On Sunday, the leaders of Hong Kong’s democracy protests abruptly scrapped a poll of protester sentiment they had announced just days earlier. The idea of the poll had been to get protesters’ reactions to two bones thrown to them by the Hong Kong government in televised talks held on October 21.
In those talks, protest leaders wanted to talk about democracy and, in particular, reversal of Beijing’s August 31 edict ruling out a competitive chief executive election in 2017. The government’s representatives put those topics off limits and instead offered a report to Beijing protests and to create a “platform” for further discussion.
To some protesters the poll, which seemed implicitly to contemplate accepting the government’s sops, amounted to a retreat. Faced with opposition and criticism, the student leadership called off the poll, admitted their mistake, and bowed in apology to their followers.
The poll was a misstep, but it’s not the end of the world. It serves as a reminder that the success of the Umbrella Movement derives from the clarity of its supporters about democratic principles, free elections, and civil liberties.
That clarity is a serious problem for Beijing. From the beginning of Chinese Communist rule over Hong Kong in 1997, Beijing has created the illusion of autonomy and progress toward democracy. Meanwhile, Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong affairs, and the changes in Hong Kong society from exposure to the mainland has contributed to a the growth of a distinct Hong Kong identity, especially among the young.
The main thing keeping “one country, two systems” principle alive has not been Beijing’s commitment to it, but the reluctance of people in Hong Kong to conclude it isn’t working. The students leading the protests have reached that conclusion. Their view, that democracy should be possible under Chinese rule, sets them apart from their elders, many of whom have a greater, even direct appreciation of the Communist party’s power, and from the territory’s longstanding pro-democracy political establishment.
A more pessimistic outlook about the prospects for changing the way Hong Kong is ruled has made for strange bedfellows among some leading figures – C.H. Tung, the first appointed head of Hong Kong under Chinese Communist rule, and Cardinal Joseph Zen, a strong proponent of democracy, both of whom have called on the students to end their protests.
So far, the protesters haven’t had any support to speak of from the world’s leading democracies. Beijing’s loud warnings against foreign interference provide a convenient excuse for Washington and other countries to stay on the sidelines. Beijing gets the message. The South China Morning Post reported on the 26th:
Consular sources said a number of senior diplomats recently met the top representative of Beijing's Foreign Ministry in the city, Song Zhe, to discuss Occupy. . . . They wanted to know our opinion," one consular official said. "It's very wise because at the same time, they had the opportunity to tell us what they think."