Hong Kong

The Umbrella Era

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Young people in Hong Kong pop open umbrellas in a show of defiance against China’s plan for watered-down democracy in the city.

“It all depends on Xi Jinping,” said Martin Lee, in his calm, soft-spoken voice. We were standing in the living room of a friend who was hosting a party in celebration of the 79-year-old Lee, father of Hong Kong democracy. Experts, journalists, and friends were all in attendance. Lee was invited to D.C. to witness the hearing of the Congressional Commission that monitors human rights and the rule of law in China. In 1994 Lee founded the Hong Kong Democratic Party and fought persistently for the strengthening of democracy in Hong Kong after Britain’s colonial departure in 1997, replaced by the motherly hug of Communist China. But above all, for many years, Lee was a member of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s parliament, which was pushing hard for the implementation of the rule of law to protect the city of seven million from the communist dictatorship. Not an easy job considering China’s size and scope, and its control of everything flowing into and out of Hong Kong, water and electricity included.

But the democracy! I looked curiously at Lee when he said that the destiny of Hong Kong depends on one man and his good will. I don’t think that Lee considers the Chinese president an absolutist ruler, so I asked him whether he ever met the man. He has not. It took me a bit of time to sink back into the mindset of the people of Hong Kong, who had to cope with a long period of British dominion and still managed to prosper.

I interviewed Martin Lee a few years after the Sino-British Joint Declaration–returning Hong Kong to China–was signed in Beijing. At the time I visited his office in Hong Kong the news coming from Beijing wasn’t good. China was to take Hong Kong back in 1997 and it was about to be sovereign land again, but, according to the agreement, the former colony would have the right to its political system. The equation “one country, two systems” was supposed to guarantee extensive autonomy to Hong Kong; the city would remain capitalist and, with that, an important financial hub in Asia.

At the beginning of its economic reforms, Beijing needed any bridge that would help China reach foreign markets and investments. Hong Kong was a perfect match: in 1997, when the city was handed back to China, its eight million people (less than 1 percent of the mainland population) contributed approximately 18 percent of the entire Chinese GDP. There was no way that the leaders in Beijing would trash such a golden hen, and Hong Kongers were confident that the new patrons would know how to respect their experience and knowledge. The influential people I knew at that time were convinced that Hong Kong, in all its sophistication, would prevail over the rural mainland and its raw force. Hong Kong is the model for the future of China, they were saying. I am pretty sure that Martin Lee, too, was thinking along those lines. But then two things happened.

The Tiananmen massacre in 1989 scared Hong Kong. Nobody expected that the Chinese government would be capable of ordering the People’s Liberation Army to kill students occupying the square, kids seeking the dialogue that would open a way for more democracy in China. The Hong Kongers who, a few weeks before Tiananmen, were confident and felt superior to mainland China, got scared watching the brutal and merciless force of Beijing. All of a sudden, Hong Kong was dark and depressed. The people that represented the core of Hong Kong economic power started to move their businesses and money to foreign countries. The future of the place seemed behind it.

Later in the same year the new Bank of China building, a triangular glass skyscraper, was completed. Rising 1,205 feet (367 meters), the tower was the tallest building in the world outside the United States. According to I.M. Pei, the Chinese-American architect of the building, the tower has a distinctive three-dimensional triangular shape (quadrilateral at the bottom and trilateral at the top) which transfers all vertical stress to the four corners of the building, making it very stable and wind resistant in the typhoon-threatened Hong Kong.

But Hong Kongers were no longer hearing reason. For many of them, the new building  represented the dark power looming over the city, as The New York Times reported:

The Bank of China Tower with its many triangular angles, however, does not have such good feng shui. A popular notion is that the building, which thins at the top, resembles a screwdriver that is drilling the wealth out of Hong Kong. Another is that buildings facing the sharp edges of the building will encounter negative feng shui and resulting problems. The Lippo Centre, which faces one of the triangles, was formerly the Bond Centre, owned by disgraced Australian businessman Allen Bond who was forced to sell the building after experiencing financial troubles. Government House, initially considered to be one of the best feng shui locations in Hong Kong, with clear, uninterrupted views of the mountains and sea. However, one of the angles of the Bank of China Tower bisected the Government House and caused, among other things, a nasty fall by Margaret Thatcher. The building is considered so unlucky that it now sits empty most of the year.

Martin Lee is now retired. He never refuses to answer the call of the fight for democracy, as described in a profile of him published by Newsweek in 2015: “When he stepped down as a legislator in 2008, many assumed he would fade into a graceful retirement. They were wrong. Last fall, Lee was on the front lines wearing a gas mask and goggles, showing solidarity with young protesters after police fired tear gas and pepper spray at them. And when the authorities finally cleared the protest camp that sprang up outside government headquarters, Lee was among those who refused to leave the site until police carried them away.”

The protest that dragged Lee back to the streets was launched by what is called the “Umbrella Movement.” When Beijing ruled out open nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017, the protesters flooded the streets of downtown Hong Kong. It was massive and well-organized, continuing for days with blockades and the occupation of the city center. The movement gave birth to a very young, almost adolescent generation of political leaders. Seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong stood out as a leader of the Umbrella Movement. He is now 20, and last Wednesday he witnessed the hearing of the Congress Commission on China, which has recently expressed some “serious concerns about the viability of the ‘one country, two systems’ model in light of Beijing’s unprecedented encroachments in recent years.”

Besides Martin Lee and Joshua Wong, there were other outstanding young leaders in the Hong Kong “delegation” that appeared in front of the Senate. I watched them in the house of my friend, and then in the Dirksen Senate Office Building where the hearing took place. They were an incredible combination: the feisty and well-spoken Grandpa Lee and then a crowd of young but politically very savvy kids. There was no space for the third, middle generation in the room. The old and young, the two extremes, have the same goal and no desire to compromise; they both want universal suffrage and the rule of law. They want Hong Kong to be run by the Hong Kong people. As the father of democracy in Hong Kong, Lee was proud of the young generation of political activists who got on the stage so unexpectedly, and in a time of despair. Lee sees a new hope in the young leaders like Joshua Wong. The only difference between the distant generations is the way the youngster wants to achieve their common goal.

Lee hopes that Xi Jinping will get enlightened. “Without democratic reforms polarized Hong Kong will not be governable. When Xi Jinping will come to Hong Kong for the anniversary of the handover on July 1, I hope he will personally reverse the dangerous course of the last two decades and confirm that our freedoms and way of life are good for China too,” said Lee, sounding almost like the Dalai Lama in some of his bygone speeches . But the young ones have no patience. They are constantly active, handling media and computers skillfully, effectively. They know how to work the floor. But they risk hitting the wall and getting hurt because they lack the experience and strategy. For instance, they did not know how to attract the attention of the busy and stressed senators who, during the hearing, were constantly fiddling with their gadgets, minding other matters.

The Commission was asking witnesses for facts and proof that erosion of the democracy in Hong Kong, caused by Beijing, is bad for business. The youngsters did not realize that the Commission was asking for the tools to proceed with the sanctions. As if the abduction of five persons of the Causeway Bay Books, and one billionaire, by Chinese agents would not be serious enough. In the absence of the economic data — needed if the U.S. Senate was to consider sanctions against Beijing — that would support suspicions of the deliberate erosion of the Hong Kong democratic system, chairman of the Commission Marco Rubio accepted the testimony of Lam Wing Kee, the owner of the Causeway Bay Books who, after being abducted, spent months in Chinese prison for no reason.

Rubio promised Wing Kee, “We will keep a tab on you, and we will take it personally if you are maltreated because witnessed in front of this Commission. We will watch close the situation. Hong Kong needs you,” he said.

Same goes for the question of self-determination. Similar to Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong who, in testimony, was worried that the Umbrella and other movements might seek independence of the island, Rubio was cautious. Patten directly warned the movement not to ask the impossible, while Rubio made it clear that the U.S. Senate would lose leverage over China if Hong Kong sought secession.

There are two things that everyone seems to be forgetting in this complicated story. Since, as I mentioned, Hong Kong depends materially on China, there is a chance that Beijing one day – as Putin did in Ukraine – might close the water and other pipelines. Hong Kong is aware of this, and this is why democracy is even more important to the islanders–it is their only means of survival.

The youngsters in Hong Kong seem to understand this better than Martin Lee’s generation did. This is not a matter of different opinion; it is about the perception of the two separate generations. Joshua and his generation were born after Tiananmen, but they live with the memory of it from their first days through to the massive sit-ins on every anniversary. The future Hong Kong leaders are the children of Tiananmen. They are the boomerang that is turning back to the Beijing that tried to erase the memory of that day, the identity of it.

As Jiayang Fan put in the New Yorker at the time of the opening Umbrellas in Hong Kong:  

The Hong Kong protesters’ assertion of their entitlement to democracy is alien and almost sanctimonious to their mainland counterparts, for whom economic stability is the value to be safeguarded and political involvement is as frivolous an indulgence as the Louis Vuitton bags that tourists go to Hong Kong to purchase. To those undaunted few who have sedulously fought China’s great digital firewall for the freedom to demand democracy and judge events like Tiananmen for themselves, the work of their fellow citizens in Hong Kong must feel like an act of kinship.

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