Three years after Occupy Wall Street burst on the scene in downtown Manhattan, the most vibrant Occupy-style movement is no longer in New York, Oakland, London or Madrid but in Hong Kong. Now, a new phase of the movement, “Occupy Central,” is about to unleash a wave of occupations of public space to demand greater democracy in the city.
Since returning to Chinese rule in 1997, the official policy of “one country, two systems” has allowed Hong Kong to continue to operate with its own political and legal institutions. Although the territory never enjoyed full democracy under British rule, the central government in Beijing promised Hong Kong universal suffrage as part of the handover.
But at the end of this August, the National People’s Congress did just what many democracy activists in Hong Kong have feared, ruling that there would be no civic nomination for chief executive elections in 2017. Rather, all candidates must first be approved by a nomination committee of political and economic elites, most of which are directly selected by Beijing.
In response, Occupy Central is now preparing to follow through on its long-standing threat to stage mass sit-ins in the city’s central business district to demand real democracy. Benny Tai, a key leader of the movement, has declared an “era of civil disobedience” in Hong Kong.
In many ways, Occupy Central seems hardly connected to its symbolic progenitor on the other side of the Pacific. Indeed, the movement is demanding an expansion of precisely the kind of electoral system that Occupy Wall Street condemned for being hopelessly corrupted by money and corporate influence. Students in Hong Kong are working closely with established political parties, and the movement even enjoys support from some individuals from the financial sector.
But underlying these important differences there is a common theme: anger over the inability of anyone except the super-wealthy to have a voice in politics.
Long hailed by conservatives in the West as a bastion of free markets and free enterprise, Hong Kong in 2011 had a Gini coefficient of .537—making it perhaps the most unequal developed economy in the world. Hong Kong recently crushed the competition to come in first in The Economist’s “crony-capitalism index.”