In 2014 Hong Kong hundreds of thousands of citizens staged a mass street occupation demanding the vote. Why did it happen? And what led to tensions building inside the movement overtime?
HOST: In March 2017, voters across Hong Kong went to the polls to elect their next chief executive — their next leader.
Leading all the opinion polls was John Tsang, a former finance secretary. He had strong backing from the business community and the democratic party. One poll put support for him at 62%.
SOT: The following is the result of the count
HOST: The result was a landslide win for Carrie Lam, the pro-Beijing candidate who garnered almost 67% of the vote. Tsang came second with less than half that. So what went wrong? Why did the overwhelming favourite flame out on the day?
Today on Changemakers, our story is from Hong Kong, where in 2014, a massive movement spent months occupying the streets, pushing for more democracy. There are many countries in the world where a mass rally is almost a reflexive first act of protest. But in Hong Kong, the occupation was seen as a last resort.
Today a fascinating story about the perils of protesting against an institution as monolithic as the Chinese Government. Let’s go.
I’m Amanda Tattersall, welcome to Changemakers, the podcast telling stories about people changing the world.
We are supported by the Sydney Policy Lab at the University of Sydney. They break down barriers between researchers, policy makers and community campaigners so we can build change together. Check them out at sydney.edu.au/policy-lab.
HOST: When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, article 45 stated that the ‘ultimate aim’ for selecting the head of government would be via ‘universal suffrage’. That means everyone gets a vote.
16 years later, four million people were registered to vote.
So guess how many people were eligible to actually vote in the 2014 elections? 3 million? 2 million? Try 1200 people. Clearly the Chinese government had not got around to implementing that “ultimate aim”.
Kinman Chan is an professor at Chinese University in Hong Kong
KINMAN: Several years ago Beijing make a promise that by 2017 Hong Kong people would be given universal suffrage for the election of chief executive.
HOST: Unfortunately, Xi Jinping then came to power in China.
KINMAN: After he took power in 2012, there was an internal document issued by the government that there were seven things that people shouldn’t discuss about. These seven things include civil society, about independent judiciary, about constitutional democracy, about an independent media, about the historical mistakes of the party, and so on so forth.
HOST: People weren’t allowed to discuss these things, even in Universities.
KINMAN: Well if democracy is not being allowed to be discussed well they you know implement any give Hong Kong people any democracy of course not.
HOST: For Kinman Chan – this posed an existential threat to Hong Kong.
KING-MAN: I don’t see how Hong Kong can continue to govern, when it is such an educated society where young people have such a strong aspiration for democracy.
HOST: The people wanted democracy, they’d been reassured it was an “ultimate aim” but Xi Jingping was heading in the opposite direction.
KINMAN: But Beijing was not willing to give Hong Kong people to democracy. And so I think I need to make Beijing understand it was really a crisis.
CLIP VO: Today we’re taking you on a tour of one of Asia’s most dynamic cities… Hong Kong.
HOST: You see, Hong Kong likes to present itself as a dynamic city of the future. When you travel through there, that’s the impression you get. There’s great food, a cool night life, and a booming ex-pat community. But the reality is a little different for most people living there.
KINMAN: This is one of the most unequal society in the world. We are one of the most affluent society in the world but you don’t feel it because the distribution of wealth is just outrageous.
HOST: In 2017, a government report found the richest 10 per cent in city earn 44 times that of the poorest, making it the second most unequal city on earth.
For Kinman, the route to reducing inequality is democracy.
KINMAN: We really want a place which is more equal more liveable people not just you know chase after money and don’t care about the people who are less fortunate.
HOST: Emily Lau is a member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. But before that, she was a journalist. In fact, she covered the historic meeting in 1984 when Margaret Thatcher signed the agreement to deliver Hong Kong back to the Chinese.
EMILY: And if you go to the BBC archives you can still see my question to the Iron Lady. As their prime minister, Two days ago you signed an agreement with China promising to deliver over five million people into the hands of a communist dictatorship.
HOST: To make the handover more palatable, Thatcher negotiated some terms that allowed everyone to claim that Hong Kong was on a path to democracy, without actually doing much about it. Article 45 was the part that had the notorious commitment that the ‘ultimate aim’ for selecting the head of government would be via universal suffrage.
But in the meantime, it ended up being 1200 electors who’d choose the leader. And it’s not even like the 1200 people were broadly representative of people living in Hong Kong.
EMILY: These twelve hundred people belong to the functional constituencies which were created by the British in nineteen eighty-five giving the vote to people belonging to a Chamber of Commerce, to the banks, in the engineering profession, the legal profession the doctors and so on.
HOST: So in a way, Britain did the dirty work for the Chinese government. By failing to set up democracy before they left, it allowed the Chinese to just adopt it as business as usual.
EMILY: I mean it really stinks but the British created that and the Chinese just love it so much they put it in the Basic Law.
HOST: Instead, the residents of Hong Kong are restricted to voting for members of the legislative council. There are seventy members in this body, but only 40 are elected through these so-called functional constituencies. The other 30 are appointed. The result is that even if the pro-democracy candidates win a majority of the vote, they’ll never get enough to beat the pro-Beijing candidates. The deck is just too strongly stacked against them.
HOST: So if you live in Hong Kong, what can you do? Unfortunately, the Chinese Government aren’t exactly known for their support for universal suffrage. The democratic protests in Tiananmen Square in 1989 live on in the institutional memory of the ruling elite of the Chinese Government — as posing a threat to the government’s existence.
So Hong Kong’s pro-democracy forces had an especially difficult conundrum. How do you push a government to change, when the other side interprets your protest as an existential threat?
HOST: Benny Tai was a law professor. He sat down and tried to figure out, from first principles, what it would take to get the Chinese Government to follow through on what it had agreed to do back when Hong Kong was handed over from the British.
His first insight was that the democracy movement needed to position itself in a reasonable way that would mean the whole of society could get on board. As such, he thought its demands should arise out of commitments that China had already agreed to.
EMILY: It was always just a movement for universal suffrage and universal suffrage is promised in the basic law. So it’s not as if it’s something against the basic law or against Chinese policy.
HOST: After all, there was a good reason the Chinese government had made those commitments.
EMILY: When the Chinese decided to take Hong Kong back the Hong Kong people are very frightened of communist rule. In fact many of them actually fled to Hong Kong from China. So the Chinese government said okay don’t worry we will not come to run Hong Kong directly. We will allow you to run Hong Kong, you the Hong Kong people will run Hong Kong under one country two systems and your capitalist lifestyle, your freedoms and all that will be preserved.
HOST: Benny Tai also theorised about how the movement could make the Chinese Government take notice. Kinman Chan remembers when it first happened.
KINMAN: He believe that it was time to use more confrontational tactics to make Beijing understand that we are facing a crisis and we were serious about democracy and he named Reverend Chiu and me publicly without first consulting us.
AMANDA: OH MY GOD.
KINMAN: YES I was in Paris at that moment joining a conference and there Reverend Chu called me saying that while Benny now named us saying that only you and I would be able to organize a movement like this. And so he consulted me whether I would Join or not.
So at the end I said yes.
HOST: His thinking was simple: China would accommodate a certain level of confrontational protest because they didn’t want a repeat of Tiananmen Square.
KINMAN: After the Tiananmen square incident the censorship last for three years until 1992.
KINMAN: China has want herself to be part of the international community’s. I don’t think China wants to look bad. If they kill people here U.S. or other European countries might be forced to censor China and then it will be very dangerous to the Chinese regime because now they rely on economic growth, to sustain the regime to support the regime.
HOST: With its unique tradition of peaceful protest, It seemed unimaginable that something like Tiananmen could happen in Hong Kong.
KINMAN: So ah we understood clearly that we could invite a backlash from both the community as well as from Beijing. So we need to be careful. To have a kind of self limiting movement. That we need to be strong but not too provocative.
HOST: Benny Tai’s idea was to occupy the central business district of Hong Kong. To force the government to react.
KINMAN: In fact we have a four step plan. First we organize a series of deliberation Days. We spent around nine months to one year to hold many town meeting in different corners of the society. People who are professional who are social worker who are even homeless were involved in the process talking about why we need democracy and what kind of proposal that you will support.
HOST: They did this because they recognised that democracy wasn’t just about voting, it was about participating in public life.
KINMAN: For ordinary people or even those rank and file member in political party or civil society, sometimes they are afraid to speak up. Or they don’t have the skill you know to express themselves. So we need to design the whole discussion carefully.
HOST: The organisers trained moderators, to make sure everyone had a chance to be heard during these deliberation days.
KINMAN: At the end of the deliberation, we organize a referendum because in Hong Kong the government does not have any authority to organize referendum according to the Basic Law. And so we did it ourselves.
HOST: That’s right. Instead of waiting for the Government to call a vote, they just… did it themselves.
KINMAN: We have 8 hundred thousand people joining our referendum through the smartphone, through the voting booth set up in churches in schools and social service centers.
HOST: The process of holding a ballot transformed people’s understanding of what was possible. People suddenly realised they didn’t have to wait for the government to give them legitimacy, they could just take it.
KINMAN: So after the referendum we predicted we already got a mandate from the people. So we will then invite the government of offical to sit down with us to negotiate to have dialogue.
HOST: Unfortunately, the third step – negotiation – didn’t go as they expected.
KINMAN: But we wait and waited and they didn’t response. And so at the end of the three week four weeks we have a very brief meeting with top government officials so they were just you know put aside our referendum. They don’t look at it. They just ask us you know, how to say, give up our movement. And after that meeting Beijing announced that they make a decision that we’re we’re not we’re not going to have a you know free election.
HOST: It was the ultimate snub. The 2017 Elections would be the same as before, with the deck stacked heavily in favour of Beijing.
Having spent so much effort with so little result, the movement started to fray.
EMILY: Of course some people got quite impatient with Professor Benny Tai and then later they became the Occupy trio Professor Benny Tai with Professor Kinman Chan and also Reverand Chu ui ming, and they say wow you’ve been talking about it for more than a year.
HOST: It was time for step four. To bring the confrontation into the streets. They would occupy central Hong Kong, right in the heart of the Financial District, where the government would have no choice but to react.
The idea was always that it should be peaceful.
KINMAN: I mentioned the regime has military force and police and in Hong Kong You have no way to overthrow the government. If this is a sovereign state I would say that we should consider different means of struggles. In some country You do need revolutions to get democracy.
HOST: But in Hong Kong that was a strategy that would fail. They were way too outgunned. Besides, the democracy movement was playing the long game.
KINMAN: Who know what happened in China five year ten years later. If we want to sustain the movement, I believe that a peaceful movement is the only way out.
HOST: The movement was called Occupy Central. They would occupy the streets of central Hong Kong. But KinMan added some words to the occupation’s name to underscore its peaceful intent.
KINMAN: When I joined the movement I said I have to add the word love and peace into it.
AMANDA: So you were the love and peace?
KINMAN: [00:32:29] Yes I’m the one add the word love and peace not just Occupy Central. Because, to me as the action of civil disobedience. It’s not just about confrontations.
HOST: Henceforth it was known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace.
KINMAN: During the one and half year mobilization thousands of people already signed an oath saying that they will they are going to remain peaceful during the occupations and once they were arrested they will not resist. They will not hurt the police. And then during the trial, they were willing to shoulder that legal responsibility. You know we we we want to learn from Martin Luther King from Gandhi’
HOST: Back in a moment.
HOST: But there was a problem. After the failure of the referendum, the growing student wing of the movement had become impatient.
HOST: This is 17 year old Joshua Wong, founder of the student movement scholarism. He is speaking to a crowd of 1500 people. He is saying ‘where are the adults’!!!
Wong had slightly different idea about how his city needed to change.
HOST: Two years earlier, when Wong was 15, the government had planned to make children take mandatory classes in chinese patriotism.
Wong had protested by going on a hunger strike.
In mid-2017, Wong led fellow students to boycott classes, in increasingly bold protests. By September, he had organised them to congregate at the government complex.
JOSHUA WONG: That’s the moment we thought somehow, we’re going to make some massive change.
HOST: Addressing the crowd, Wong told them in no uncertain terms: ‘ no matter what the price, we cannot dump this on the next generation.’
He then led the students down the street to occupy the Civic Square.
The problem was that the occupy trio – Benny and Kin Man and Reverend Chu – believed it was too soon for confrontation. They’d planned to wait until October. They believed the students had jumped the gun.
This presented a dilemma to the older members of the movement. Should they back in the students, or should they split?
KINMAN: The students, they believe that our four step plan was not strong enough not forceful enough to make China give Hong Kong people democracy. We put occupation civil disobedience as the last resort of our plan.
HOST: Kinman says they did this because they wanted to look reasonable, so they had mainstream appeal. But the students had grown frustrated.
KINMAN: Once they found out negotiation did not succeed. They further believe that their idea was correct that we need to have direct action as soon as possible.
HOST: He says that since the students had decided to take action, the best course of action was to back them in.
KINMAN: And then they have ownership of the movement. And so you know the whole generation can be awakened you know. So this is even better than our plan.
EMILY LAU: So in the end. Professor tai was sort of forced to declare the occupation earlier than October 1st and not in the area that he had originally anticipated.
HOST: Emily went to the occupation. It didn’t last long, at least for her.
EMILY LAU: I was actually arrested and around noon time on that day. We went because at that time Professor Tai had already declared that they would start the occupation. So that means many more people should come would come. So they are out. They wanted to arrange for some some equipment to be sent into the area. And then the police refused to allow these people to move the sound equipment in because they say this is an illegal assembly.
How can I allow you to move the sound equipment in. And so a few of us went there to negotiate with the police and the police arrested us for you know blocking the offices in the discharge of their duty. So they took us back to the police college in Wangchuchang which is right next to the ocean Park. And they kept us there for 10 11 hours.
EMILY LAU: Some of the young people climb into the government’s square and they were arrested. So many people came and the government fired 76 rounds of teargas.
HOST: The occupy movement’s calculations were wrong. The government did use force. Thankfully not Tiananmen style force, but it was enough.
KINMAN: It was very moving. When the police use tear gas to disperse disperse the crowd. People like me on the stage we immediately asked people to leave in order to protect their lives. We really don’t know what happened next. Will they use guns to fire at people? So we asked people to leave, but leader like us. We were determined to stay, you know and wait for the arrest. People were so courageous they refused to leave. You know and um of course they were Panic and scream just a moment later they went back to the same spot.
HOST: But the deliberations of the previous year had prepared the movement for this moment.
Years of pledges and conversations about non-violence meant the violence of the state was not met with violence from the people.
KINMAN: When they confront the police, they only use Umbrella to protect themselves. Against the pepper spray. So the umbrella is a symbol of you know peaceful circles because it is not a instrument or a tool used by the protesters to hit the police is just to protect ourselves from the pepper spray.
HOST: But it wasn’t raining. So why did so many protesters have umbrellas?
KINMAN: Because in Hong Kong many ladies want to have white skin. So they always carries an umbrella with them to protect themselves from the sun. So it is a very feminist actions. So when the police use pepper spray against the protester you know immediately we find that there are a lot of Umballa people can use umbrella to protect ourselves.
HOST: Even passers-by who happened to be holding umbrellas, became involved.
KINMAN: And some lady when they were in a footbridge when they look at people on the street being cracked down by the police they opened up their umbrella like a parachute. They’re throwing down from the footbridge. Oh it was a beautiful scene of course. And then so umbrella became a such an important symbol during these peaceful circles.
HOST: Dozens of twisting umbrellas falling from the overpass down to the children on the street. Mothers doing whatever they could to protect their children who were being hurt fighting for their future.
The umbrellas of the umbrella movement weren’t just about protection. They were a symbol about how love and self sacrifice could unite the people.
HOST: The regime had miscalculated the popular response to its violence.
KINMAN: Then next day more and more and people came. Some woman told us that we came here for a very simple idea that we want to protect the student. They are like my children and I know nothing about democracy but as a mother you know I want to protect my children. So I came here to protect the students.
HOST: Far from stamping out the protests, the violence was broadening their appeal.
KIN MAN: Thousand tens of thousand people gathered so um something really amazing unimaginable to us.
HOST: In fact, Kinman says the violence was what made the movement so big.
KINMAN: I believe it is the tear gassed which incite people joining the movement in such a massive scale. Our original plan is that about probably tens of thousand people to join us and then we might move other people in the communities and then we can have another round of movement. But is the teargas was suddenly call upon so many people to join At the same time.
HOST: Remember Emily had been detained while all this was happening.
EMILY: But when we came out we didn’t know what happened a few hours ago. And we were quite shocked. And then of course they blocked the roads. And then after that they refused to go. So once they blocked the road home why leave?
HOST: The old plans of the occupy trio were to camp out in the financial centre for two days only. But this was now something else entirely.
The movement quickly took on a life of its own.
KINMAN: Every day people spend time to create art, singing songs, have that discussion a lot of forum in different corners of the Occupy site. And the air was so clean because there was no traffic you know. ha ha ha But it was a like a utopia you know.
So that’s the second day of the occupation. There was a banner saying that ‘imagine’ ‘you may say I’m a dreamer but I’m not the only one’.
HOST: The occupation had blossomed into something bigger than any of the groups who were down there. It wasn’t just about democracy, or students wanting a better system. It was an experiment in living differently, a revolution in the hearts and minds of its participants.
But it wasn’t just a love in. There was work to be done. Emily Lau let the protesters hold meetings in the offices of the Legislative Council.
EMILY: That’s why the pro-Beijing politicians were livid. They said we turned the whole thing into a citadel, for these occupiers. And sometimes the occupiers were coming to have showers and then there was even sleep up there. And I remember on one occasion because we had different floors of members rooms and even on a floor with the pro Beijing members they opened the door and they saw the people lying on the floor. They almost scream. So they were very upset with us for allowing these people to come into the complex.
HOST: For months the occupation dragged on. Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens visited the occupation, tens of thousands staying out overnight.
Despite this, the Chinese Government didn’t budge.
Meanwhile, divisions within the movement started to emerge.
Even though they had lots of experience bringing different people together in the lead up to the occupation, finding a space for real discussion, it was hard to do the same thing at the occupation. In particular, the students were a new, radical element that jarred with the slower process the original trio wanted .
KINMAN: No it was so difficult to create dialogue.
HOST: The students saw themselves as the leaders.
EMILY: Recently a university student who’s doing home paper he came to see me to talk about the umbrella movement. They said they were the only ones leading the whole thing. Right? Well, I said it is for you to decide. Hah, Are you saying I’m lying to you? No but they told me no such thing. Whole thing was led by them. I said that’s ha that’s news to me
KINMAN: We should have had more serious discussion with these young people early on so that then the occupation could be more integrated, particularly concerning what kind of objective we wanted to obtain. Because we are so unorganize so disintegrated it was so difficult to reach any consensus.
HOST: More galling still, when the government finally did reach out to negotiate, they chose to do so only with the students..
EMILY LAU: Maybe that’s intentional maybe some people have suggested that you just talked to them because some people say oh they are the ones who are leading the whole movement.
EMILY: But I think it was wrong of the government to just meet with the students. To meet, Fine. So of course the government should be talking to the occupiers but not just the students. They should talk to. As I said there are four groups they should talk to the representative of them.
HOST: Perhaps the Chinese Government, spotting a weakness in the divisions decided to exacerbate them by choosing to talk only to the students.
But there were practical reasons why talking only to the students was doomed to failure.
EMILY: How can one group deliver the others I think this whole thing is very stupid really.
So there were the talks but then it failed. And then no more. It’s regrettable.
HOST: The government had singled out the group least likely to compromise. Hmm, it’s almost like they wanted to be able to say “We’ve tried to negotiate and it’s failed”
EMILY: That’s maybe that’s why it ended in such a tragic way.
EMILY: At first People’s thought wow maybe, were so peaceful so many of us we can get Beijing to agree. But after several weeks, they say no you’re not going to, Come on, pack up.
HOST: As the occupation dragged on, sentiment amongst Hong Kong citizens started to turn.
EMILY: People are pragmatic, because you blocked the road and really made life quite difficult for many people. They had to spend many more hours going to work. So they got frustrated. Initially they supported you but after a while when they thought that is not going to get anywhere they say come on, forget it.
HOST: By early December 80% of the respondents thought the protests should end.
KINMAN: So of course we witnessed backlash from the communities more and more people want the movement to end.
HOST: The older groups proposed retreat. The negotiations had failed, so they figured it was time to reassess.
KINMAN: But the student refused to accept our suggestion. They said that they will stay until they get get democracy.
KINMAN: I guess they are using a waiting strategy. Its very sad at their later stage of the movement. When when when we witness this backlash and student refuse to listen to us.
HOST: When you’re winning you’re fighting a common enemy. When you start to lose, the easiest target is to fight each other. In the end, even the consensus around non-violence collapsed.
KINMAN: So some young people started to talk about Hong Kong independence. They believe that we need to change the objective of the movement for fighting for democracy to fighting for Hong Kong independence. So we have a lot of debate, argument, infighting within the movement.
KINMAN: And they also decided on to escalate their action. They want to storm the government headquarters to cripple the government headquarter.
HOST: But the trio counselled against this.
KINMAN: We believe that it would easily invite police crackdown and you might not be able to gain sympathy from the public if the administrative arm was stopped from running
KINMAN: They broke one window and asked people to to go into it to occupy the government building but in fact not many people follow suit. The police reported that around 1000 people were arrested.
HOST: The end was near.
EMILY: And then of course on the seventy ninth day the police came and arrested those of us. The last group. We just all sat on the on the road the big thoroughfare outside the government complex and I think we sat there for hours. We were there, we gather in the morning at 8:00 or 9:00 a.m. and then I think they came to arrest us in the afternoon and they picked us up one by one and ah put us in the police van and took us to a police station in the New Territories. They took us back and they took some state, umm, not even a statement. They just took down our details, personal details and then they they wanted to, us to post bail so they would let us leave but the members discuss it and they refused. And they say no I’m not going to you know give you the bail money if you want to charge me now if you don’t charge me. I would walk out and so we all walked out.
But up to today they still haven’t charged us. But as I said I mean I resorted to civil disobedience and yes I would I would not deny the fact that I’ve broken the law. So if you charge me I go to court. I would not I would plead guilty. I wouldn’t say anything but if people say why do you do it. I said well I use that to challenge you! Because I don’t agree with the way you run Hong Kong. But now they still haven’t charged with anything. I think there were nine people who were who have been charged so far.
HOST: One of the nine people was Kinman Chan.
KINMAN: We were charged for taking part. And organizing an authorized assembly. And they also charged us for conspiracy to cause public nuisance. This is the first charge. The second one is to incite people to cause public nuisance. Number three even more ridiculous. Inciting other to incite other to cause public nuisance. And each charges carriers. Seven years of imprisonment. So in total it will be 21 years.
HOST: 21 years in jail for organising a peaceful protest to demand something was the government had already agreed was an “ultimate goal”.
KINMAN: We have no fear at all to be prosecuted. When I was a college student, when I saw the pictures of those democracy freighter in Taiwan, facing the Mosul court, they were so brave and this has been the source of inspiration to me all my life. So I’m not afraid I’m going to face it. As a professor as a teacher I think this is the best ways to teach my students. Not just by words but by deeds, by our own commitment.
HOST: When Kinman and Emily and all the students started their protests, their hope was that they’d end up with universal suffrage in time for the 2017 elections. But just because they failed to get that, doesn’t mean it was all for nothing.
KINMAN: You have to take a very long perspective, a long range perspective not in a short term not in the coming five years. We have to continue the movement so that the spirit of democracy can sustain and pass on to our next generations.