Gloomy outlook for Hong Kong democracy a year after Umbrella Movement

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With no concessions won and the road ahead uncertain, pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong are weighing their next move.

– A year since their mass occupations shook Hong Kong’s political foundations and grabbed headlines worldwide, the island’s pro-democracy campaigners are in a subdued mood.

The main groups behind the occupations, the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) and Scholarism, will return to the site of their main protest camp in the heart of the city centre this weekend.

But this time there is no talk of mass civil unrest or barricades, rather seminars and talks on how to revitalize the movement that gave the Communist Party in Beijing its biggest challenge since the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Nathan Law, general secretary of the student federation, said the groups “aim to solve the puzzle of Hong Kong’s future, solve some questions that have popped up in the last year and discuss how society changed over the last year.”

In that year, what seemed an energetic movement animated by a common cause, with estimates of up to 100,000 people on the streets during September and October, has splintered into several different factions.

The protests, which became known as the Umbrella Movement, spanned 79 days over three different sites in the territory. But towards the end participant numbers dwindled as police moved in. A pro-democracy rally in February attracted some 10,000 people.

Meanwhile there has been no sign of compromise from the Hong Kong government on the model for electing the next city leader, or chief executive. The government’s plan, decreed by Beijing, would allow direct elections only from a list of candidates pre-approved by Beijing. The protesters demand open nominations.

“I think in society, there’s no huge mobilisation, and ordinary people who participated in the occupations have been resting. In the long run we’d like to have a more united bloc that could generate more political energy,” Law told dpa.

Asked if he thought the movement had brought democracy any closer to Hong Kongers than a year ago, he said it is “more or less the same.”

Lee Cheuk-yan, a pro-democracy member of the Legislative Council and chairman of the Labour Party, said the divisions among the protesters were inevitable, citing differences over the effectiveness of non-violence and the levels to which Hong Kong campaigners should engage with the Chinese government.

But he said the divisions – and the apparent waning of support – are not permanent.

Months of campaigning last year led to “exhaustion,” Lee said, and people “are waiting for the next moment.”

“We hope when crisis rises, or there’s an election, people will come together again,” he said.

Albert Chan, another member of the pan-democrat bloc in the Legislative Council and a long-time democracy campaigner, said: “I’m more confident now [than a year ago]. Overall, Hong Kong people have been awakened, and this will not disappear. Hong Kong is transformed.

“It may happen tomorrow, it may be in 10 years, but I believe Hong Kong people will not give up.”

Jordan Ho, an IT worker who was a regular participant at the occupations last year, said he didn’t see the point of another round of occupations.

“Judging by the government’s [lack of response], I don’t think another occupation would make any difference. At least not for now,” he said.

Since police and bailiffs cleared the streets of remaining occupiers in December, the government’s proposed electoral model was defeated by the likes of Lee and Chan in the Legislative Council. So the next election, in 2017, will continue with the current system, under which a 1,200-person committee of the city’s economic and political elite selects the chief executive, with no popular vote.

The debate over Hong Kong’s political future has its roots in its British colonial past. As a condition of the 1997 handover, China promised Hong Kongers a high-degree of autonomy, until at least 2047, under the “one country, two systems” principle.

This included a promise of direct elections, a promise that Beijing insists it has not broken by offering a popular vote for chief executive, albeit with a restricted pool of candidates.

Some in Hong Kong have suggested that, by raising tensions in Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing, the Umbrella Movement may have made it harder to achieve greater democracy in Hong Kong.

But Michael Davis, a constitutional law expert at Hong Kong University, said Beijing never had any intention to compromise, leaving protesters with nothing to lose.

“The protest certainly did not harm Hong Kong’s prospects for reaching a compromise over democracy. It put pressure on Beijing to take some reasonable path out of this tense situation.

“Whether they will or not is yet to be seen.”

This is Hong Kong’s predicament, says the Labour Party’s Lee: “It isn’t easy. Change has to come from China.”

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