Occupy Central: 7 things about the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong

Student protesters Joshua Wong (Centre) and Nathan Law (Right) stand outside the court of justice in Hong Kong. Wong appeared in court on August 28 over an anti-China protest in June 2014, a day after he faced fresh charges over his participation in the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement. PHOTO: AFP

This story was first published on Sept 28, 2014.

Hong Kong has plunged into one of its worst political crises since its handover to Chinese rule in 1997, as shotgun-carrying riot police faced off with enraged protesters on a major thoroughfare next to the government headquarters on Sept 28.

Organisers said as many as 80,000 people thronged the streets in Admiralty, galvanised by the arrests of student activists on Friday. Police have so far arrested at least 78 people.

A week of protests escalated into violence when student-led demonstrators broke through a cordon late on Sept 26 and scaled a fence to invade the city's main government compound after a week of peaceful action.

We look at some key facts:

1. What is Hong Kong's relationship with China?

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China on July 1, 1997. Under China's principle of "one country, two systems", Hong Kong would enjoy a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs, for 50 years. As a result, the city has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected. Its leader, the chief executive, is elected by a 1,200-member election committee in which a majority of the members are seen as pro-Beijing. Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, states that the ultimate aim is to elect the chief executive "by universal suffrage". China has promised direct elections for the chief executive in 2017.

2. What changes are afoot?

On Aug 31, 2014, China's top legislative body - the National People's Congress' Standing Committee (NPCSC) - unanimously passed a resolution stating that there must be a "broadly representative" nominating committee to vet contenders for the election in 2017. It said the panel's composition and size must match those of the 1,200-strong election committee that now picks the Chief Executive. That committee is filled with Beijing loyalists and industry interests. In addition, candidates must get the votes of at least half the panel before they can run in the election - higher than the current one-eighth threshold, which allowed pan-democrat candidates to go through. The number of candidates will be capped at two or three.

3. What do democracy activists say?

Democracy activists believe China will use the nominating committee to screen out candidates it disapproves. They also say the strict election rules close the door on any talks to enlarge the panel to make it more representative.

The Occupy Central movement has threatened to blockade Hong Kong's central business district if Beijing refuses to allow open nominations. Led by academic Benny Tai, the movement organised an unofficial referendum on political reform that was held from June 20 to 29, 2014. Voters were asked to choose from three proposals for the 2017 election, all of which involved allowing citizens to choose who to nominate as a candidate for the top job. A total of 792,808 voters cast ballots. The movement claimed the high turnout - about one in five registered voters - showed it had strong backing from the public.

Things took an unexpected turn when Mr Tai declared in a surprise announcement on Sept 28 that the sit-in would begin first around the government headquarters in Admiralty where student protesters had already massed for the past two nights. The sit-in, widely expected to begin on China's National Day on Oct 1, was also brought forward to Sept 28.

4. What does China say?

China has defended its ruling on election candidacy for Hong Kong. Mr Li Fei, deputy secretary-general of the NPCSC, said the nominating guidelines would "protect the broad stability of Hong Kong now and in the future". Beijing had earlier condemned the pro-democracy protests and called the unofficial referendum by the Occupy Central movement a "farce". In a White Paper in June 2014 outlining China's authority over Hong Kong, Beijing said some had a "confused and lopsided" understanding of the "one country, two systems" model. It stressed that while Hong Kong has a "high degree of autonomy", it is "not full autonomy" and the mainland still has "comprehensive jurisdiction" over the territory.

Responding to the turn of events on Sept 28, China's government said it remained confident that the Hong Kong authorities could handle demonstrations in line with the law. Paraphrasing a spokesperson with the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of China's State Council, the official Xinhua news agency also said Beijing "firmly opposes all illegal activities that could undermine rule of law and jeopardise 'social tranquility' and it offers its strong backing" to the Hong Kong government.

5. What does the Hong Kong government say?

Chief executive Leung Chun-ying told a press conferenceon Sept 28 that his administration was "resolute in opposing the unlawful occupation actions by Occupy Central". He said his government would hold more public consultations on the planned political changes - a move already scheduled before the protests.

In a report submitted to Beijing in July, Mr Leung said that mainstream Hong Kong society agreed with Beijing on how electoral reform should proceed. The report was based on public consultation with the Hong Kong public but it drew fire from pro-democracy activists, who said Mr Leung had misrepresented public opinion.

The Hong Kong government also said the unofficial referendum had no legal standing and it welcomed the Chinese government's White Paper, saying that Hong Kong had benefited from the "one country, two systems" model.

6. What do pro-China groups say?

Pro-Beijing groups, such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power, have criticised the pro-democracy activists for "endangering" the city. They argue that continued civil disobedience and opposition to Beijing would only damage the city's reputation and economy, as well as its relationship with China. These groups have organised several protests against the pro-democracy movement and its biggest event, held on Aug 17, was attended by thousands. The rally was unusual as large-scale pro-government protests are rare in Hong Kong. But some have questioned the legitimacy of the rally, as there were reports that some protesters were paid to participate in the rally.

Business leaders, who favour stability in Hong Kong, have also opposed pro-democracy protests. A number of businesses have taken out advertisements in the local media, saying the city's status as an international trading hub is at risk if Occupy Central movement went ahead with its takeover.

7. What's next?

Opposition lawmakers have also vowed to block the passage of the electoral bill. To become law, it will require two-thirds of the 70-member legislature to support it. If the proposal is rejected, Hong Kong will continue to have its leader picked by a 1,200-member election committee.


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