Protest-for-Pay and Occupy Central with Love and Peace

by Michelle Bovée

When the words “anti-Occupy Central protest” popped up, I briefly flashed back to the “Occupy Wall Street” heyday of 2011 and 2012, when the protests drew 24-hour news coverage and the Occupy movement spread rapidly across discontented American—and later international—cities.  Though a part of the broader “Occupy” family, this latest iteration to hit the headlines has a much different flavor than its American predecessors.

Occupy Central with Peace and Love refers to Central, Hong Kong, otherwise known as the city’s financial center, and is focused on neither economic disparity nor the tyrannical rule of the 1%; rather, it aims to bring democracy—true democracy—to Hong Kong, which has been a part of China since 1997.

Recently, the Chinese government released a white paper stating that despite the famous “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong does not have “full autonomy” and still falls under Beijing’s careful oversight.  This announcement was closely followed by another Beijing proclamation, this one concerning the rapidly-approaching 2017 Chief Executive election: all candidates must “love the country and love Hong Kong,” thus reducing democratic freedom of choice by limiting the pool of available candidates to only those who are pro-Beijing.

Occupy Central responded by staging a large protest on July 1st, drawing an estimated 98,600 people, and threatening to hold a future sit-in to shut down the economic center of the city.  The Anti-Occupy Central counter-protest (“anti-protest protest”) took place on August 17th and reportedly drew around 111,000 marchers, though Beijing has been accused of boosting turnout through bribery.  Reports on local television channels revealed scenes of marchers being handed about US$50 by Chinese government officials, being given free lunches at nearby restaurants, and even being brought in from across the border on tour buses.

Though the Chinese government is denying these allegations, being paid by a state government to protest certainly would set an interesting precedent.  It isn’t hard to imagine this concept being adopted in other countries: Russia paying sympathetic forces to march in Ukraine, for example, or the North Korean government bribing citizens to hold anti-Western marches, doesn’t seem outside the realm of possibility. 

The larger issue at stake is not “protest-for-pay,” however—though it is amusing.  Rather, the question is whether or not it is viable to hold a city’s economy hostage by shutting down its financial hub in exchange for increased autonomy.  Critics are already warning that if the sit-in takes place, the city could lose its status as China’s top financial center. Indeed, the Hang Seng index has dropped dramatically following worries of instability.

The larger issue at stake is not “protest-for-pay,” however—though it is amusing. Critics are already warning that if the sit-in takes place, the city could lose its status as China’s top financial center.

Hong Kong is one of the most economically liberal regions in China and has historically been treated as a trading partner rather than a part of the state, but it has already begun to lose ground to fellow powerhouses like Shanghai and Singapore.  If Hong Kong falls further behind because the financial center is paralyzed and investors fear political instability, the city could lose a major bargaining chip with Beijing: it will no longer be a valuable financial hub in Asia.

Across the globe, people are taking to the streets and fighting for free, democratic elections—but is the loss of economic stability and future growth too high a cost?  Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive seems to think so, but then again, it’s hard to say he was truly democratically elected.

His perspective may differ from that of the average Hong Kong citizen: the middle class, still anxious about disrupting business, may not be entirely on board with the protestors either, but the Occupy supporters are undeterred.  When Beijing announced that only two or three candidates will be allowed to run in 2017, and must be approved by a nominating committee, they took to the streets once more in a dramatic protest, and again promised to shut down the financial center of the city.

Michelle Bovée is a staff writer for Charged Affairs.