Occupy Central Series: Who are the Radicals?

[This post is part of the Occupy Central Series]



Let’s take the Wikipedia definition of political radicalism and play with it. It is a term denoting, “political principles focused on altering social structures through revolutionary means and changing value systems in fundamental ways.” Radicalness, then, might be defined as the distance between what currently exists and the types of political change envisioned. How can we measure this?

We might look for it in the form of opinion polls. One recent poll finds that 36.4% of Hong Kong’s population was inclined to support pan-democrats, while only 20.4% were incline to support the ‘pro-establishment’ camps. Neither side owns a majority here, but one has a clear plurality. This is nuanced by a phantom poll that Alex Lo cites repeatedly showing that 54% would essentially settle for Beijing’s approach to executive recruitment. Yet no traces of this poll can be found online, nor are other similar ones evident, making it difficult to know (a) what the margins of error are, (b) how the population was chosen [in the US, ‘likely voters’ is the usual sampled population], (c) how the question was worded, and (d) what the other questions were.

For instance, we don’t know what those polled actually preferred – only what they would settle for. When Lo writes that, “survey after survey has shown public nomination, which underpins all three plans being voted on in the ‘referendum’, does not have majority support”, one doesn’t know how specious the claim is. Or even whether Alex Lo knows how to read opinion polls.

From a policy perspective, I think we can reasonably say that Hong Kong today fits a certain ‘rule of law’ standard. There are courts that, for the most part, work as they were designed. There is a strange political system that, for the most part, works by the logic that was built into it. There is a textual basis to Hong Kong’s polity that makes it tick like a timepiece – however ugly it might sometimes be.

Beijing is now making two bold claims. The first is that “One Country, Two Systems” (OCTS) is a luxury granted by Beijing. This would contrast with the conventional understanding, advanced by Deng Xiaoping himself, that Hong Kong’s autonomy would be guaranteed for fifty years. One might frame it like this: for more than half a century, American rulers have had the legal power to obliterate entire countries at their own discretion by using the ‘nuclear football’ always at their side. Yet we have come to accept that this is an unthinkable proposition. The same thing exists with OCTS: while technically, “the high degree of autonomy of HKSAR is subject to the level of the central leadership’s authorisation,” to remove that autonomy or to move it even closer to Beijing’s center is a radical departure from the norm. That they are emphasizing this at this point in time is no different than an American president waving his ‘nuclear football’ around during a crisis. It’s a radical departure from the norms.

Currently, all Chief Executives make an oath that they will:

…uphold the Basic Law of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, bear allegiance to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China and serve the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region conscientiously, dutifully, in full accordance with the law, honestly and with integrity, and be held accountable to the Central People’s Government of the People’s Republic of China and the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region

Beijing, however, is now demanding a ‘patriotism’ requirement. That they are requiring this in spite of pledging allegiance means that they see this requirement as something more than allegiance. It is difficult to read it as anything other than a means for Beijing to have veto power over candidates, as a political test. This is in itself problematic, but it becomes especially so when thought of as a legal problem. How does one write a ‘patriotism’ test into law? The simple answer is that they can’t: nothing so subjective can be codified into law. An oath of allegiance, as already exists, is approximately the limit of how far you can take such demands.

What Beijing aims to do, then, is to make a sort of ‘black box’ out of the electoral process. Would-be candidates go in, only a few come out, and the filtering process inside the box remains intentionally opaque. This is anathema to the rule of law that currently exists. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive recruitment and selection today occurs inside a very flawed box, but it is transparent and its workings are knowable to all. What Beijing is proposing, then, is a radical departure from existing norms.

And what of the Occupiers themselves, how radical are they? What I see is a city that goes through all the motions of mechanical democracy</>.’ There are elections, political parties, and even debates. These mechanics, however, are filtered through a unique system of seat allocation and Functional Constituencies. What they are asking is that the system be rationalized and reformed more closely to international standards.

Were I to pick an analogy, it is that Hong Kong’s political structure is something like a family car with giant ‘monster truck’ tires. All of the other parts of the system work as they should, except for when it comes to turning popular votes into LegCo seats and holding an open vote for Chief Executive. The engine revs, yet the wheels barely move. They are asking that the tires be replaced with something more appropriate to the rest of the car. Beijing, instead, would add even larger tires, making political movement even more difficult.

What I have argued is that there is no reason to call Occupy Central ‘radicals’ at this point. What they are arguing is actually far more in line with the natural evolutionary trends of the city, a more ‘rational’ changing of parts. This dynamic may change once, and if, disruptive protests begin. At the same time, both what Beijing is saying and demanding is ‘radical’ in the sense that it is a radical departure from existing norms. Pan-democrats are also more strongly supported in the public than the pro-Beijing camp. For the time being, Occupy might be thought of best representing the status quo and current trajectory of the city compared to the alternatives.


  1. […] One was that “China changed, not Hong Kong.” The protests were a result of a new hardline leader in Beijing and a particularly sycophant local proxy in C.Y. Leung. What Beijing was […]

    November 13, 2015

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