The clippers gnawed at Chan Kin-man’s scalp, until every strand fell to the floor. Before long, the cofounder of Occupy Central was bald, and eventually 40 more fuzzy, raw bare skulls appeared before him. His hair was swept away, into a pile along with the clumps that had been shaved from his closest of cohorts, who sat by his side all the while—Benny Tai Yiu-ting and Chu You-ming. The trio had founded the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement together last year, in the hopes of fighting for more democratic freedom in Hong Kong. On September 9, they gathered with other Occupy members for a demonstration that involved a close head shave—a symbolic gesture of their willingness to make sacrifices in what is sure to be a long struggle.
It was the trio’s first show of solidarity in weeks. Late last month, Benny Tai told the South China Morning Post that his democratic movement’s civil disobedience campaign had “failed” thus far. Soon afterward, many of Hong Kong’s most outspoken activists began bickering about how to proceed in the face of their worst fear. That pessimism stemmed from a stunning August 31 announcement: the People’s Republic of China will be vetting all candidates in Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. Pro-democrats say this move will allow the mainland to weed out opponents and assert its dominance.
In a recent interview with Shanghaiist, Chan Kin-man said he is far more optimistic than Tai had been during the SCMP interview, before conceding that there may have been some truth to his fellow activist’s claims.
“I guess what he meant is if you talk about the specific goal of attaining true democracy in 2017, the chance is now slim to change Beijing’s mind,” Chan says over the phone, adding: “But as a movement we go beyond this specific goal. Because as long as people still uphold the idea of democracy, if they still uphold the spirit of resistance, I guess we still have a chance.”
Yesterday Chan and Tai showed more solidarity, shaving their heads along with 40 other activists, a symbolic gesture of their willingness to make sacrifices in what is sure to be a long struggle (the movement’s third cofounder, Chu Yiu-ming, also took part). That demonstration will be followed by a student strike on September 22, and then Occupy Central’s main civil disobedience campaign in Hong Kong’s financial centre in early October.
Image via Hong Wrong
“We will block the road in the financial centre, and when we are arrested we will not resist,” Chan told Shanghaiist of the movement’s strategy for its key demonstration. He believes that those arrests will further enable the demonstrators, rather than debilitating them: “In court, a major organiser like me will not file any defences, or hire any lawyers to defend us.”
The Occupy members hope that being detained in such a passive fashion will not only draw more attention to their cause, but also move and inspire droves of onlookers.
“I don’t want to see anything out of control, or for anything violent to happen,” Chan said, adding that he hopes a delay until October will allow participants to ease their flaring tempers, and take part in a measured, peaceful effort. He said riotous, aggressive action will only alienate potential supporters. “The essence of civil disobedience is not just disturbance. We have to get sympathy from the rest of the community by a process of self sacrifice. When people witness a group of citizens like a professor, a lawmaker a student, or a solider shoulder the responsibility, then it is the beginning of that process.”
But even such a measured, pacifist approach is too extreme for some HK democracy advocates. Simon Young, a professor and associate dean at the University of Hong Kong’s faculty of law, instead urged for a more “pragmatic approach” in a September 1 SCMP editorial. In the piece, Young lists several safeguards that can be put in place to curb Beijing’s potential dominance of the upcoming elections, including negotiations where legislators can “bundle together desirable… reforms,” such as the abolition of corporate voting, a widening of the electorate base and a guaranteed “post-2017 review of the system.”
“Beijing is now probably more inclined to make some concessions to ensure universal suffrage is not vetoed,” Young told Shanghaiist in a recent interview, adding that such compromises could eventually ring hollow on election day: “There’s a risk that Beijing will try to influence election results and try to persuade the public to accept their candidate. But that’s part of democracy. Hong Kong people are not easily deceived…people will use the ballot box to express their views. Once Beijing understands this, then they will also be very careful in who they choose to support.”
Young’s outlook stands in stark contrast to that of Alex Chow, head of the Federation of Students, a pro-democracy group that protested on the day of the PRC’s vetoing announcement. According to one article, Chow was “escorted out jeering and heckling… he said: ‘If we go out on the street and protest … [Beijing] can either crack down on us or change its proposal to give us real democracy,’”.
Chow did not respond to requests for an interview. When asked about the split in their approaches, Young told Shanghaiist: “I think Mr Chow speaks for a very small percentage of young people, who would like to be seen doing something to improve society. Their efforts are admirable but I don’t think it will be long lasting or followed by many. After I published my article, I heard many people say that once heads have cooled, we will all need a good dose of pragmatism to figure out what can still be done.”
Chan agreed that tempers will need to simmer before meaningful action can be taken, but went on to counter many of Young’s other points, especially the law professor’s suggestions about negotiating with the government. Chan went on to tell Shanghaiist: “I don’t think there’s any room for meaningful negotiations now that the decision has been made. That won’t make any significant impact on the whole nominating process. I don’t see any room for negotiation. I have talked to many antidemocratic law makers, and they also believe that the best way to respond is to veto.”
Chan went on to say that those hurdles make a peaceful, but steadfast protest all the more crucial, so that citizens can vie for more power at the ballot box. But Chan doesn’t just face opposition from Young and other cautionary pro-democratic advocates. Another tenacious group of protestors also took to Hong Kong’s streets recently, but for reasons directly opposed to Occupy’s. Dubbing themselves the Alliance for Peace and Democracy, this pro-mainland group marched in a turnout of 193,000 on August 18, showcasing their petition of 1.3 million signatures all the while (far more than the 5000 participants in Occupy’s rally after the PRC’s vetting announcement on August 31). During their march, Alliance spokesperson Yung “Robert” Chow told The Wall Street Journal that: “Occupy Central screwed up. This is a group of people saying they want one step less than a riot.” Other participants voiced their concerns that Chan and his fellow pro-democratic demonstrators would stifle the city’s economy by demonstrating in Hong Kong’s financial district (Chow did not respond to Shanghaiist’s requests for an interview).
Chan countered the Alliance’s claims, telling Shanghaiist: “The decision made by Beijing is causing long term damage to our society and economy,” adding that continued tensions could lead to a migration of those opposing the mainland’s influence, a loss of international investment, and more violent protests that would damage property and cause much longer disruptions than Occupy’s planned peaceful sit-in.
Joshua Wong, head of the student activist group Scholarism, which has been working in conjunction with Occupy, said that all the tensions and opposing ideologies, both within and outside his movement, have given him doubts. But those misgivings haven’t yet been enough to deter him, or his fellow activists.
“I’m not sure that organising this action will gain universal suffrage,” he told Shanghaiist of Occupy’s potential to make a difference, adding: “But I think that without any civil disobedience, without at least an attempt, there certainly won’t be any results.”
By Kyle Lawrence