Hong Kong: Clashes break out between pro-democracy protesters and police

With the removal, finally, of protest zones on 25-26 November 2014 in Mong Kok, a densely populated area of Kowloon, occupied by protesters since 28 September, Hong Kong's Federation of Students vowed to continue their actions by concentrating efforts on Government buildings.

The Standard on 28 November was told by Federation member Yvonne Leung Lai-kwok, that "excessive action" by the police – the 3,000 police used their batons very swiftly in Mong Kok – had left them with no choice - "some government-related departments" would also be targeted.

This is despite waning support for the students and their cause. America's Wall Street Journal reported on 26 November:

"Some people praised the police action. A middle-aged woman flashed the thumbs-up sign to officers while others clapped loudly and cheered as taxis and buses drove down Mong Kok's Nathan Road for the first time in weeks," and one 50-year-old man told the reporter that 'This is a public road' and no protester had asked him whether he agreed with their ideas.

Seeking support from the former colonial authority, on Friday 21 November, pro-democracy protesters had handed a petition to the British Consulate. Our Consul General, Caroline Wilson, is a Barrister-at-Law (Middle Temple) and speaks Russian and Mandarin, having been a First Secretary at our Embassy in Beijing between 1997 and 2000, probably found the legal case for their arguments wanting.

This notwithstanding, twenty-one-year-old Daniel Ma, the petition organiser, told The Standard:

"The UK is obligated to solve the problem...Britain bears half of the responsibility as it signed the Joint Declaration (1984)".

The Joint Declaration was an agreement Mr Ma claims, that enshrined rights and freedoms and guaranteed "...the current (1984) social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged" for 50 years following the 1997 handover of sovereignty to China. He claims too, that China breached its side of the bargain as detailed in the Basic Law document.

Mr Ma's case is a weak one because: Hong Kong continues to retain its "social and economic systems" pretty well intact; there was no democratic government in 1984 – Hong Kong's Governors enjoyed absolute executive authority granted under Letters Patent by the Monarch; there was, quite deliberately, imprecise wording in the Joint Declaration to satisfy both signatories; and the PRC's Basic Law was framed within Beijing's Twelve Point Plan.

The latter addressed all the fundamentals with regards to lifestyle and economic system, freedom of religion, speech, press and the like. Indeed, Deng Xiaoping, China's supreme leader at the time, assured everybody "...not to worry down there".

What China's Twelve Point Plan did not grant was democracy and it was plain to all, over years of sometimes acrimonious discussions, that if the British tried to insert a clause on anything that could be construed as a "time bomb", China could/would ignore it.

Are the protesters fearful that a one-party state will change the deal struck on a whim? The National People's Congress (which reviews Hong Kong issues as part of China) simply rubber stamps the decisions of the governing Politburo, and the Basic Law is subordinate to the PRC's Constitution which contains an article prohibiting "subversion against the Central People's Government", liable to a broader interpretation of actions than usual in the West.

Yet for all that and maybe not perfect, Hong Kong enjoys a remarkable degree of democracy and the protests which have disrupted lives for over two months now, centre on a couple of clauses for the election framework of the 2017 Election, together with the selection of the city's Chief Executive, its highest civil office.

That framework was adopted on 31 August by the National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee, which confirmed universal suffrage for the selection of the Chief Executive but advised that nomination for the role "should be restricted to two or three candidates", put forward by "a broadly representative nominating committee". This committee the report states should "be balanced", meet the interests of different sectors of society and "be conducive to the development of the capitalist economy".

Notably, the report states that the duties of the Chief Executive include "the actual need to maintain long-term prosperity and stability of Hong Kong". Wouldn't mind inserting that into the missive for Western leaders!

No surprise then that in answer to Mr Ma, a spokeswoman for the British Consulate told AFP that the accusations that Britain had ignored breaches in the Treaty, Joint Declaration and Basic Law were denied. She went on to say that "...it is these rights and freedoms that underpin Hong Kong's success" and promised continuing committal.

Support for the Occupy Central movement and its offshoots is widely reported to be less than 20 per cent and there is no doubt that the disruption has caused very serious economic damage and is affecting Hong Kong's reputation as a holiday destination.

For most of October my wife and I were on holiday in China. The demonstrations were continually on the news, both on China Central TV's (CCTV) foreign language channels and on its dozens of domestic ones. There was much sympathy for Hong Kong's police in carrying out their duties (and showing much restraint) but no attempt was made to hide the protesters' banners – often in English and Chinese. Dining one evening with a French and Canadian couple, we were all agreed, though obviously not on the protesters' side, the broadcasts were fair and uncensored.

More serious for Hong Kong's economy was a "Travel Warning" issued by TravelChinaGuide through which I had booked our Xi'an to Shanghai flight. "The Occupy Central Protest May Ruin Your Journey in Hong Kong", read the banner headline and it went on to condemn "the worst chaos in decades". The protesters had no right to paralyse core areas of Hong Kong, "harming the social order" – an important clue to Chinese thinking. I ignored the suggestion that "western powers" could be behind this in an attempt to destabilise China's affairs (though it did happen in the past).

Hong Kong International Airport, which handles 60 million passengers annually, and the city's Tourist Information, very quickly had notices, still current, assuring travellers that the city is safe, measures are in place to offset the worst bottlenecks and to use the Mass Transit Railway.

Why should this matter? The biggest sector of Hong Kong's economy is Services (93 per cent) and Wholesale, retail, restaurants and hotels account for over 53 per cent of the workforce. In 2001 about 4.5 million tourists came from the PRC; by 2008 about 11 million PRC tourists arrived by air.

In 2012, nearly 35 million tourists from PRC arrived in Hong Kong, easily outnumbering visitors from all other destinations combined. And, generally, they are big spenders, sometimes accounting for up to 97 per cent of customers in high-end gold, jewellery and watch stores. No need to say that many of these stores are to be found where the protest hotspots take place.

China stopped sending tour groups to Hong Kong in late September. One local banker remarked that Hong Kong will revert to normal once the tourists return.

Let's hope for Hong Kong's sake President Xi Jinping lets them return.