By Ching Cheong

No raining on Hong Kong's 'Umbrella parade'

The Umbrella movement marks a turning point in Hong Kong's quest for democracy. Before the effort by students to press for what they call "true universal suffrage", democratic activists did not question Chinese sovereignty. But now they do.

The change is indicated by two slogans crafted by the University of Hong Kong Student Union (HKUSU), three decades apart.

In January 1984, in the thick of Sino-British negotiations, the HKUSU issued a statement supporting Hong Kong's "Return to China on the basis of democracy" (minzhu huigui).

This September, 17 years after the city reverted to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the same student body, of a different generation, called for Hong Kong's "Independence for the sake of democracy" (minzhu duli).

Thirty years ago, young Hong Kongers saw the city's return to China as an opportunity to bring about democracy, which was denied under British colonial rule. Now they believe the only way for Hong Kong to achieve democracy is to break away from China.

What irony!

These two diametrically opposed statements of the HKUSU represent the gulf in the mood of the younger generations three decades apart: from accepting Chinese sovereignty to rejecting it.

Beijing reads the later statement as the long-term result of colonial rule, with subjects of such rule lacking any sense of national identity. This lack of national identity is exploited by hostile foreign forces plotting to break up China by inciting separatist tendencies in the Special Administrative Region (SAR), says Beijing.

However, Hong Kong's democracy advocates attribute the change in attitude to the ruling Chinese Communist Party's (CCP's) failure to honour its promise to grant democracy to the city made 30 years ago.

The defining event that triggered the pro-independence HKUSU statement was the Aug 31 resolution of the NPCSC - China's Parliament or National People's Congress' Standing Committee - that put in place a system for the first direct election of the city's chief executive in 2017 which allows Beijing to pre-select candidates and determine the election result. Local democrats called this fake universal suffrage.

When the NPCSC resolution was announced, many people were disappointed and angry. The students took to the streets in September. Indeed, Hong Kong democracy advocates had expressed dismay earlier this year when central government officials handling Hong Kong affairs had indicated that the new electoral system would be stringent.

"It marked the wholesale failure of a generation who supported the concept of 'Return on the basis of democracy'," said legislator Yip Kin Yuan in January during an interview with Ming Pao newspaper. Mr Yip, 52, was the HKUSU vice-president who in 1984 took part in the drafting of a letter to then Premier Zhao Ziyang, pledging the students' support for China's resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong.

In his reply, Mr Zhao pledged democracy for Hong Kong, saying that "it is a matter of course".

Professor Benny Tai, leader of the Occupy Central campaign - precursor to the Umbrella movement - was quoted in the same Ming Pao article as saying Mr Zhao's reply had inspired him towards dialogue, and to negotiate tirelessly with Beijing for the last 30 years, only to find that such efforts were totally futile.

A joint statement by a group of 50 scholars said: "The NPCSC's resolution meant all doors to negotiation were closed. A whole generation of efforts emphasising a peaceful, rational and non-violent approach to democratic development did not come to fruition." These academics, aged 45 to 70, had spent a large part of their lives pushing for democracy in the city.

It was amid this strong sense of disappointment and betrayal that the alternate slogan of "Independence for democracy" came to replace the original one.

To the older advocates, the promise of democracy was not a generous gift from the central government, but a hard-won prize.

That this is so becomes clear when one compares the two basic laws, or mini-Constitutions, for Hong Kong and Macau. Under Hong Kong's Basic Law, Article 45 stipulates that the chief executive would be eventually elected by universal suffrage. The Macau version does not have this stipulation.

This difference is not the result of careless omission. During the Sino-Portuguese negotiation for the return of Macau, democracy was never an issue between the two sides, and the Macanese did not fight hard enough for it. Hence they did not get the promise of universal suffrage.

In Hong Kong's case, democracy was a central issue right from the start. In the initial stage of the Sino-British negotiation, the British said it would be morally wrong for them to deliver several million people to a totalitarian regime. This position allowed Britain to command the moral high ground and put China in an awkward negotiating position.

Then came the HKUSU statement supporting Hong Kong's return to China on the basis of democracy. It greatly enhanced China's negotiating position. It told the British that while the city never gained democracy under their rule, it expected to do so immediately after the handover to China. Once it becomes China's SAR, it will get democracy right away. Thus, in a way, the HKUSU statement helped China enormously in its bid to regain Hong Kong.

On March 18, 1993, Mr Lu Ping, director of the Hong Kong and Macau Office, a Cabinet-level body overseeing the two SARs, said in the People's Daily that after 2007, "how Hong Kong develops its democracy is entirely within the scope of self-rule of the SAR, the central government would not interfere". It had been tacitly agreed between China and Hong Kong that the city would have universal suffrage from 2007.

Unfortunately, such promises were not honoured. In the past 17 years, universal suffrage was deferred twice, in 2007 and 2012. When Beijing finally decided to allow it in 2017, it imposed an electoral system that is arguably inconsistent with the definition of universal suffrage.

This has taxed the tolerance and patience of most people to the limit, hence the unprecedented support for the illegal Umbrella movement.

Moreover, frustrated by the futility of lengthy dialogue with the central government, the younger generation has made a cry for independence as a way to achieve democracy. This cry is a warning to the central government that if the people's quest for genuine democracy is not adequately addressed, chances are that separatism will sink deeper roots.

chingcheong@gmail.com