In Hong Kong protest, China's 'Goliath' hasn't blinked yet

As some of the barricades came down and Hong Kong resumed a semblance of its old frenetic self, Patrick Brown looks at the student tactics and some of the gains they may have made.

New generation of democracy activists, though, changing the game plan

Civil servants head to work near a now only partially blocked area outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Monday. Pro-democracy protesters agreed not to obstruct those returning to work or classrooms after nearly two weeks of street blockades. (Reuters)

A vigorous yet courtly figure, Martin Lee wears his 76 years lightly and boasts gently about doing 50 push-ups every morning. In a book-lined study, he looks back over 30 years in the trenches of Hong Kong's struggle for democracy.

A highly successful barrister, Lee took to politics in the 1980s in the effort to persuade Britain to abandon more than a century of colonial arrogance, which saw no place for  Chinese people in decisions about Hong Kong.

He served on the upgraded Legislative Council when it had its first direct elections in the '90s, Britain's last-minute attempt to equip the territory with at least some democratic institutions against that day in 1997 when the Politburo of the Communist Party of China would take over from Her Majesty's government.

After half a lifetime of trying to hold first Britain and now China to their promises, he was tear-gassed for the first time two weekends ago. I asked if he's ready to pass the torch to the new generation.

"Don’t talk about passing the torch," he answered. "They are not my successors, they are something new.

"They are now the leaders of this movement, and look at the way they have been conducting themselves, to the admiration of the whole world."

Former head of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen (left) and former lawmaker Martin Lee (right) join pro-democracy activists during a walkathon at Hong Kong's Mongkok shopping district in June 2014. (Reuters)

Lee says it was time for a new approach.

The old ideas are no good," he says, "we cannot keep on doing what we used to do for 30 years."

By this he means it is time to place less emphasis on compromising with Beijing.

"We have been doing things perhaps too much Beijing's way, trying not to offend Beijing, trying compromises. And then we never got it, in 30 years we didn't get it, and now the students have suddenly woken up."

Where next they take this new awakening, though, is still to be determined.

This morning, students removed some of their barricades to allow civil servants into their offices, and children into their schools, thus averting the threat of police action to clear the streets.

It seemed to be a punctuation point in what will be a long struggle.

Student groups continue their occupation of three sites in the city, but their numbers are dwindling, and Hong Kong seems to be working around them, humming back up to its usual frenetic pace after two dramatic weeks of confrontation.

The students and their allies in the Occupy Central Movement have won not even a glimmer of their original demands — a change to China's plan to approve the candidates in Hong Kong's next leadership election, and the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying.

In concrete terms, all they seem to have achieved is the promise of talks about talks with senior government figures.

But that in itself is no small victory.

The huge outpouring of support for the students when they were attacked by the riot police in the early going grabbed the attention of Hong Kong's leaders and their masters in Beijing in a way that Martin Lee's generation never quite did.

The confrontation between idealistic young students and the colossal stubbornness of the Communist Party of China has been seen these past weeks as a struggle between David and Goliath, with the whole world rooting for David.

My instinct, I have to say, is that this is probably one David and Goliath story that ultimately ends with a victory for Goliath. But Martin Lee does not share my pessimism.

"What we are asking for is what we were already promised," he says. "Democracy, human rights and the rule of law. Every country in the world is going in that direction, so even if China is the last  country to get there, it will still eventually get there."

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Patrick Brown

Eye on Asia

Former CBC correspondent Patrick Brown has reported from world capitals and dusty backwaters for over 30 years, with a particular emphasis on Asia, having been based at different times in Bangkok, Delhi and, most recently, Beijing. He now splits his time between Canada and China as an independent documentary-maker. Follow Patrick Brown on Twitter: @truthfromfacts


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