PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 October, 2014, 1:45PM
In April of 2013, before the protests manifested China’s financial hub, South China Morning Post senior writer Alex Lo interviewed Occupy Central’s Benny Tai, providing insight into the movement’s ideas.
Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, stated a number of reasons why democracy in Hong Kong would be beneficial to the special administrative region, and to the Mainland.
“When economic growth stalls, Beijing will need a more sustainable kind of legitimacy,” said Tai during the interview, “Beijing has people who have already thought it through. They must worry not just about today, but 10 or 20 years down the road.”
In this regard, Tai asked a crucial question: Why not use Hong Kong as a reform experiment that can be contained if things go wrong?
A democratic Hong Kong could improve the lives of its citizens. The South China Morning Post reported that due to the buying power of wealthy Mainland Chinese in recent years, the average Hongkonger would have to save up 14 years’ worth of salary just to buy their own property. This limited and costly availability of housing driven by a disparity between Hong Kong and Mainland citizens is a main source of Hongkonger’s economic pain. Under a fully democratic Hong Kong, solving this problem may be more successful.
Much of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) political stability depends on its economic growth, which has been at historic and impressive levels: peaking at 22.7% in 2007 with 9.5% in 2013. Once that growth eventually slows, the CCP may have to find a new means to ease China and its citizens out of a high-growth economic period. A mishandling of this transition will most likely lead to political unrest. Tai maintains that the CCP will have to go through political reform in the near future to ensure the stability of the country.
Hong Kong has a high level of literacy and a highly developed economy, two markers of readiness for universal suffrage. However, Tai’s vision has instigated a protest beyond reason, because it ignores China’s current political situation. Tai has based Occupy Central’s tactics entirely on civil disobedience, dooming the protest fail before it has begun.
Beijing is under political pressure, now more than ever, not to back down to protest demands. In addition, Occupy Central supporters have no unified strategy — including variation on what the movement demands — and Hong Kong simply does not have enough people to support the protests on a long-term basis.
In general, the CCP is terrified of looking weak and always strives for stability and control. As a budding World power, China wants to maintain the appearance of domestic stability. By challenging the CCP during this time, the reaction from the party will be to tighten control on Hong Kong, due to the threat of looking weak and succumbing to its own citizens. The CCP may resort to desperate means if the protests persist. Now that the protest is under international spotlight, the CCP is given more incentive to exert control over Hong Kong.
Given the domestic political situation, it is unlikely China would bow down to the civil disobedience tactics of Occupy Central. The leaders of Occupy Central fail to understand this, questioning their ability and legitimacy to lead an effective protest. There have been failed civil unrests in numerous parts of China, most recently in Tibet and Xinjiang, both of which ended in brutal crackdowns. The main difference between Hong Kong’s unrest, and unrest within Mainland, is the Hong Kong protesters threaten the Mainland’s power in one of the most important cities in the country.
Furthermore, with the recent instability in Xinjiang and Tibet, Hong Kong is not in a favorable position to make demands. If China sets the precedent of giving into protest demands due to unrest in Hong Kong, it could send a message to Tibet and Xinjiang. This could encourage unrest within those regions, making them even harder to control for the CCP. Hong Kong’s protests are not just about Hong Kong, since the effects of the protest could ripple to vulnerable regions in the Mainland.
In addition to the domestic political conditions, which make the success of the protests unlikely, Hong Kong is completely economically dependent on China. As of 2013, China accounts for almost 50% of Hong Kong’s imports and re-exports. Once trade is cutoff with Hong Kong, Mainland’s economy suffers a minor hit, specifically 3.5% of its GDP, while Hong Kong’s economy is left in ruins. China’s potential for economic leverage is reason why students in Taiwan protested against the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), a free trade agreement between the two regions, earlier this year. However, just because economic leverage is in China’s arsenal, does not mean that China will use it. Hong Kong still serves as an extremely important economic center; the CCP would not resort to such means if it meant hurting the Mainland economy.
The protests may also fail due to their effects on the people of Hong Kong, without intervention from Beijing. As the daily life of the average Hongkonger is increasingly inconvenienced due to the protest, dissidence towards Occupy Central has grown. As the movement approaches its third week, more people are expressing their concerns over the effects of Occupy Central on their businesses and the economy. The South China Morning Post, the newspaper conducted interviews with several people whose businesses were disrupted by Occupy Central. Sunny Lai, a flower shop owner, said that if the protest was to continue, its effects would be worse than SARS, a deadly disease in 2003 that strained Hong Kong’s economy temporarily. “Business has been halved since Occupy began,” said Lai.
Furthermore, The Post reported on October 7 that drops in sales over China’s National holiday ranged between 30 and 40 percent, its first drop since the SARS epidemic in 2003. According to a Hong Kong Retail Management Association poll, the flat growth in tourism and Occupy Central protest in key shopping areas are to blame. In addition, several people confronted the Occupy Central crowd on October 3 in Mong Kok. One of the members stood out from the crowd and shouted, “I am a Hong Kong person too, you don’t represent me. I represent myself.”
Hong Kong’s democratic movement is missing one of the key ingredients in any revolution: manpower. There are simply not enough supporters of this movement to ensure it is successful. A substantial amount of people may support it, but it is not enough for the protest to succeed in a city of 7.2 million.
The one good thing that Occupy Central has done is show that Hong Kong still has its fair share of problems; problems that could be solved through universal suffrage in the city. Hong Kong’s leader is seen as too close to Beijing, and a significant amount of Hong Kong citizens are experiencing economic hardship. Recent polls and allegations of corruption with Hong Kong’s Chief Executive show that the city is in need of political reform.  However the Occupy Central protest may not be the movement that succeeds is spurring political reform.