Justice and Peace: Occupy Central increases the dignity and political consciousness of Hong Kong
by Mary Yuen Mee-yin*
Mary Yuen, a member of the Vatican Council for Justice and Peace, shows the reasons and the strength of the pro-democracy movement that has occupied for weeks some streets in central Hong Kong. The inspiration is obviously nonviolent and Christian. The sit-in is a meeting place, study, and debate. For Hong Kong, it is a new era of political consciousness, solidarity, and commitment to social justice. Protesters are willing to dialogue, not to overthrow the authority.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) -  Tens of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets to demand democracy in the past few weeks. The fire of tear gas by the police astonished the world. From student strike to mass assembly outside the government headquarters, to the escalation as a Occupy Movement after the use of tear gas, and tenacious resistance of the protesters even in the face of violence and abuse of police power- all these show the fortitude and persistence of the participants of the pro-democratic movement or Occupy Movement. Such social movement has not been seen in the past 30 years in Hong Kong. The problems involved are not only legal and political, but also moral and ethical.

The starting point of the movement was the one-week long college students strike, initiated by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, in response to the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress' decision on electoral reform. The decision implies that only those candidates Beijing has approved can contest the post of Hong Kong's Chief Executive. This is done through a small circle election committee and only members of this committee can nominate candidates. However, the federation, like many Hong Kong people, insists that a high degree of autonomous rule and "one country, two system" should be maintained. The students call for an election system that can reflect authentic democracy; citizens can nominate candidates, not only cast vote on the designated candidates of the Chief Executive.

The turnout of 13,000 students gathered in the Chinese University of Hong Kong on September 22, the first day of class boycott, was far more than expected, showing the strong support from students in striving for true democracy. Following was the one-day class boycott of secondary school students organized by the Scholarism, a secondary school students association. The students' boycott was seen as a prelude to a larger demonstration planned for October 1, organized by pro-democracy group Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which has vowed to block the financial district as a civil disobedience action.

Police violence

Several incidents evoked a large number of people went to the street. The trigger point of the first round of large-scale protest was the unreasonable detention of the 17-year old student leader Joshua Wong and two other student leaders, after their arrest for breaking in the Civic Square on September 26. Civic Square is a public place in front of the government headquarters at Admiralty, near Central, but was closed down for security reason. About 30 students were arrested but then released except the three student leaders. Thousands of people, or ordinary citizens, went to the government headquarters in support of the students, demanding their release, out of a sense of protecting the young students. Thus, the two students groups play a key role in the pro-democratic movement.

The second incident is the employment of tear gas on September 28 to disperse armless people gathered on the street. The police claimed that they fired tear smoke canisters 87 times. This led to a public outcry of using excessive violence by the police and the government. Many people joined the protest out of anger and a sense of justice, thus, developing into a citywide occupy movement, called by western media as "umbrella revolution." Since then, umbrella became the symbol of resistance because protestors used umbrellas to resist pepper spray from the police. Local people would prefer to call it "umbrella movement" as the word "revolution" denotes overthrowing the existing ruling government, which is not the goal of the protesters. Moreover, revolution is an extremely sensitive word in the eyes of the Beijing government.

As the movement proceeded, people started going back to their normal life for work and school. However, violence erupted in another occupied area in Mong Kok, a crowded district. The refusal of the police to protect the protesters pushed more people to come back to the various occupied area. In Mong Kok, some gangsters destroyed properties of the protesters, beat up protesters, and sexually harassed female protesters, though there were other gangsters who tried to protect the protesters. The alleged conniving behavior of the police to allow gangsters disturbing the protesters in the occupied area ignited resentment among the public. On October 4, 100,000 people gathered in the largest occupied area in Admiralty where the government office locates for an anti-violence assembly.

In the face of such critical situation, student leaders asked for dialogue with the government officials. However, the government insisted to set a condition for a dialogue, which is that the National People's Congress Standing Committee's decision on electoral reform must be adhered to - a condition unacceptable to the Federation of Students. Later, considering the demand of some people in opening up the roads in the occupied area, some student leaders and some Occupy protesters suggested to the government to reopen the Civic Square in exchange for their withdrawal from Queensway, a busy road in the Admiralty occupied area. Again, the government quickly turn down the suggestion, showing the unwillingness of the government to listen to people or to communicate with people, not to mention to negotiate with the protesters in solving the impasse.

All these recent factors contributed to the existing situation-more and more people join or support the occupy movement, division of the society in support of or against the movement, forcing the whole society on the edge of a breakdown.

Democracy and justice

Behind these recent factors are the underlying long-term problems that bring forth the movement. Universal suffrage and authentic democracy is regarded as a tool behind the movement. The ultimate goal is to establish a fair and just system so that everyone can enjoy his or her basic rights with human dignity. For a long time, Hong Kong has faced problems such as big gap between the rich and the poor, high housing costs which cause social and economic suffering for the majority of middle and lower classes, property developer cartel-hegemony increases social and economic unfairness, and the domination of property developers and their working partners in the Legislative Council and Election Committee who have power to elect the Chief Executive. The demand for authentic democracy in electing the Chief Executive and all members of Legislative Council is to make sure that the political structure can reflect the interest of all classes of people, not merely the privileged class. In addition, the national education issue, the television license issue, the increasing tourists and immigrants from mainland China, which create social problems, and increasing corruption among government officials, add fuel to dissatisfaction towards the government. All these can be heard when you walk in the occupied area and listen to the stories and opinions of the occupiers and supporters.

With the above immediate and underlying causes, the protesters requested the government to restart the consultation of political reform, an apology from the government about the use of excessive tear gas, the reopening of the Civic Square for people to express opinions in this public place, and the accountability of the government officials when they did something wrong. If the government refuse all these requests, this crisis would not be able to solve. Even if the government choose to employ violent force to terminate the occupy movement, people will come back again in the future and the society cannot be in peace.

In this movement, the determination of young people and occupiers is shown. They will not withdraw easily. They do not want the future political leaders are just puppets of the Beijing government. They do not want Hong Kong to be just another city of China, people without Hong Kong identity with the core values they treasure. Young people are fighting for their own future; older generation are fighting for their own children and the next generation.

Occupy and Christians

As a Hong Kong Christian, I think several concepts in the Catholic social thought can help us to reflect the pro-democratic movement and the present situation:

1. Conscience and civil disobedience. Some people criticized the occupiers who break the law and occupy the public roads illegally. It is true that the action of occupying public roads is illegal and the occupiers may be prosecuted, having to shoulder legal responsibility. In fact, from the very beginning, the Occupy Movement and the students claim that their actions are based on the principle of civil disobedience. They understand that their actions may entail high cost but they intend to challenge the unjust law and policy, hoping to arouse the consciousness of Hong Kong people. They are willing to take responsibility and even sacrifice their future.

In the Catholic teaching, it is stated in a Vatican II document that "When citizens are under the oppression of a public authority which oversteps its competence, they should still not refuse to give or to do what is objectively demanded of them by the common good; but it is legitimate for them to defend their own rights and those of their citizens against the abuse of this authority within the limits of the natural law and the Law of the Gospel" (Gaudium et Spes, n.74). The Catechism elaborates that "The citizen is obliged in conscience not to follow the directives of civil authorities when they are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or the teachings of the Gospel. Refusing obedience to civil authorities, when their demands are contrary to those of an upright conscience, finds its justification in the distinction between serving God and serving the political community" (CCC, n.2242). In Catholic tradition, conscience refers to "a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he/she is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all one says and does, the human person is obliged to follow faithfully what one knows to be just and right" (CCC, n.1778).

Conscience enables one to assume responsibility for the acts performed. The dignity of the human person implies and requires uprightness of moral conscience. I believe that the large majority of the protesters and occupiers know what values they are fighting for. They want to protect the values of justice, equality, rule of law according to their conscience. They argue that not all law are just law. They believe that they have responsibility and also ability to change the society into a better one. Since in the past, many different ways have been employed to strive for democracy, the students and the occupiers think that a more progressive or radical way has to be employed.

2. Common good. Not everyone agree the strategy of employing civil disobedience as a means to strive for democracy and justice. As the impasse continues, some people even criticize the road blockades are seriously affecting people's daily lives and even their livelihood, not to mention the business of shopkeepers. Some are dissatisfied that commuters travelling to and from school or work are put to enormous trouble. It is true that inconveniences are created but many people still continue to support the students and protesters. This is because the supporters understand and appreciate that what the students and protesters are fighting for is for the goodness of the whole society, not for their personal interest. They sacrifice their normal life and stay days and nights in the occupied area in order to seek for the government's and people's attention to hear their voices. It is believed that authentic democracy can correct some of the existing unjust problems, including the unbalanced political structure that benefits mostly the privileged class and neglects the marginalized.

In Catholic tradition, common good is an important theme of social teaching, as a goal and vision of a society. By common good is to be understood "the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfilment more fully and more easily (Gaudium et Spes, n.26). The common good concerns the life of all. It presupposes respect for the person, respecting the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person by the public authorities. It requires the social well-being and development of the society as a whole, not only certain groups. It also requires peace, that is, the stability and security of a just order. By peace, it does not refer to superficial peace but peace with justice.

In the view of this principle, the vision and spirit behind the movement should be appreciated, even though one may not agree with the strategy. However, it is true that the occupation of various busy roads cause complaints. The occupiers should consider seriously how to achieve their goal without losing the hearts of the general public when affecting the livelihood of some people.

3. Solidarity and love. In Catholic social teaching, solidarity provides an appealing understanding of Christian relationship to others in this interdependent world because it brings together elements of love and justice. Solidarity is a willingness to be in the world and live among people, experience the poverty of the poor, be sympathetic to the suffering, speak out against injustice, support those who are oppressed, preach freedom to the captives, and so on. Solidarity must be practiced between individuals, professions, classes, communities, and nations. It translates into the willingness to give oneself for the good of one's neighbour, beyond any individual or particular interest.

Some young people who join the movement may not be supported by their parents and have to face enormous pressure. But they want to tell their parents that they join the movement out of love and justice, loving their society and the people; creating a society with justice. The Occupy Movement also emphasizes love and peace, never use violent means to achieve their goal. As the former Jesuit Father General Pedro Arrupe said, "To be just, it is not enough to refrain from injustice. One must go further and refuse to play its game, substituting love for self-interest as the driving force of society."

Among the supporters, many are moved by the determination, discipline, and the spirit of solidarity among the young people and other protesters. If you take a walk around the occupied area, you will see young people running around, distributing food and drink to other people. In times of tension, they distributed surgical masks, wrapping paper, and umbrellas. They also pick up litter and sort out the recyclables. Off-duty doctors, surgeons and nurses as well as volunteers from St John's Ambulance and Red Cross help out in an unofficial capacity. The students and pro-democracy protesters have created a clean, safe and orderly protest camp. We can see the occupiers or protesters are helping each other and in solidarity. They keep themselves calm and peaceful. They are often reminded "to avoid physical confrontation, as well as to avoid developing hatred in heart." When anti-occupiers disturb the protesters, the latter would sing songs or chant slogan of "keeping calm" to calm down those who created tension. Moreover, apart from protest actions, the everyday lives activities in the occupied area include studying and reading, attending forum and listening to lectures, managing the public area, sharing stories. It has become a neighbourhood, which values relationship, love, and solidarity.

4. Dialogue.  Among the Asian Church teaching, dialogue often refers to dialogue with other religions, other cultures, and the poor. Dialogue is important in understanding each other on an equal base through communication. Dialogue also indicates both sides are willing to settle the differences or impasse through peaceful means with sincere listening. Any kind of violence from the police, the government, and the protesters should be avoided. In the present situation, dialogue between the protesters and the government is imperative.

In the past few weeks, both sides claimed that the other side insisted on their stances and unwilling to compromise. The Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, the government, and the police have declared in strong words their determination to take firm action against those who set up barricades on the roads. Some protesters also insist that they would not withdraw from the occupied area. Although dialogue between them was called off by both sides before, student protesters indicated a number of times that they are willing to conduct dialogue with the government. They showed sincerity through opening up part of the walkways to the government headquarters and roads for trams. Recently, there is a news about the reopening of dialogue as someone acts as mediator. I hope this dialogue can open a space of sincere conversation and the political deadlock can end in peace rather than conflict.

There is new development about the Occupy Movement every day. Different from the early stage, the present movement is a citywide movement with many protesters went to the streets without affiliation with the two student organizations or the original Occupy Central Movement. Some declared that these three groups cannot represent them. This may create difficulties in reaching consensus but also encourage creativity and initiatives. The result of this movement is difficult to foresee but it is sure that this generation of young people who experience the movement has become more mature and know the values that they are seeking for. Hong Kong is still full of hope when we see the commitment, critical thinking, and sacrificial spirit of the young generation.

* Member of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace