Tourists crowd the Avenue of Stars, across the bay from the Central business district of Hong Kong, on February 11. Photo: IC
As the Occupy Wall Street movement spread around the world almost two years ago, Hong Kong residents occupied Central, the city's central business district, to show support for the campaign against the excesses of capitalism.
Now some are proposing another "Occupy Central" campaign with at least 10,000 people flooding the main roads of Central on July 1, 2014. Organizers say this act of civil disobedience would be their last resort to push for universal suffrage in future Hong Kong elections.
While some might scoff at revealing the details of such a protest so far in advance, organizers said they did so because they still hope the situation won't come to that.
The central government has technically approved universal suffrage for the 2017 chief executive election and has also stressed that the chief executive must be a patriot, which some people argue would invalidate "real" universal suffrage.
The issue comes at a time when the relationship between mainland and Hong Kong is rife with frictions and support for the newly-elected chief executive CY Leung remains low. The Occupy supporters believe that everybody should have the right to stand and be elected, while opponents have dismissed the campaign as unlawful.
Tai Yiu-ting, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, initiated this campaign. "Occupy Central is our last resort. Our real goal is to push the government to listen to us and to bring in real universal suffrage," said Tai.
The government has yet to come up with a timetable or specific plan about the 2017 election and people like Tai are tired of waiting.
In March he and two other organizers, Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming and Chan Kin-man, a professor of sociology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, announced their plan in March.
Between now and July 2014, they plan to hold regular discussions and deliberations to eventually come up with a plan for universal suffrage, which they will submit to the local government. "If nothing has worked by then, we will take to the streets and occupy Central in a peaceful manner," said Tai.
On June 19, only about 600 people gathered for the first deliberation of the Occupy campaign. Tai said all the group is doing is putting its ideas out in the open to allow Hong Kong people to decide for themselves whether to join or not.
Chief executive CY Leung called the Occupy campaign as "clearly illegal" in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month. Many district legislative councils have also voted against the campaign, denouncing it as disruptive and unlawful.
Tai counters that everything that is being put in place ahead of July 2014 is perfectly legal. But Tai admits that actually blocking off the main streets of Central would violate the law.
"It will only happen if we fail with every legal means possible," said Tai. "When the law itself is unjust, citizens can use civil disobedience to fight against such unjust laws and change them."
Tai said the movement would be non-violent and that every participant understands the risks and consequences. "We will not resist arrest or prosecution, we are ready to go to jail for this, that's what civil disobedience means," he said.
In January, Tai wrote a column about using civil disobedience to pressure the government on universal suffrage. This came about at the same time as CY Leung was about to deliver his first policy address which did not mention a plan for universal suffrage in 2017.
Tai said the goal is to educate Hong Kong people about universal suffrage and start a real discussion before the government comes up with a plan, by which time it might be too late to do anything.
Although Leung did not mention a plan, he said that universal suffrage is "one of the key things on my agenda."
"We haven't decided on the timetable. We will consult with the people. Ultimately it will be by universal suffrage. It's just a matter of timing," Leung told Bloomberg.
The key debate here is what universal suffrage means exactly. Back in 2007, the standing committee of the National People's Congress approved that Hong Kong should have universal suffrage in the 2017 chief executive election and 2020 legislative council elections.
Right now, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is chosen by an election committee, which is comprised of people representing different sectors. The committee was expanded from 800 to 1,200 seats for the 2012 election.
Election by universal suffrage, as written in the Basic Law, means that a nomination committee would be formed to pick chief executive candidates ahead of a vote by Hong Kong residents.
The Occupy supporters and other groups believe that this is not "real" universal suffrage, which should be "universal and equal," as stated in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, of which Hong Kong is a signatory.
"We maintain that everybody should have the right to vote and to be elected, as the international convention states. There shouldn't be any restrictions about who can or cannot stand as a candidate," said Tai.
The central government has hinted on many occasions that the chief executive of Hong Kong must be a patriot. During a meeting with Hong Kong legislators on March 24, Qiao Xiaoyang, chairman of the National People's Congress Law Committee, said that the central government had made it clear that subversive forces must not be allowed to govern Hong Kong.
Zhang Dinghuai, a professor at Shenzhen University, said that everything must follow the Basic Law, which is the cornerstone of the governance of Hong Kong.
The UK has expressed reservations as to the application of the International Covenant in Hong Kong, which still stands despite the 1997 handover, Zhang points out. "The International Covenant isn't the foundation for universal suffrage in Hong Kong, the Basic Law is," he said.
The mainland-Hong Kong relationship has been tense of late. Hong Kong residents have turned out to protest against the influx of mainlanders, from pregnant women who take up medical resources to tourists who stock up on baby formula.
When education authorities in Hong Kong tried to promote "national education" in primary schools, which aims to instill patriotism and strengthen national pride, tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents took to the streets. The subject was later dropped as a mandatory course.
Public opinions in Hong Kong are divided on the Occupy movement. The Facebook page of Occupy Central has over 3,000 "likes" and the campaign has gained the support of some local social groups.
But those who are opposed to the movement are equally vocal. The Kowloon Federation of Associations, for instance, issued a statement last week criticizing the campaign. They argued that such internal spats would have a negative impact on an already weakening economy, and that stability and prosperity were the priorities of mainstream public opinion, according to Wen Wei Po.
The Sound of Silence, a grass-roots group formed after a parade in support of patriotic education last September, has over 1,000 members on Facebook. Organizers of the group are trying to stop people from campaigning about universal suffrage in schools. Teachers' organizations have also released poll results saying that most teachers do not support the Occupy movement and would like the movement to stay away from the students.
While the Leung administration is focusing more on improving people's livelihoods and the economy, Tai believes that the legitimacy and credibility of the government is far more important in the long run.
Tai said the Occupy organizers plan to have a second deliberation day in September or October and a final one early next year to cement the universal suffrage proposal. They will put the plan up for a referendum in March or April and then negotiate with the Hong Kong government. If everything fails, they will move to Occupy Central.
Leung Man-tao, a Hong Kong-based writer and TV host, said on his program that he was not optimistic about what Tai asked for coming to Hong Kong. The best that could be hoped for, he said, is universal suffrage with pre-approved candidates, he said.
While largely agreeing with Leung Man-tao's judgment, Tai said they are campaigning because it is the "right thing" to do regardless of the results.
Establishing universal suffrage would be the most successful result of course, but what's more important is the actions taken now to raise awareness, said Tai.
As for the implications on mainlanders, Tai said that the central government could use Hong Kong as a test field for political reform.
CY Leung has warned that the government would deal with the campaign just like any other illegal activities if Occupy Central were to go ahead. Zhang from Shenzhen University said that the Occupy advocates should abandon their plan at once as they had no hope of changing the fact that Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China and that the Basic Law is the foundation of governance.
It seems that the process of political reform in Hong Kong will likely slow down, as Qiao, chairman of the NPC law committee, indicated in March that until everybody agrees to the patriotic and non-subversive pre-requisites of the candidates, it would be inappropriate to start consultations about political reform in Hong Kong.