Q&A: Hong Kong Youth ‘Not Prepared to Give Up’ Freedom Fight, Veteran Leader Says

The pro-democracy protests that captured the energy of youth in Hong Kong — and earned sympathy around the world — ended flatly earlier this month, leaving hopes for free elections unsatisfied.

But as Hong Kong police moved on a court order to disband the last of the protest camps, extinguishing nearly three months of sit-ins, democracy leaders vowed that a new breed of political activism will be impossible to contain.

Democracy advocate Anson Chan, Hong Kong’s former chief secretary, argues that although protesters’ so-called Umbrella Movement didn’t attain universal suffrage — the right to vote unimpeded — they succeeded in inspiring a new engine for reform.

In an interview with The Daily Signal, she said:

I have no doubt the Umbrella Movement will be seen as a watershed moment in Hong Kong’s political development. This movement has demonstrated more clearly that [young people] appreciate the values and strengths of Hong Kong and will continue to fight for general universal suffrage.

Chan oversaw the civil service as Hong Kong’s second-highest official under British rule, then stayed on to lead the transition 17 years ago to control by China’s Communist regime in Beijing.

She spoke recently with The Daily Signal via Skype to reflect on events. Her remarks have been edited only for length and clarity.

The Daily Signal: What is the legacy of the protest movement?

Chan: I have no doubt the Umbrella Movement will be seen as a watershed moment in Hong Kong’s political development.

This generation of young people used to be regarded as politically apathetic and only focused on themselves and their careers. This movement has demonstrated more clearly that they appreciate the values and strengths of Hong Kong.

Anson Chan is a mentor to Hong Kong youth fighting for free elections. (Photo: Newscom)

They don’t like our “two systems” being eroded. They don’t like the increasing interference of Beijing, the undermining of our freedoms. They will continue to fight for genuine universal suffrage.

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Democratic members of the legislature, together with the students, have created a great deal of goodwill among the community. There is great admiration for their stamina and conviction.

We need to galvanize this energy and continue to press the government. Now that the international spotlight is back on Hong Kong, it will definitely help.

Q: Now that the Hong Kong government has cleared the streets, what is the next step for the protest movement?

A: We have to continue to shame the government into doing something. At the very least we should be looking at the composition of the nominating committee. I personally believe there is some room for movement and negotiations.

It all comes back to whether this government is willing to sit down and talk seriously. So far, they have made no attempt to talk with the Hong Kong people.

The government is very much mistaken if it thinks clearing the streets is the end of this particular problem.

“The government is very much mistaken if it thinks clearing the streets is the end of this particular problem,” says Anson Chan.

As long as the government doesn’t show any sincerity and willingness to make changes, I  think it could drive people back into the streets. The students are not prepared to give up without achieving anything.

Q: What are some specific reforms you will be pushing in coming months?

A: We will continue to do what we have been doing the last 18 months.

Once again, we will put forward some moderate proposals to make the nominating committee [that approves official candidates for office] more representative: replacing corporate votes with individual human beings.

Just look at who is eligible to participate in the nominating committee today. There is no rhyme or reason for who or what can participate in the vote. There needs to be objective criteria to determine who can participate.

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Finally, we should press the government for a timetable. If the government says, ‘Forget about the election,’ then tell us when we are going to achieve this. Are we going to achieve it in 2022?

Nearly three months of protests ended earlier this month when Hong Kong police cleared the streets. (Photo: Newscom)

There may be divided beliefs [about how to proceed]. But what is not in dispute is that everyone wants general universal suffrage and choice and competition in 2017.

Everyone wants to see better governance, greater transparency, better accountability and a willingness of the chief executive to defend “one government, two systems.”

Q: The protests ended without any concessions by the Hong Kong government. What will happen if the government doesn’t grant full universal suffrage?

A: If there is no change, it will erode our strengths and Hong Kong will be marginalized very, very quickly.

We can’t compete in terms of resources. Where we can compete is we have soft infrastructure that is very conducive to a favorable business environment: We have rule of law and freedom of expression, press and information.

There remain social problems such as income disparity and affordable housing. There is a failure to be held accountable. All of these issues need to be dealt with.

Q: What are the risks for China in continuing to block Hong Kong’s path to democracy?

A: Beijing is very concerned that 17 years after the handover [from Britain], the hearts and minds of the Hong Kong people have not returned to the motherland. How will they do that if they see you are trampling on the promises you made?

They see for themselves how dissonance and the press are treated in the mainland. They have been brought up on very, very different values and that is supposed to be protected.

Beijing should be concerned that they are failing to capture the hearts and minds of a whole generation of young people. Increasingly, [Hong Kong youth] don’t like what they are seeing.

Whatever Beijing says to your government in public, they do care about how they are viewed internationally, particularly how they are viewed in America.

What mustn’t be forgotten is that we are talking about China’s obligations they made in an international treaty. If they can walk away with impunity, it doesn’t say much about China’s commitment to your country and many other countries.

Q: How do you evaluate the role of the U.S. throughout the protest movement? How can the U.S. help Hong Kong achieve democracy?

I welcome the Congress initiative for the State Department to resume national reporting of Hong Kong. I am glad they are paying greater attention [to] how China treats Hong Kong.

I hope both Congress and the State Department are willing to speak up both publicly and privately.

Under the U.S.-Hong Kong policy act, there used to be annual reporting of Hong Kong until 2007. Congress asked the State Department to resume annual reporting.

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I am glad that both the U.S. government [executive branch] and Congress are stepping up and taking notice of  what happened.

It is in [the U.S.] self-interest to care. We have shared values and investments. Your nationals are living in Hong Kong. You give Hong Kong concessions and favorable treatment on the basis that we are different values than the [China] mainland.

Q: Why are you so personally passionate about achieving democracy in Hong Kong?

A: I’ve been involved with the government for nearly 40 years. I have seen what Hong Kong has been able to achieve. There is rule of law. Our citizens enjoy rights and freedoms. I appreciate these as our strengths.

I believe in promises both Britain and China made not only to Hong Kong but to the international community with the joint declaration.

What we are seeing on the ground is a steady erosion of “one country, two systems.”

You notice Beijing rulers are no longer talking about a high degree of autonomy for Hong Kong. They are intent on tightening their grip on Hong Kong.

What little autonomy Hong Kong people have, they take away at [their] pleasure. This isn’t what we were promised at the point of handover. All we are asking is for Beijing to adhere to the promises they made.

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