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China: Whither the Umbrella Revolution?

Young students of Hong Kong and their supporters captured the world’s attention as they fostered a “David vs. Goliath” showdown with the ruling dictatorship of mainland China in September. Armed not with slings but umbrellas to defend themselves from tear gas attacks, they occupied part of Hong Kong’s business district to protest Beijing’s control of the island’s 2017 elections. While their choice of weapon led to their uprising being tagged the “Umbrella Revolution,” the student leadership prefer their “the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement” name. It stresses the nonviolent nature of their civil disobedience and reflects that a major part of Occupy Central’s leadership are Christian activists, including 17-year-old Joshua Wong – leader of the major student group. The Occupy Central movement also drew significant support from Cardinal Joseph Zen, who has headed the island’s Catholic community for over a decade and long spoken out against human rights abuses in China.

Chinese ‘democracy’
The Occupy Movement’s focus was the Chinese leadership’s seeming disregard of its 1997 commitment, made when the British surrendered its lease of the island to Beijing. The Hong Kong Basic Law governing the island since the mainland takeover enshrines the “one country, two systems” principle. Hong Kong is part of China, but its people enjoy significantly more electoral freedom than those on the mainland and are able to continue a capitalist economy. While the Hong Kong people do have more electoral freedom than those on the mainland, Beijing was not prepared to enable unfettered universal suffrage for the 2017 election. It decided that the candidates for the island’s Chief Executive post must be approved by Beijing, and, upon election, be appointed to the office by Beijing. The Occupy Movement said such control would be undemocratic, and so it set out to force the Chinese leadership to relent and leave the Chief Executive election unencumbered with such restraint.

When Chinese authorities tried to remove protestors support only grew, with up to 100,000 people at times surging to occupy Hong Kong’s central core. With international support growing for the Occupy Central movement, the Chinese dictatorship apparently changed tactics; Goliath withdrew from the Valley of Elah. However, Beijing did not withdraw in defeat. It has not agreed to election process changes; instead, it seems to be ignoring the still-strong protests. By ignoring them and not engaging in any public negotiations with the occupation’s leadership, the Umbrella Revolution has been disarmed. That, together with the Islamic State’s barbarism in the Middle East, Russia’s occupation of eastern Ukraine and Ebola’s spread in Africa, the Occupy Central with Peace and Love movement has all but disappeared from the news.

Coffee and state secrets
While China’s kid glove approach with Occupy Central appears to be working in Beijing’s favour, the government still uses a heavy hand when it thinks that is necessary. In July, Canada singled out Chinese state-sponsored hackers for attacking a key computer network at our National Research Council. Shortly after, the Chinese government, in apparent retaliation, detained Kevin and Julia Garratt, who, according to China’s Foreign Ministry, are suspected of spying in China “and engaging in activities that endanger China’s national security.” The Garratts have for years operated a coffee shop in Dandong, China near the North Korean border. Openly Christian, the Garratts had been welcoming fellow Chinese Christians to their homes for services, which were never disrupted prior to Canada’s accusation of Chinese government hacking. Although the Garratts do have contact with Canadian consular officials, there is no due process for them to address, from their perspective, the unfounded accusations against them.

Trade and money talks
Against this background, Prime Minister Harper recently led a high level business delegation to China. Although he never raised human rights issues publicly, Harper stated that he did raise them, and the plight of the Garratts, in private meetings with Chinese officials. The purpose of the visit was all about trade, not defending human rights. The Prime Minister’s website lists a cornucopia of over 20 commercial agreements between Chinese businesses (many of which are state controlled) and Canadian companies. They include transportation-focused projects, like Air Canada’s potential $500 million, multi-year partnership with Air China, and a $1 billion contract to sell Canadian-built Bombardier aircraft to China Express Airline. Some agreements must be welcomed because they focus on China’s need to improve its environment, including Candu Nuclear sales; a commitment by Cansolv Shell Beijing, a Quebec-based company, to provide sulfur emission reduction technology; and assistance from Green Power Labs, based in Nova Scotia, to develop solar energy projects. There is a billion dollar canola export agreement with an Ontario-based producer. There is an educational agreement involving the University of Alberta and an economic development agreement with the Vancouver Economic Commission. And, most importantly, China is committed to creating a currency hub in Canada. This will ease the trade in Chinese yuan and Canadian dollars, further strengthening trade with the Asian superpower.

While in China, Harper took time to meet with Jack Ma, the head of Alibaba, which in its Initial Public Offering (IPO) raised over $25 billion on the stock exchange. Alibaba taps into the growing Chinese consumer market through online purchasing, which it hopes to expand worldwide. Canadian producers could enter the massive Chinese marker through this outlet. For example, Mr. Ma indicated to Prime Minister Harper that he would like to tap into Canada’s cherry production as he understood that Canada’s cherries were better than those from Washington state, Alibaba’s current supplier. It would mean B.C. grown cherries would move from supplying millions of Canadians to supplying hundreds of millions of buyers. B.C. cherry growers would love the opportunity.

Human rights take a back seat
The Canadian mission to China did not kick the issue of the Chinese dictatorship’s poor human rights record out of the airplane, but it certainly was moved to the back corner. A Canadian business executive, in a television interview, stated that Canada should not question China’s authority to do what it wants within its borders. The list of trade accomplishments, for which the Prime Minister will take much credit, overshadows the underlying distrust of China. Protestors protecting democracy and coffee shop owners operating a small business cannot interfere with what could be a major economic development platform in the next federal election.

China may never need to arrest the Occupy Central protestors. Their international support is vastly diminished, and the majority in Hong Kong now wants the occupation to end. Beijing is not likely to agree to any compromise with the weakened protest. Beijing’s focus is clearly on continuing to strengthen China’s economic clout in the rest of the world. Occupy Central protestors may have little choice but to fold up their umbrellas and go home.

  • Mike Wevers, retired from Alberta’s public service, will be enjoying Chinese mandarins this Christmas, as B.C. cherries are out of season!

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