HONG KONG — A blazing sun was melting the Rev. Chu Yiu-ming’s brow as he worked the pavement outside a subway stop in Hong Kong, but the 70-year-old Baptist minister just kept refreshing his grin and pressing fliers into the palms of passers-by.
“United We Stand! Say No to Fake Democracy!” blared the headline on the blue-and-white handouts.
Some pedestrians resolutely ignored him, others eagerly accepted the papers. One man, a hospital employee, cornered Chu’s fellow activist, Hong Kong Democratic Party founding chairman Martin Lee, 76, for an autograph.
“They’re doing the right thing,” Lee’s 28-year-old admirer said Saturday afternoon. “China is doing something that is harming Hong Kong people. … We have to fight for our own democracy.”
For 18 months, Chu and his compatriots in a hippie-ish sounding movement called Occupy Central with Peace and Love have been trying to slowly but surely build pressure on China’s communist leaders to make good on promises that Hong Kong’s chief executive — who is selected by a 1,200 member election committee — will be chosen via a citywide election in 2017.
Beijing has agreed to implement universal suffrage but insists that candidates be vetted by a nominating committee. Critics say the panel will be stacked with mainland loyalists.
A key mainland official, Qiao Xiaoyang, said last year that candidates must “love the country and love Hong Kong,” and those “who confront the central government” would be screened out.
On Tuesday, China’s Cabinet issued a lengthy report on the “one country, two systems” policy for the mainland and Hong Kong that seemed aimed at reminding Hong Kong residents who’s boss.
“The high degree of autonomy of (Hong Kong) is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership,” the paper said, adding that the city had become “rife” with “wrong views” about the policy.
Occupy Central organizers have called on citizens to stage a nonviolent occupation protest in the metropolis’ Central District, paralyzing the city’s financial hub as early as this summer, if the rules for the vote don’t satisfy “international standards allowing genuine choices by electors.”
Although a series of five opinion polls commissioned by the city’s Ming Pao newspaper in the last year have generally shown a majority of residents disagree with Occupy Central — and organizers say they’ve received pledges from only about 2,500 people to take to the streets — the prospect of a sit-in has prompted ominous warnings.
The Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, ran an editorial Tuesday stating that “street politics often leads to civil unrest and even civil war.”
“From West Asia and North Africa to Ukraine and Thailand, each one without exception was led astray onto the path of ‘Western-style democracy’ — and each has seen street politics escalate from rallies and demonstrations to armed conflict,” the editorial stated.
A former director of the state-run New China News Agency’s Hong Kong branch said during the weekend that “anti-China forces” were using the Occupy movement in a bid to grab control of Hong Kong’s government. The People’s Liberation Army would intervene if riots broke out in the city, Zhou Nan said.
Hong Kong, a former British territory, reverted to Chinese rule in 1997. But under terms of the Basic Law governing the transfer, the city was to enjoy different political rights and freedoms than the mainland for 50 years, an arrangement known as “one country, two systems.”
Hong Kong has boomed since the transfer, as closer integration with the mainland economy has boosted its status as a world financial hub. Many in the city, however, have chafed at what they see as an increasing “sinification” of Hong Kong and an influx of mainland money that has changed the business culture and sent real estate prices soaring.
Significant protests have been staged in the last decade over attempts to introduce an anti-treason law and a patriotic education curriculum. Meanwhile, nasty cultural battles have broken out over issues such as mainland visitors’ bathroom habits and their mass purchases of baby formula (thanks to a tainted milk powder scandal back home).
Occupy leaders have set no date for any sit-in. They are trying to get at least 100,000 residents to participate in a three-day vote they are organizing. Hong Kongers are being asked to cast ballots starting June 20 — by phone, online or in person — on three proposals outlining rules for the chief executive election.
High participation, organizers contend, would demonstrate the will of the people and strengthen the hand of the Hong Kong delegates who will be negotiating with Beijing for the 2017 vote.
“If there are not at least 100,000 people turning out in the referendum, we will admit it is a failure,” said Chan Kin-man, a sociology professor who is one of the three key leaders of Occupy Central. “We will have to retreat and rethink.”
Edward Chin, a hedge fund manager who is supporting the movement, characterized the issue as a fight for the “core values of Hong Kong — rule of law, freedom of speech and fair competition.”
“This city will die if there is no justice, if there is no fair play, if only the privileged few can exert influence at the expense of normal people. This has become worse, definitely,” he said Sunday over lunch at the city’s Foreign Correspondents Club.
“What about my son? Now he’s 3. In 33 years (when the 50-year transfer period is up) even if he goes to the Ivy League … he’ll be pouring tea for someone who is a third generation princeling” from the mainland, Chin said. “Even with the right degree, you’ll be kowtowing.”
Robert Chow, a Hong Kong TV and radio personality who is leading an anti-Occupy group called the Silent Majority for Hong Kong, says a sit-in is the wrong strategy. His group, he said, wants universal suffrage but clogging Central District would harm the economy and anger Beijing. “Hong Kong will suffer badly,” he said in a phone interview.
Chow said his group commissioned a study of the possible effect on the city’s transportation network and that the results — which the group plans to release next week — are “devastating.”
“We want (the city’s democratic) legislators to negotiate, talk to Beijing. … If they talk, they negotiate, they push, we will get a better deal,” he said. “If we let Occupy Central go ahead, it will screw everything up and nothing will go through. They are the ones stopping universal suffrage from happening.”