Days after the debut of a massive sit-in in Hong Kong calling for genuine democratic elections, Beijing began accusing the grassroots movement of being a color revolution backed by the US government.
Since late September, protesters have camped out in central Hong Kong to demand an open nomination process for candidates in the next election of the city's top leader instead of the mainland's plan for a largely pro-Beijing nominating committee. Pro-democracy group Occupy Central With Love and Peace had planned the sit-in as a last resort if the Hong Kong and Beijing governments refused to bend on the nominating committee despite significant popular support for something more democratic.
At its peak, the sit-in has attracted tens of thousands of participants. The Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, China Daily, has published commentaries since October 4 accusing a small number of instigators of receiving support from the US government and attempting to stage a color revolution in Hong Kong to undermine the central Beijing government's power. The paper further characterized the protests as a “riot” in a front page news feature on October 11.
Color revolution describes a series of peaceful uprisings in countries of the former Soviet Union. The US government has firmly denied the accusation of having a hand in Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement.
Chinese authorities’ use of the term fits with their previously stated belief that Hong Kong conforming to the Beijing-approved election system is an issue of national security. It also implies that it is rather unlikely for China's legislature, the National People Congress, to withdraw or amend the nomination framework set for special administrative region Hong Kong.
Pro-Beijing media in Hong Kong have also spread the conspiracy theory about the US government's role in the Occupy Central protests. In addition to the claim that Hong Kong pan-democrats have a connection with the National Endowment for Democracy, a US-funded organization that promotes democracy and freedom worldwide, the most bizarre smear is the accusation that Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old leader of high school activist group Scholarism, is being cultivated as a political superstar and received combat training from US Marines. Scholarism is one of the leading groups of the protests.
While pro-democracy protesters have treated the rumors as jokes, pro-Beijing lawmakers, who hold the majority in the Hong Kong Legislative Council thanks to the current undemocratic “functional constituency” system, built upon the conspiracy theory of foreign intervention and demanded an investigation into the mobilization behind the Occupy Central protests on October 10.
Some of the evidence of foreign intervention that is being pushed is the abundant supply of resources, such as food, drink, stationary, posters and banners at the protest sites. Blogger Sze Ching Cheun laughed at the claim:
在運動進行得如火如荼之際，建制人士忽然高調重提「外國勢力論」，自然是別有用心，祈望以此打擊運動。[…] 於這場運動中，物資充足竟然被追究為外國勢力侵入的證據。[…]香港人很窮嗎？翻看一些報導，以往各地有天災，香港人的捐款數字驚人，就如四川大地震中，香港民間捐款高達130億。既然如此，捐出兩星期的生活必需品究竟有何困難？[…] 每個人都是各按能力，買了自己的一份，又或多捐幾份，最後集腋成裘，有了現在物資充足的景象。所以，不需外國資金，這些物資香港人還是能夠支付。
As the occupy movement carried on smoothly, the pro-government camp reintroduced the “foreign intervention theory” with the intention of discrediting the protests. […] The abundant supply of resources is now turned into evidence of foreign intervention. […] Are Hong Kong people that poor? Let's check past reports. Whenever there has been a natural disaster, the donations from Hong Kong have always been astonishing. For example, following the Szechuan earthquake [in 2008], donations coming from Hong Kong citizens reached 13 billion Hong Kong dollars [approximately 1.9 billion US dollars] […] Everyone contributes to the protests what they can, so adding that all up means we have an abundant supply of resources. We don't need foreign donations. We can pay for our own resources.
In response to being labeled a color revolution and a riot, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, two key organizations that started a class boycott mid-September, issued an open letter to Chinese President Xi Jingping. In it, they pointed out the antagonism is rooted in the failure of the Hong Kong government to incorporate public opinion in their election reform consultation report:
[…] The consultation report put forward by the Hong Kong government did not genuinely reflect public opinion. It even claimed that Hong Kong people did not want reform the Legislative Council election system, in particular the abolition of functional constituency. The report is disrespectful to the Hong Kong people's political aspirations. The political reform framework set by the Standing Committee of the National Congress of People Representatives was misled by the Hong Kong government's misleading report. If the Hong Kong government is sincere towards its citizens, it has to admit its mistake, correct the report and incorporate the people's aspirations for genuine democracy into the political reform.
The groups further mentioned that citizen nomination is a common practice in the election of local representatives in mainland China, hence the Hong Kong people's demand for citizen nomination is legitimate:
更何況，大陸地方政府也有選民提名，公民提名具法理及現實基礎 […] 香港發展至今的佔領運動，絕非顏色革命，而是港人爭取民主的運動。學生當天領頭罷課，至今佔領不同地方，正因梁振英等人一再逆民意而行。[…] 真普選不代表奪權，只是體現《基本法》所載的高度自治、行政管理權。
The fact that local governments in mainland China also accept citizen nomination has provided both legal and practical foundation for the incorporation of citizen nomination into Hong Kong's election of the chief executive. […] The occupy protests are not a color revolution. It is a campaign calling for democracy. The student class boycotts and the sit-in are reactions to the actions of chief executive CY Leung, among other government officials, that go against the people's will. […] Genuine universal suffrage is not about seizing power [from the central government]; it is the realization off a high degree of autonomy and administrative power as written in the Basic Law.
Szeto Tzelong, an online current affairs commentator, further elaborated on the constitutional ground of citizen nomination presented by the two student activist groups in the open letter and stressed that the Occupy Central protests do not mean to undermine Beijing's authority:
From day one, Umbrella Movement protesters have demanded democratic political reform. This has nothing to do with overthrowing the government in mainland China. “Citizen nomination” and “abolition of Functional Constituency” will not challenge the central government's authority. Even the call for the “withdrawal of the decision made by the National Congress of People's Representatives” is made in accordance with China's Constitution Article 62 Clause 11, which includes in the authority of the National People Congress to power to “amend and withdraw the decision made by the standing committee of the NPC.” […] In mainland China, the local election of people's representatives allows for “voter nomination”. Any citizen who obtains 10 legitimate voters’ nominations can become a candidate. In addition, in mainland China, the role of an “election committee” is purely administrative and does not enjoy the substantive nomination right. According to the principle of “one country, two systems,” the election law in Hong Kong should be more flexible than mainland China. The practice of “citizen nomination” is consistent with the current practice of the elections in the District Council and Legislative Council and by no means violates the law implemented in China. The struggle for “citizen nomination” is just a civil rights movement and has nothing to do with over taking power [from the central government], nor is a [color] revolution.
Teng Biao, a mainland Chinese human right lawyer, however, believes that the fate of Hong Kong and mainland China cannot be detached and the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong will inevitably affect China. He called the dilemma, the unbearable heaviness of revolution:
极权的本质是要控制一切，极权专制之下，不会允许自由制度的存在。让香港人有真正的普选，就是允许专制堤坝出现一个裂缝，这个裂缝将会导致专制的崩溃。[…] 香港人不单是为香港争民主，在客观上也是在为中国争民主。对于本土意识逐渐增强、希望去中国化的香港人来说，这是一个相当吊诡的事实。[…] 现在，香港人承担了不可承受的革命之重，香港人为越来越不认同的那片土地上的人民来争取民主 […]
The nature of dictatorship is to keep everything under control. The authoritarian system will not allow the existence of a free system. It considers genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong to be a crack in the dam, which will eventually lead to the downfall of dictatorship. […] Hong Kong people are not just struggling for their own democracy. The political context has turned their democratic struggle into a struggle for China's democracy. This is a paradoxical reality for Hong Kong people, who have developed very strong local identification and wanted to keep a distance with mainland China. […] The Hong Kong people have taken up the unbearable heaviness of revolution, struggling for democracy for those who live in a piece of land that they do not identify with. […]