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Will Hong Kong Become an “Ungovernable Place” in the Struggle for Universal Suffrage?

As protests for universal suffrage get set to heat up again in Hong Kong, will civil disobedience bring the city to stand still?

After a comparatively buttoned-up deliberation day held by financial industry supporters of Occupy Central last week, leftists put their radical ideas on display at the deliberation day held by Left21 in downtown Hong Kong on November 2, 2013.

Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai Yiu-ting proposes occupying the streets of Hong Kong’s main business district next year if Hong Kong isn’t granted universal suffrage on acceptable terms for the 2017 chief executive election. The professor talks about shutting down Central, intentionally breaking the law, and has even raised the prospect of turning Hong Kong into an “ungovernable place.” But Tai’s vision isn’t radical enough for some true leftists.

Arriving at the deliberation site outside of Cheung Kong Center, the 68-floor tower owned by Li Ka-shing, the richest man in Hong Kong, I was greeted by Jaco Lam, the chairman of Hong Kong’s chapter of Socialist Action. Lam was hawking copies of socialist magazines for HK$20 each. He and two other members of Socialist Action were attending the event.

“We don’t support a bourgeois leader like Benny Tai,” Lam said, speaking for himself and some of his socialist comrades. “We want to radicalize the movement and make it our own.”

Activists at the Left21 deliberation day, who represented a broad spectrum of groups in the leftist movement, argued that the image of Occupy Central is too middle class, the language too couched in theory. Benny Tai often expresses his philosophical views on the legitimacy of government, civil disobedience, and international law. Occupy Central needs to be able to connect to the poor and working class, many people said.

Deliberation circle

Deliberation circle

Eman Villanueva, vice chairman of the Filipino Migrant Workers Union, in an English-speaking deliberation circle said the benefits that universal suffrage can make in a person’s life must be expressed to laborers, women’s rights activists, and other traditional leftist allies in a concrete way. In a discussion on the definition of democracy, Villanueva said that even though the Philippines has elections, they are dominated by “dynasties” and “landlords.” Similarly, “tycoons” are given undue influence in Hong Kong elections. While Hong Kong does have public elections for Legislative Council, half of the seats are elected by functional constituencies, consisting largely of executives and business leaders, which vote overwhelmingly for candidates of the so-called pro-Beijing or pro-establishment parties.

This deliberation day was one of the few to include an English-speaking deliberation group for foreigners. The foreigners circle consisted mostly of Filipino and Indonesian migrant workers. Over 130,000 people from each country are working in Hong Kong, many as domestic workers.

According to the proposed discussion topics sheet, participants in the Left21 deliberation day discussed issues such as collective bargaining rights, work place regulations, and the gap between the rich and the poor.

Doris Lee, who identified herself as a convener, said, “We want to add more leftist agenda into the movement in order to talk about class and capitalist monopoly, but we do not want to divide the movement.”

The weekend before, Edward Chin, managing director at MDE Hedge Center, organized a deliberation day aimed at targeting employees of the financial sector. Support for universal suffrage comes from a wide variety of democratic activists across the spectrum, but those same democratic activists are often split on economic and tactical issues.

One of those tactical issues is whether the protesters will fight back against the expected police suppression. Professor Tai has said that the occupation of Central is illegal under Hong Kong law. He said that he supports protesters giving in to arrest.

“Should people resist arrest? That could be a topic of deliberation. I think we should not, because that would raise the probability of yourself getting hurt,” he said.

Tai described three levels of protesters. One the first level, he said people would get arrested and not fight their case. Protesters on the second level will get arrested, but they may fight their case in court. The third level is people who aren’t protesting but who are supporting the movement financially or otherwise.

“Civil disobedience all involves non-violent actions,” he said. “The major difference is whether you will surrender yourself to the authorities.”

Lam, who is trying to promote the cause of socialism internationally, looked to the Arab Spring when asked about resistance.

“In the mass struggle in Turkey, no one would just tie up their hands and let themselves get arrested,” he said. “In Turkey, 300,000 workers went on strike. That is what I will propose at this meeting.”

One of the dockworkers from a strike supported by Left21 was in attendance at the meeting. The dockworkers won a 9.8 percent pay increase in May after the 40-day strike.

Prof. Benny Tai

Prof. Benny Tai

Tai himself told HK Magazine in an article published in April, “Hong Kong will turn into an ungovernable place, if all taxi drivers launch a go-slow protest, or all citizens refuse to pay taxes.”

But ultimately, the article went on to say, “Benny Tai is emphasizing the participation of the middle-class and the middle-aged.”

Most of the participants at Left21’s deliberation day were young and certainly didn’t identify with middle-class values.

Icarus Wong, a deputy convener of the Human Civil Rights Front and another supporter of Occupy Central quoted in the HK Magazine article, said, “A successful social movement must be supported by people of all classes and organizations.”

The leftists and socialists want their say in the movement, too.

Filed under: China, Hong Kong, Protests, Travel Guide

About the Author:

Mitchell Blatt is the editor of map magazine and the lead author of the Panda Guides Hong Kong guidebook. Download his ebook about traveling in rural Guizhou here. has written 15 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Mitch Blatt is currently in: Nanjing, ChinaMap

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