HONG KONG—The pro-democratic billionaire news entrepreneur Jimmy Lai has a bright idea for Communist Party leader Xi Jinping: grant Hong Kong universal suffrage and show the world that he’s not the next Mao Zedong.
Lai outlined the unorthodox proposal to end the political deadlock in Hong Kong in an ad hoc interview granted at his tent in Admiralty, the main occupied zone here, on Monday.
In tattered jeans, sneakers, and a loose white shirt, Lai happily entertained those who poked their head under the shelter he sometimes inhabits. At one point during the interview a colleague handed him a paper cup of tea; he downed it quickly. Jimmy Lai made his first fortune on a clothing retailer, before founding Next Media, which runs websites and newspapers, most notably the combatively pro-democratic Apple Daily.
“A violent crackdown will ruin China as it ruins Hong Kong,” Lai said. “Xi Jinping has started a brutal campaign in China fighting the big tigers—those most powerful rivalries and vested interest groups. Every time he appears on TV, he’s tired. He cannot afford another fight here.”
The solution? “He can give us universal suffrage here and take care of this in three days. What’s the big deal? If he did give this place real universal suffrage, his campaign in China would not seem like he was Mao Zedong reincarnated, concentrating all power on himself, another dictator.”
This would make Xi Jinping seem like an “enlightened leader,” and “people would look at him in a different way.”
Fighting for the Future
Whether the scenario is likely is unclear: in some cases the high-level officials in China pushing a hard line on Hong Kong, like the chair of the National People’s Congress standing committee, Zhang Dejiang, are part of the broad Jiang Zemin camp, which form Xi Jinping’s main force of political resistance.
The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, is also broadly tied with that political network. On the other hand Li Keqiang, China’s premier and Xi’s second-in-charge, sent out a relatively mild message on Hong Kong when asked about it recently. Xi Jinping’s own stance is unclear, though emanations from Beijing are, rightly or wrongly, often interpreted as being in line with Xi’s will.
The way things are going, Chinese leaders will probably have to do something, at some stage, Lai said.
“I don’t think the student leaders have any say about how this movement will end. If the goods are not delivered, this movement is not going to end. These kids are fighting for their own future.”
Since late September tens of thousands of students and young people have taken over busy city streets in Hong Kong, set up information stalls, sound stages, and art installations, and pitched tents while engaging in sometimes pitched battles with police over the control of key roads.
The protesters are demanding the right for Hongkongers to nominate their own candidates for the election of the chief executive, the highest office in the city, rather than be given two or three candidates hand-picked by a coalition loyal to Beijing, as the current arrangements now dictate.
The movement seemed to erupt almost spontaneously around Sept. 28, and went into overdrive that night, after police shocked the city by using tear gas and pepper spray on unarmed students.
Now the encampment sprawls over a 12-lane expressway, and shows few signs of slowing down.
“There’s no compromise these kids know. They’re kids. They don’t know the danger, and they don’t know how to compromise. They don’t think the Chinese will use the same force they used on June 4,” Lai said, referring to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, when hundreds, and possibly thousands, were killed by the Chinese military.
“This is going to be very long term.”
Simply watching the movement unfold and talking to those involved in it has been eye-opening, Lai said.
“I’ve been working in the media for so long, so I’m supposed to understand the people. But I tell you, I don’t. I don’t understand them. Their potential power and fighting spirit is something I’ve just discovered. It’s amazing.”
His own son, who keeps the company of MIT PhDs, and vice presidents of banks and insurance companies, has been in Mong Kok for 12 days with his friends. Mong Kok is the earthier part of Hong Kong, with abundant street food, crowded alleys, and hourly hotels—and stands in contrast to the more genteel encampment in Admiralty, around government buildings and luxury car dealers.
Occupiers there have over the last week begun pitching tents, settling in for a lengthy stay. The people of Mong Kok, though, mostly eschew tents, opting for a thin foam mattress on the road so they can jump up and respond quickly to any police provocation.
“I said, what the hell are you guys doing there?” Lai recounted. “They told me, ‘for us it’s very simple. We only have one choice: either we fight until the last breath we have, and keep this place our home, or we emigrate.'”
In the early hours of Friday morning, police tore through Mong Kok, ripping down the tarpaulins and makeshift bamboo roadblocks set up by protesters. The action seemed aimed at slicing off one limb of the movement and perhaps keeping it contained to just Admiralty. But it didn’t turn out that way.
“Within ten hours of Mong Kok being cleared out, about seven to nine thousand occupied it again,” Lai said. “I was quite shocked by the young people. I told myself that I really have to reassess and understand the Hong Kong people. It shows that the intensity of this movement is limitless. Its depth is bottomless. You never expect people to have such persistence and be so fearless.”
“These kids …” he said, trailing off.
“They were born with Western values, grew up with Western values, and act and understand the world through Western values,” Lai said. “They’re not answering to any leader, but the desperation in their hearts.”
He added that their values—freedom of speech and thought, open government, transparent dealings—could just as well be called universal values.
“The mainland values, mainland controls, political mechanisms—they can’t accept that political system. They can’t accept the mainland value system. They can’t accept the way that things function in the mainland. They just can’t.”
Asked whether he thinks that some younger people worry that a mainlandization of Hong Kong may be afoot, he said: “They don’t worry that it may happen. They feel that it’s going to be. They feel the changes over the last five, ten years, and how Hong Kong is being slowly encroached by the Chinese political and value system.”
Lai continued: “All the momentum and power rests with these students. A lot of people think that after a while it will peter out and thin down, but the reverse is true: the more we fight, the more people understand the ideas and get affected and moved by it, and see the possibility.”
“This is amazing. I’ve only rediscovered Hong Kong in this movement. I didn’t expect this. These kids, they’re the light. And they’re fighting this campaign so fearlessly. How can I understand that?”