignited a loud outcry from student leaders and their friends gathered at the University. The slogan obviously represented what democracy meant to those students and the active participants of the Umbrella Movement (UM).
During the UM, an emergent narrative that described the desire of Hong Kong people to determine the city’s own destiny received increasing attention. It gradually evolved into a new political force: “the self-determination option.” It gained popularity among younger voters. Subsequently, in 2016’s Legislative Council Election, two candidates who were committed to the cause of self-determination were elected to the Council. One of them was Nathan Law– the youngest lawmaker in Hong Kong history and a student leader who formed the political party “Demosistō” with Joshua Wong (the name is a combination of “people” and “Stand” in Greek and Latin respectively, meaning the party will stand with the people to resist suppression). The other was Eddie Chu–an independent candidate and a newcomer to the election, who obtained the highest number of votes among all candidates. How are these people different from the traditional democrats in Hong Kong? Achieving electoral democracy is not their only aim. These lawmakers advocate returning the power from the Hong Kong government and elite to the people, in order to transform the contorted crony economic structure and governance.
Demosistō’s manifesto proclaims: “[a] democratic movement should not merely lead to a narrow sense of representative democracy, but social democracy and socio-economic autonomy in economic, land, cultural and community development of a city.” Ten months after their propitious success, Law was disqualified from the public office alongside five other lawmakers. Chu is safe from disqualification, for now.
The PRC government is waging a full assault on this rising political power because the tenuous legitimacy of Chinese sovereignty is facing challenges–the myth of economic progress and development are debunked by the new political force. For months, new lawmakers challenged the government’s white elephant projects through investigations. They exposed the collaboration between government and land developers. These lawmakers have also been active in building networks with international communities, strengthening an idea of “city autonomy” and creating a vision of alternative economic development.
Creation of an economic narrative for social control
The narrative of city autonomy and self-determinations among youth is challenging a narrative used to depoliticize social injustice and undemocratic institutions in Hong Kong. During the British colonial era, Hong Kong was described as a haven for people who had escaped from the political turmoil of mainland China in order to search for political stability and a better livelihood. This is evident from the renowned statement by Richard Hughes, “Hong Kong is a borrowed place living on borrowed time.” This colonial narrative portrayed Hong Kong people as mere economic animals who prioritized personal growth and wealth accumulation and were indifferent to public and political affairs. The narrative became a justification for delaying democratization, resulting in the restriction of the general public to participate merely in consultative politics instead of direct election. Despite the Chinese government’s emphasis on the restoration of Hong Kong people’s dignity after the end of the colonial era, the fundamental narratives of the colonial government remain in place. Economic development, economic efficiency and the role of Hong Kong in terms of contributing to China’s economy are therefore advocated and reinforced by the Chinese government to facilitate its control over Hong Kong. Political participation and dissent towards the government are portrayed as antagonism and thus discouraged. This narrative is nothing but a wolf in sheep’s clothing that helps an undemocratic government pacify public discontents and divert people’s attention to economic development in order to overlook its underlying political agendas.
No price is too high for economic development
There are several reasons for the collapse of the government’s narrative. Unlike their grandparents who were mostly refugees from China, Hong Kong youth have developed a sense of belonging and an attachment to the distinctive Hong Kong identity. To maintain the loyalty of its cronies and social stability by keeping promises of economic growth, the Chinese government must further integrate Hong Kong’s economy into China, which sacrifices fundamental values like the rule of law and the well-being of Hong Kong youth.
One notable example is the placement of a joint custom and immigration checkpoint at the cross-border high-speed rail link terminus located in the very heart of Hong Kong. This arrangement will lead to part of the terminus being leased to the mainland. The affected areas, rail tracks and train compartments on Hong Kong soil will then fall under the jurisdiction of mainland China. The government is desperate to get this rail link running because a huge portion of public money (HK $10.7 billion) will benefit Chinese enterprises and their cronies in Hong Kong. Once the plan is implemented, hundreds of armed mainland law enforcement officers will be stationed at the terminus, platform and train compartments to enforce Chinese law in areas that “belong” to the Chinese government. Hong Kong has always been governed by its de facto constitution–the Basic Law, which ensures Hong Kong has a separate border and jurisdiction from mainland China. With a majority of pro-establishment lawmakers sitting on the Legislative Council, it is very likely the government can obtain sufficient endorsements for such an arrangement without significant backlash.
The most agitating part of the controversy is how the government has obscured its true agenda of jettisoning “one country, two systems” by using the rhetoric of property, economy and economic efficiency. As a result, the local business elites usually criticize opposition lawmakers as people concerned only about politics and wanting to make a scene. This narrative is a threat to Hong Kong’s democratic discourse and autonomy, and it has proven very effective: according to this narrative, no price is too high when economic progress is at stake, even if the price is the internationally recognized and legally enshrined “One Country, two systems” framework.
The truth is, most one-Party, authoritarian governments, semi-authoritarian governments, and dictators elected through democratic elections camouflage their attacks on people’s rights and dignity by celebrating economic progress. Political scientists have shown that there is no direct link between authoritarianism and economic prosperity. In fact, it only yields a more rigged, crony market that favours corruption. Hong Kong youth are not fooled, in part because they have experienced insurmountable housing costs and are facing downward social mobility. It is obvious that the new opposition lawmakers have only one job: to strive for true democracy and self-determination.
That said, exposing the deception inherent in the Chinese government’s narrative leaves the job only half done. The narrative is appealing to people because the majority are living in deprivation and poverty. This is certainly true in mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. People want to believe that “pseudo-stability” and social order are able to bring economic prosperity even though it is merely an illusion fabricated by authoritarian governments.
Eddie Chu’s election manifesto proclaimed, “‘[w]hen government officials, corporations, landowners and the Chinese Communist Party force us to accept our fate, we should pluck up our courage to say, ‘Whether we are talking about the contexts of the city, the countryside, the community or the public estates, the master should be the People.’” Since the emergence of a self-determination political force, there have been attempts to create an alternative economy and establish webs of international networks, and continuous investigations made into government cronies’ collaboration. When an authoritarian government cannot justify its rule except through economic progress, a break between the competing values of economic progress and democracy must be articulated, in order to draw people’s support away from undemocratic governments.
The main point: After the Umbrella Movement, young people created a new political party called Demosistō, to combat the erosion of democracy in Hong Kong. However, the PRC is using a powerful false narrative that economic progress comes before people’s rights in Hong Kong.