Hong Kong Protesters Say More To Come If China Won’t Bend

Johannie Tong, detained for seven hours by the Hong Kong police for an illegal democracy protest, says more people will take to obstructing the streets if China doesn’t agree to give up control over the city’s election.

Hundreds of police cleared protesters from a sit-in that disrupted the city’s financial district yesterday, arresting 511 people who stayed on after a mass rally opposing China’s insistence to vet candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 leadership election. Tong, a 19-year-old student, and other activists say this is only the start of a more radical pro-democracy campaign.

The sit-in and a July 1 march that was the city’s largest in a decade show the growing chasm between Hong Kong citizens who demand full democracy and a Chinese government that says a “patriot” must serve as chief executive. At stake is the stability that underpins Hong Kong’s position as a financial center, as the rift threatens to herald bolder actions, including an occupation of the business district by activists.

“If the government does not treat our demand seriously this time, I would join the demonstration a second time,” Tong said after her release. The hardening resolve of young people increases pressure on Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying who has pledged to seek a consensus on the election issue.

“The governments are very intransigent,” lawmaker Emily Lau said in an interview. “They always stick to their points without any room for negotiations. If they continue to do so, Hong Kong will have to pay a heavy price, and so will Beijing.”

Unofficial Referendum

Public unrest in Hong Kong has worsened in the past month after a Chinese policy paper spelling out tighter control of the city spurred almost 800,000 people to vote in an unofficial referendum against China’s proposed limits on leadership candidates.

Protesters waved banners and sang songs during the July 1 rally, urging Leung and Beijing to heed their demands. While most left before midnight, several thousand sat down and remained beyond the time police had permitted for the protest.

Their action may be a precursor to plans by activist group Occupy Central With Love and Peace to hold a 10,000-strong sit-in if the government’s election plans fall short of public demands. The group has said it won’t resort to the action until all legal channels to push its case have been exhausted.

Widening Gap

Leung’s administration reiterated on July 1 that public nomination of candidates, which the movement wants, is unlikely to win consent. At a meeting with lawmakers today, Leung urged society to come up with proposals that are in accordance with the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, and said the government will continue to openly listen to different opinions, including those expressed by those in the July 1 march. Leung told the Legislative Council he will not resign.

“It seems that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong are not going to give way,” said Chung Kim-wah, an assistant professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University Department of Applied Social Science. “If that’s the case and with the civil referendum, it seems that the pro-democracy camp is also not going to compromise. The gap is widening.”

Accounting firms including KPMG LLP and Deloitte LLP, the Hong Kong Securities Professionals Association, the Canadian, Indian and Italian chambers of commerce and Asia’s richest man Li Ka-shing are among those who’ve said civil disobedience tactics will paralyze the city, drive away tourists and companies, and damage Hong Kong’s reputation as a global financial center.

‘Muddled Understanding’

The basic rights and freedom of Hong Kong’s people have been protected during the 17 years of China’s rule, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing yesterday. The city’s government is working on the introduction of universal suffrage according to the laws and in a gradual manner, he said.

China’s state media criticized the protest, with the official People’s Daily saying in a front page editorial yesterday that patriotism is a “natural emotion” and that Hong Kong must be run by “patriots.” Some people still have a “muddled understanding” of the issue, it said.

Yesterday’s sit-in involved thousands of mainly young people, who blocked parts of Chater Road until 8 a.m. Police started removing the protesters from 3 a.m., as 30 bus routes were affected. The police released all those arrested before 11 p.m. yesterday, with 25 freed on bail and the rest with a warning letter, a spokeswoman for the force said. Those arrested were age 14 to 78, she said.

Rising Populism

“The people have made their statement very clearly,” said Yvonne Leung, a student leader at the Hong Kong Federation of Students behind the sit-in. If the government doesn’t take heed, “there will be more and more” protests, she said.

Rising populism has hurt the efficiency of the Hong Kong government, causing a budget standoff and deadlocks in its legislative council, Raymond Yeung, a Hong Kong-based senior economist at Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., wrote in a note. The city may end up losing its preferential status as the gateway to access Chinese markets, Yeung said.

More than 500,000 people took part in the July 1 march from Victoria Park to the city’s business district, according to the July 1 rally organizers. An independent estimate by the University of Hong Kong put the number of people who took part between 154,000 to 172,000, the highest since 2004.

The onus is now on Leung’s administration to find a middle ground, said Dennis Kwok, a lawmaker with the Civic Party.

Leung is expected to submit an electoral reform proposal to Beijing for approval, before starting a second public consultation by year-end. He will submit the final plan to lawmakers for discussion.

“They must present a counter-proposal which does not involve the pre-screening of candidates so as to facilitate a real election,” Kwok said. “If not, there will surely be protest actions of a much larger scale and intensity than the sit-in at Chater Road.”