Originally published in the SCMP, 19 August 2014
I recently caught up with an old friend who has spent the past four years in Shanghai. He and his family have relocated back to Hong Kong for work. “Hong Kong is not the same city we left,” he said. “There’s been a fundamental change.”
When I asked him what he meant, he told me how, over a family dinner, his brother-in-law had received an email from work ordering him to sign a petition. If he did not, the email threatened, he would lose his job. He signed the petition.
“No one at dinner seemed bothered by what was said,” my friend said. “This is not the Hong Kong I know.”
The petition he was asked to sign is being run by the Alliance for Peace and Democracy. They choose not to engage an independent organisation to design, run or verify the poll. There is no mechanism to prevent double counting. Children and non-Hong Kong residents can and have been encouraged to sign.
Indeed, when a volunteer was videoed signing the petition twice in front of Robert Chow Yung, the leader of the alliance, his response was first to ask whether it had been caught on camera. When told that it had, he told the journalists present to “well, go write about it”.
The petition claims to represent the “silent majority” of people who don’t support Occupy Central, or “Occupy Central with Love and Peace”, to use the full name of the movement. The four questions posed are: Do you support peace? Do you support democracy? Are you against violence? Are you against Occupy Central? These simple questions reinforce political ignorance.
Chow spoke of people being threatened by “what Occupy Central really represents”. But the position of the alliance is itself never stated in the petition, and yet it claims the people’s support for Beijing’s line.
Why has Occupy Central caused such offence?
Firstly, it proposes a democratic process by which all Hong Kong people may suggest and then vote on a position on democratic reform to put to the government. From here, we can negotiate the level of political reform for Hong Kong, as outlined in the Basic Law.
Yes, this may mean demands for democratic reform beyond that which has been spelled out in the Basic Law, but they are also the conditions required for legitimate government.
Secondly, Occupy Central carries a threat, grounded on the results of a long and open consultation process and two referendums, for 10,000 people to peacefully occupy Central district for a limited and given time. They do not wish to shut down the city, nor can they. Thousands of domestic workers occupy Central each Sunday. What is proposed is a symbolic act of civil disobedience intended to embarrass authority by showing, as Rosa Parks once did, that some people are not prepared to sit where they are told.
Hong Kong has become polarised. But by whose actions and in whose advantage?
The Occupy Central referendum and the July 1 march united the democratic camp, not in specifics but around what the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people agree on in principle: a government that is genuinely representative for this unique city of China; and less interference in our internal affairs. For all its fault, Occupy Central has tried to unite Hong Kong people around these common goals.
By contrast, the alliance and its petition has not sought to educate or engage. It has played the patriot card to villagers in the northern New Territories; the business card to the journeymen of Central; and the pacifist card to middle-class housewives.
It has encouraged and abetted public servants, including senior civil servants and policemen, to publicly exercise a personal right, thereby inviting more suspicion of a biased system.
It has acted with indifference to the flood of reports of businesses demanding employees sign the petition, from not only the likes of Nanyang Commercial Bank and Bank of China, but also veritable Hong Kong companies including Henderson Land Development and Towngas.
In seeking numbers, it has had to remind partner organisations not to pay cash to signatories. Still, the reports come in, with amounts reportedly varying from HK$150 to HK$400.
And when news spread of the quantity of gifts, from vouchers to free transport and meals, Chow said such largesse was similarly provided at the US civil rights marches of the 1960s. Those protesters did not march for a free meal. Nor did the organisers have such deep pockets.
Hong Kong has become politicised, but let’s not be blind to who’s responsible. And if Hong Kong is polarised, let us look at who is asking us to take sides, and who benefits from instability.
In troubled times, it is strong rather than just leadership that many instinctively turn to. Does only one side represent democracy and peace? Or have these labels been hijacked by those who, in their actions, demonstrate the corruption of power?