BEYOND OCCUPY: WHAT OCCUPY CENTRAL MEANS FOR THE WORLD
Occupy Central has reached the point where - its survival having been reassured - existential concerns are now the focus of media coverage of the movement. What is exactly do Occupiers want, and more importantly, are their demands valid? To the last question, I unequivocally say yes. To the naysayers who believe more democracy will disrupt an enviable financial system, I say thus:
Narratives that frame Hong Kong’s fabulous economic system are narrowly framed at best and patently false at worst. The perfectly capitalist system which has produced one of the most unequal societies in the world. Photos of the Hong Kong’s “cage homes,” many occupied by Hong Kong’s migrant workers and the elderly, horrified viewers. Nearly one fifth of Hong Kong’s citizens live below the poverty line, even though the island has the highest billionaires per capita in the world. It’s Gini coefficient, a variable which measures relative inequality, has steadily risen to 0.537 in the last forty years, making Hong Kong one of the most unequal societies in East Asia. A socioeconomic system which produces fabulous wealth for a handful while allowing widespread poverty to grow is, in my eyes, not a successful one at all but rather has failed its governmental mandate to serve its citizens. “Success,” so narrowly defined by how large one’s sovereign wealth fund is and the consistency of its investment policy, obscures the deep social inequalities that have destroyed any illusion of meritocracy in Hong Kong.
Moreover, Hong Kong’s status as the financial hub of Asia has diminished in recent years, especially relative to places like Shanghai and Singapore. I’m no economist, but I suspect that this decrease in financial prominence has some aspects in common with the widely held perception that Hong Kong’s technocratic governance structure today is too riddled with mainland speculation and privilege. Inequality doesn’t pay nor, as I and others argue, does the Beijing model of economic liberalization and political oppression create a robust and trustworthy financial system. Hong Kong’s real value today lies in its unique atmosphere of political dialogue and tolerance that has persisted even after the 1997 handover to Chinese rule.
But that does not address why Occupy Central matters so much. It does not explain why Occupy Central has riveted international audiences beyond greater China. For all those in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan, and Macau; for all those who have been denied a voice against the anachronistic Chinese Communist party; and for all those who continue to speak out against this national silencing at great personal risk, Occupy Central has become much larger than the sum of its parts. It has come to represent a worldwide hope that China’s many iniquities and abuses can be ameliorated and that the solution can come from within, from a newly politicized citizenry.
The Communist Party’s disregard for civil and human rights is undeniable. These are issues which everyone, including those who prioritize economic development, cannot overlook. These violations extend well beyond Hong Kong’s borders to China’s peripheries but also point within, to China’s biggest cities. From widespread online censorship to the forced televised confessions of outspoken public figures to the recent life sentence of moderate Uighur intellectual Illham Tothti; from the continued arrests of rule of law proponents to the Communist Party’s refusal to acknowledge the Tiananmen Massacre; from the central government’s bloody and invasive “anti-terrorism” campaign in Xinjiang to withholding social benefits and full citizenship from migrant workers. Meanwhile, the usual channels of redress and communication are closed tightly shut; labor strikes have limited legal protection, people are arrested for talking to foreign media or comments made online, petition courts are overwhelmed with claims and stymied at the local level, and people carrying their grievances to Beijing are furtively sequestered in “black jails.”
In the present, the ongoing protests may have delayed subways, decreased worker productivity, and ultimately, financial losses. But in the longterm, how Occupy Central is decided will set an important precedent for the beginnings of the resolutions of even more longstanding issues of sovereignty, rights, and political expression in mainland China. In 1989, the Chinese Communist Party responded to massive yet peaceful demonstrations in Tiananmen Square with tanks and bullets. In 2014, such blunt force is no longer necessary. The Communist Party has evolved more nuanced techniques for diffusing unrest: quietly censoring dialogue, factionalizing the opposition, agreeing to rhetoric but not action. Concomitantly, Chinese citizens have had to develop more sophisticated methods of resistance. Occupy Central has proven that Chinese citizens can and will mobilize in open defiance for extended periods of time and harness a diverse landscape of interests for a common goal.
The positive social externalities, if you will, of Occupy Central, will travel on to inform the activism that struggles like those which aim to make China’s air cleaner and food safer. In other words, the work of Hong Kong citizens this week and in past marches has done a lot of legwork for other variants of civil society and citizen activism that have relevance for all Chinese citizens today.
Right now, it remains unclear how “successful” the movement will be. Occupy Central’s demand have split, with different factions jostling for different concessions. Beijing has unequivocally stated its support for Hong Kong’s chief executive CY Leung, even as Pan-democrats in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council have sworn not to pass Beijing’s electoral package which gives mainland China more say in Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. However, the movement’s real success will be, as Rebecca Karl has stated, the politicization and mobilization of some of the most cosmopolitan populations in the world. This kind of civil society will be crucial for the future negotiation of present injustices.
Yes, Hong Kong’s current economic and governance system will take more than thousands of protesters occupy Hong Kong’s streets, waving umbrellas and speakerphones. But change has to start somewhere before we can begin to sort out the details. Democracy is not the end in and of itself here, and with any luck, the Occupiers don’t see it as such. Occupy Central has become the predominant way to decenter Hong Kong from the geopolitical orbit of Beijing’s demands. Occupy Hong Kong - whether by design or happenstance - has come to signify a greater sense meaning in relation to the wider context of China.
Emily Feng is a senior at Duke University. She is president of the Duke East Asia Nexus.