No one could have predicted that the week-long pro-democracy strike by thousands of Hong Kong university and high-school students in September would escalate into the two-month-long “Umbrella movement,” attracting people from all walks of life to occupy several major districts of the territory.
This is undoubtedly the most serious political crisis that the territory has faced since 1997.
The responses to the protesters, both by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese officials, and by different segments of society, have revealed a heavily politicized situation and radically transformed the territory in ways that had been previously unimaginable.
Excessive violence and brutality summarizes the Hong Kong government’s response to a peaceful, passionate and networked demonstration.
By comparison, an outpouring of public support and sympathy for the Occupy Central movement was echoed globally and symbolized a youthful uprising against the “status quo.”
While many observers have applauded the spontaneity of the Umbrella movement, it is important to also pay attention to the social and moral psychology of such protest movements that demand genuine democracy in the 2017 elections of the territory’s chief executive and lawmakers.
Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi once said: “It is not power that corrupts, but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it, and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.”
Her remarks are relevant for the territory where Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying’s (梁振英) administration is dismantling the rule of law and depriving the people of their civil rights.
When the government employed court orders to clear the occupied protest sites, it pitted the police against peaceful protesters and employed security measures to resolve political problems that required dialogue and compromise instead.
Hong Kong’s leaders have refused to resolve the current crisis peacefully. Instead, they have divided society by instilling hatred and fear among the public, and demonizing the demonstrators.
On many occasions, the officials ridiculed the concept of universal suffrage and treated the people of Hong Kong as a faceless mass to be domesticated.
HSBC Holdings board member Laura Cha (查史美倫), a non-official member of the Executive Council of Hong Kong and chairperson of the Preparatory Task Force on the Financial Services Development Council and former vice chairwoman of the China Securities Regulatory Commission, embodied such anti-democratic sentiments among the elites.
She justified the disenfranchisement of Hong Kongers by comparing them to freed African-American slaves, suggesting they should endure a century of authoritarian rule before getting their electoral rights. These remarks only provoked widespread public anger and caused irreconcilable conflict.
Aung San Suu Kyi reminded her followers of the dangers of authoritarianism two decades ago, saying: “Within a system which denies the existence of basic human rights, fear tends to be the order of the day.”
After witnessing the police’s violent attacks on the demonstrators, Hong Kongers have realized that freedom from fear is a precondition for democratic change. By expressing their desire for genuine democracy, they are determined to free themselves from police brutality, torture and abuse.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history and codirector of Global Asia Studies at Pace University in New York.
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