Benny Tai: Beijing’s six strategies for neutralizing Occupy Central with Love and Peace

Original published in Apple Daily on 12 August 2014: Read original
Translation on 15 August 2014

Ever since Occupy Central with Love and Peace was proposed last year, Beijing has been working on the strategies to deal with this democratic movement in Hong Kong.

The first strategy is restraining.  At the very beginning, I was the only one proposing Occupy Central.  Although the idea was echoed by quite some people, it was basically just a scholar’s proposal floating in the sky.  The movement started to take shape only after Prof. Chan Kin-man and Pastor Chu Yiu-ming joined me in officially launching the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement in March last year followed by a number of deliberation forums.  Although the movement has managed to gather social forces that support universal suffrage, including pan-democratic parties, civil society organizations and citizens, it had yet to be a tangible political force.  At this stage, Beijing’s main strategy was to restrain the growth of the OCLP movement by forming anti-Occupy Central organizations and mobilizing pro-Beijing chambers of commerce, bodies, mass media and individuals in criticizing and discrediting OCLP through public speeches, newspaper articles and advertisements.

But all these actions appeared to be in vain. 800,000 people voted in the civil referendum in June, of which 700,000 clearly expressed their unwillingness to accept a chief executive electoral method that does not offer real choices to the voters.  The result gave a clear mandate to the pan-democrats to veto in the Legislative Council any proposal that does not meet international standards.  After 510,000 citizens participated in the July 1 demonstration asking for genuine universal suffrage, and the student sit-in on July 2 that gave a perfect demonstration of non-violent occupy action, OCLP has finally developed into a full-fledged movement.

The second strategy Beijing could have employed is to kill the movement while it was still in embryo.  They could simply arrest the three OCLP organizers so that we could no longer promote and organize any OCLP activities.  I keep saying that I would have disappeared right after my article was published if I were teaching in Beijing University instead of Hong Kong University.  I would not have the opportunity to nourish OCLP and let it grow in the civil society of Hong Kong.  Fortunately, Hong Kong is no Mainland, and Hong Kong University is no Beijing University.  We are still protected by the rule of law: before taking any concrete action of civil disobedience, we have not violated any law in Hong Kong yet and our personal freedom and freedom of speech are still protected by law.  As such the destruction strategy does not work in Hong Kong, not to mention the movement has already taken shape.  Arresting the three of us now will not stop Occupy Central from happening and will rather lead to an unforeseen and uncontrollable situation.

The third strategy Beijing could use, when OCLP has already taken shape, is to undermine the movement.  Undermining looks similar to the first strategy of restraining except it is done on a much larger scale and with stronger organizational power.  Like OCLP, they are also trying to collect public opinion and seem to have gained a lot of momentum.  However, such opinion collected, no matter how substantial it is, only serves to counter the pro-Occupy Central opinion.  It will not turn the opinion of those who support the aim of OCLP to fight for genuine universal suffrage into the opposite side.  Neither will it make those opinion simply disappear.

Once the government submits an electoral reform proposal that does not meet public expectations on universal suffrage, or violates the will of those 700,000 citizens who have voted for a proposal of international standards, the voice of opposition will be strong and firm.  There should be enough people participating the civil disobedience action of Occupy Central.  There is no way to undermine OCLP once the movement has taken shape.  It will be really naive and even foolish for Beijing to think that a large enough number of people against Occupy Central will end the action.

The fourth strategy, something Beijing is still using, is to intimidate the supporters of OCLP.  This strategy, which could have already been used before OCLP has taken shape, has become even more all-pervasive and extreme.  The act of intimidation can be against a supporter directly or against his relatives or friends who in turn exert pressure on him.  This strategy has actually been working and creating the kind of white terror that has caused some OCLP supporters to withdraw from the movement or keep a low profile.

However, this strategy also cannot stop OCLP from happening when the right moment has come.  It can only restrain the growth of the movement.  The reasons are as follows:

(1)  It is impossible for Beijing to get the personal information of all those who intend to participate the civil disobedience.  They can only target those high-profile participants.

(2)  As mentioned, Hong Kong people are still protected by the rule of law, which limits the extent of intimidation.  To most of those who do not have close ties with China, this kind of intimidation should be just about bearable. 

(3)  By now, many supporters of universal suffrage are prepared to risk everything for democracy in Hong Kong.  Having said that, under the rule of law in Hong Kong, they are not going to sacrifice their lives.

The fifth strategy that Beijing is seriously considering to use is divide the pan-democracy camp.  Beijing has already successfully divided the pan-democrats into different segments after the political reform in 2010.  Before the emergence of OCLP, the radicals and the moderates were at odds with each other and were unlikely to work together on exercising the veto.  As veto is one of the most powerful weapons to the pan-democrats on political reform, dividing the pan-democracy camp will greatly weaken it.

This is also the basic strategy Beijing intends to use in dealing with the 2017 chief executive electoral reform.  Looking at the number of seats of the pan-democrats in the Legco, the support from just four to five pan-democrats will be enough to pass the government proposal.  From Beijing’s perspective, divide and rule is the most effective way of getting the proposal passed.  However, after OCLP has taken shape, and particularly when the results of the civil referendum are in favor of vetoing any proposal that does not conform to international standards, the pan-democrats are more or less sticking together now.  Nevertheless, it is just a weak alliance as the radicals and moderates are very different in terms of strategy, pace, and the specifics of their proposals.

However, the political reality is that once the government proposal does not give voters a real choice, all pan-democrats will have to veto it in the Legco.  Not doing so is tantamount to committing political suicide.  Perhaps in the next few months Beijing will do whatever it takes to cast in a bone between the radicals and the moderates.  However, as long as the pan-democrats understand that unity is strength, and that the desire for genuine universal suffrage rises above their political divergence, there is hardly any room for Beijing to divide the pan-democracy camp.

The sixth strategy is smashing.  Beijing should know the above-mentioned means of countering the public opinion and intimidating the supporters will not stop Occupy Central from happening.  They can at most minimize the impact of civil disobedience.  Perhaps Beijing is preparing for the eventual confrontation and what they are doing now is just preparation work.  Of course Beijing is not afraid of smashing – forceful dispersion or even violent suppression if needed – and is prepared to pay any political price.  But is it necessary?

Once this happens, the political consequences will be unpredictable.  Maybe there will be just one or two thousand people sitting in Central to be arrested and prosecuted.  Public opinion may see these people as troublemakers.  Occupy Central will end miserably.  A few pan-democrats will change sides to support the government proposal.  The Chinese-style universal suffrage will be successfully implemented in Hong Kong and bring along better governance.  Hong Kong people will therefore love the country, love Hong Kong, and live happily forever.

What will more likely happen is that Occupy Central, even if suppressed, will inflict an unhealable wound to the governance in Hong Kong.  The growing disobedience and resistance in the society will render Hong Kong ungovernable.  This will hurt Hong Kong not only politically and economically but also socially and culturally.  “One country, two systems” will be proved to be a failure.  China may be strong enough to bear the costs, or even do not care about them, but the governance problem will keep on troubling Beijing in the years to come.  Beijing will be exhausted by the ever-increasing political conflicts.  It is not that Beijing cannot handle these issues, but why put Hong Kong in such a position?  Without genuine universal suffrage, the internal conflicts in Hong Kong will never be resolved and can be taken advantage by foreign forces against Beijing.  This could pose an even bigger threat to national security.

I hope Beijing, after making careful calculations but still unable to find a better solution than smashing OCLP, would positively address the request of the movement for universal suffrage.

Benny Tai
“Occupy Central with Love and Peace” Convener