Dispatch

G Is for Grab Bag

On the march with the motley crew of G-8 protesters in Belfast.

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — Maria Lourenco traveled from London to Belfast for Saturday's demonstration against the G8 summit in Northern Ireland. Wearing a harlequin green hat and intermittently blowing on a whistle, she marched down Royal Avenue holding a homemade banner that read: "Sorry for the inconvenience we are trying to change the world."

It was a suitably tongue-in-cheek message for a good-natured if soggy day out in Northern Ireland's capital, ahead of the meeting of world leaders which began on Monday about 75 miles away, at a golf resort on the banks of Lough Erne in rural county Fermanagh. The devolved Northern Ireland government is hoping that the summit will showcase the region internationally, but for many protesters this weekend was an opportunity to have their voices heard -- although, at times, the din of local politics threatened to drown out them out.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland, not exactly inexperienced at dealing with large, rowdy demos, had warned of swarms of protesters descending on the streets of Belfast for the trade union-organized Big March for a Fairer World, evoking memories of clashes between police and protesters ahead of the G8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, in 2005. But the hordes never materialized: most estimates put the number of marchers in Belfast on Saturday at around 1,500 to 2,000.

The rain did little to dampen the spirits of the jazz band that played "Ain't Misbehavin'" as the eclectic crowd set off from Belfast's Custom House Square a little past noon on Saturday. Among a sea of slogans and placards were men in lurid orange jumpsuits protesting U.S. President Barack Obama's failure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center; communists marched behind a banner demanding "Workers of All Countries Unite!" Other protesters walked in solidarity with the crowds in Istanbul, calling for Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo?an to step down. There were also some local concerns on display. Five middle-aged protesters solemnly carried a banner in memory of the 1971 Ballymurphy Massacre, in which 11 civilians were killed by the British Army in West Belfast over the course of three days.

While Northern Ireland is relatively peaceful these days, recent months have brought an uptick in the region's long-simmering sectarian tensions, with bomb threats, attacks on police, and tense demonstrations raising fears of a return to the bad old days of the Troubles. Dropping one of the world's most high-profile summits into the middle of this combustible mix seemed like it could have been an invitation for Northern Ireland's various political actors to take advantage of a rare global spotlight.

And yet banners for Sinn Fein, the Irish nationalist party that fought the British state for 30 years and now shares power with pro-London unionists at the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont, were conspicuous by their absence. Once known as the political branch of the Irish Republican Army, Sinn Fein leaders, including former militants like Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness, have tacked to the center since entering government, sometimes to the frustration of their longtime supporters. The G8 has proved problematic for Sinn Fein, however: though its leaders have welcomed the summit, many rank-and-file are opposed. Some notable Sinn Fein figures were among the marchers, including former Lord Mayor of Belfast Niall Ó Donnghaile. Sinn Fein is, after all, still a very left-wing party and many of its members are opposed to U.S. foreign policy and free trade.

At the rear of the march, members of Eirigi, a splinter republican group that opposes the peace process in Northern Ireland, demanded "Imperialists out of Ireland." Rows of police in bulletproof vests and special G8 caps watched on silently, occasionally flanked by bemused-looking shoppers. Security forces adduced the potential for dissident republican violence for Saturday's heavy police presence -- anti-ceasefire republicans have become increasingly active; in March, for instance, police in Derry intercepted a van with four live mortar bombs. 

An extra 3,600 police have been shipped in from the rest of Britain for the summit, in what has been billed as the biggest policing operation in the history of Northern Ireland. As the march passed peacefully on the ground, helicopters buzzed overhead. Armored Land Rovers lined the streets around Belfast City Hall. Nearby, four armed police stood guard outside a Starbucks. "There's more police here than protesters," said one anti-capitalist activist who asked not to be named.

While clashes between police and black-masked anarchists have become a fixture of global summit meetings, when the police in Belfast were called into action this weekend, they were dealing not with anti-G8 demonstrators but with local loyalists, as those who support British rule over Northern Ireland are known. Since the end of last year, loyalists have been protesting a decision by Belfast City Council to fly the Union flag from City Hall on designated days, rather than all-year-round as was protocol previously. Decreasing numbers of loyalist protesters have attended the weekly Saturday vigil outside the gates of City Hall, but on Saturday around 100 gathered again. (Unfortunately for the optics, the Union Jack actually did happen to be flying over City Hall during their demonstration.)   

As the Big March for a Fairer World reached its end at City Hall, loyalists were heard shouting "Ulster is British" and singing "The Billy Boys," a football fight song with sectarian connotations sung to the old U.S. Civil War tune, "Marching Through Georgia." But these groups had little sympathy for the rest of the crowds on the streets of Belfast. Loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson, who was present on Saturday, said some loyalists saw the anti-G8 protests as "anti-British" and wanted to be sure they were there to make their presence known.

Police worked to separate loyalists from anti-G8 demonstrations as Pamela Dooley, chair of the Northern Ireland committee of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which organized Saturday's march, and who took the stage to tell demonstrators that the protest was a defining moment in history. "As we meet here today, over one billion people on the planet are living in extreme poverty and are facing starvation, malnutrition, and early death," she said.

Despite Saturday's tension, the mere fact that the G8 summit is taking place in Northern Ireland -- even surrounded by miles of barbed-wire security fence in a remote part of the country -- attests to how much has changed since the Troubles ended. Just four miles away from the Lough Erne resort where Barack Obama, David Cameron, and other world leaders are meeting is the market town of Enniskillen. Here, in 1987, a massive IRA bomb killed 11 observers at a Remembrance Sunday ceremony.

The visiting world leaders have not ignored the symbolic significance of the meeting's setting. On Monday, in a speech delivered at Belfast's Waterfront Hall, Obama hailed Northern Ireland's peace process as a "blueprint" for conflicts around the world. The U.S. president acknowledged that tensions remain between nationalists and unionists, particularly in deprived parts of the country. "The terms of peace may be negotiated by political leaders, but the fate of peace is up to each of us," he said.

Peace -- and security -- have dominated discussions in Northern Ireland ahead of the G8, largely drowning out policy concerns. "From the very beginning, the G8 was treated like we had got the Oscars. Visiting politicians have been treated like celebrities, and the narrative has all been about how do we protect them," said Niall Bakewell, Northern Ireland activism coordinator with the environmental group Friends of the Earth. Dr Jonny Byrne, a lecturer in the school of criminology, politics, and social policy at the University of Ulster, agreed, noting that "the security around the G8 and subsequent policing of the protests has drowned out the real issues under discussion in terms of tax and Syria."

The days ahead should provide an opportunity for such debates, with indications that both Syria and tax evasion will feature prominently at this year's summit. One issue, with both local and global implications, that campaigners had been hoping to put on the public agenda ahead of the G8 is fracking. Fermanagh, where the summit is being held, has emerged as the battleground between opponents and supporters of the controversial mining technique in Ireland.

On Saturday, Bakewell and other environmentalists walked behind a purpose-built model of a fracking drill hole. While attempts to frack elsewhere on the island have largely come to standstill, Australian exploration company Tamboran Resources has a license to drill for gas in Fermanagh, just a few miles from where the summit is taking place. Tamboran is expected to start fracking operations there next year, with many fearful that the anticipated 1800 well bores could ruin the picturesque county.

The Northern Irish government has regularly cited tourism as a major argument in favor of hosting the G8 summit. Earlier this month, North Ireland's minister for enterprise, trade and investment, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party, told students in Enniskillen that "this historic event will be a catalyst in the ongoing development of Fermanagh as an immensely attractive and high quality destination to visit in Northern Ireland." With unemployment above the British average and vacancy rates in shops among the highest in the country, the region needs any boost it can get. But few seem so sure of the summit's tourist potential. "Who books their holidays based on where the G8 was?" asked Bakewell. "Nobody, that's who."

This week may be unlikely to provide a significant economic boost to Northern Ireland, but its political leaders will hope to bask in the afterglow of an orderly, peaceful event long after the G8 wagons leave town -- so long as the locals cooperate.

PAUL ELLIS/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

'Freedom' Island

Is Hong Kong free, or does Beijing really call the shots?

HONG KONG — The flight of a government whistle-blower -- or possible fugitive from justice -- to the quasi-democratic Chinese enclave of Hong Kong has given this former British colony a bit of free PR. Edward Snowden, the self-proclaimed leaker of classified documents about the National Security Agency's PRISM data-collection program, praised Hong Kong for its "strong tradition of free speech" in a video posted on the Guardian's website. "I believe the Hong Kong government is actually independent in relation to a lot of other leading Western governments," the seemingly unperturbed 29-year-old said. (On Monday, as the U.S. Department of Justice began preparing charges against him, Snowden checked out of his hotel. According to an interview today, he is still in Hong Kong, where he hopes to remain indefinitely.)

While noting the advantages this relatively unrestricted entrepôt offers over the autocratic mainland (Hong Kong, for instance, is not behind the Great Firewall, China's notorious web filtering system), Snowden -- perhaps revealingly -- did not suggest that it was independent from China. Indeed, despite having its own local political structure with a professional, non-politicized bureaucracy, a vocal, market-oriented media, and "long tradition of protesting in the streets," as Snowden put it, Hong Kong does not really enjoy the high level of autonomy it was promised in the Basic Law, which is the closest thing the special administrative region has to a constitution. "It is apparent that Hong Kong's autonomy is being eroded like a frog in slow boiling water," says Yew Chiew Ping, co-editor of a new book, Hong Kong Under Chinese Rule. "Some even said the water has reached boiling point."

As the world's attention briefly turns to this tiny corner of the Middle Kingdom, it's perhaps worth asking the question: Who calls the shots in Asia's Gotham City?

Like the gambling Mecca of Macau, Hong Kong enjoys a special status in China. "One country, two systems" is the oft-repeated mantra, first expounded by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s. But the two systems Deng was referring to were economic: capitalism vs. socialism. Initially, notes Bo Zhiyue, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, the idea was "politically, there should be no distinction." Yet today Hong Kong and the mainland resemble each other more economically than they do politically. Hong Kong remains an oasis of political freedom inside the world's largest authoritarian state, in part, because it is a testing ground for democratic reform and a "showcase" for Taiwan, which China also claims as its territory.

The Basic Law -- drafted in Beijing, and passed by China's rubber stamp parliament, the National People's Congress (NPC) in 1990 -- makes the central government responsible for foreign affairs and defense, but everything else is up to the local government, which operates more like a liberal democracy than Beijing -- think Singapore, for example. Unlike the mainland, where the Communist Party is supreme in all branches of government, Hong Kong has a genuine separation of powers: an appointed chief executive, a partially elected legislative council, and an independent judiciary. Yet, while the central government tries to maintain the appearance of a hands-off approach, it is still a hovering presence, speaking softly and carrying a big stick.

This unique system, so far, has guaranteed relatively robust freedom of expression, comparable with the West. As Snowden noted, there are regular political demonstrations here. Hong Kong's "Occupy Central" outlasted Occupy Wall Street by almost a year. Meanwhile, just last week, more than 50,000 people showed up for an annual vigil commemorating the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen Square massacre. Subjects that are taboo in the mainland are fair game here. Hongkongers have protection from a legal system Hong Kong inherited from the British. "It's not for them [the government] to decide if the court will sentence us to jail," says "Long Hair" Leung Kwok-hung, a radical legislator known for his waist-length hair and signature Che Guevara t-shirts, and who is occasionally arrested for breaching the Public Order Ordinance by blocking traffic during protests. "It's for the prosecution. They cannot order someone to send me to jail. In Hong Kong it's different, still."

But this political setup also created a relatively weak government -- "a thoroughly democratic society coupled with a non-democratic state," as local commentator Alex Lo notes. The legislature is a democratic-corporatist hybrid, where only half the legislators are elected, and the rest represent various interest groups, including the financial industry, labor, and the real estate and construction sectors. Meanwhile, the chief executive is currently selected by an "election committee" of 1,200 notables, and is ultimately accountable to Beijing, instead of to Hongkongers (one reason, perhaps, why the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, gave his 2012 acceptance speech in Mandarin -- the mainland dialect -- instead of local Cantonese). Beijing gets to formally appoint the person selected by the committee, and it has the power to reject the choice or remove the chief executive from power.

The "debilitating disconnect" between the legislature and the executive branch -- as Hong Kong politician Regina Ip put it -- can create gridlock, in particular because the chief executive cannot be a member of any party. "It's very confusing, but from Beijing's perspective, it's good," says Bo. Without local unity, there's no space for an anti-Beijing consensus to develop. But Beijing still tries to act judiciously. "If they're getting too much involved in the selection process," says Bo, "then people get annoyed."

But that doesn't mean Beijing doesn't try. During the 2012 chief executive "election," a politician revealed that the central government's Liaison Office -- Beijing's official organ in Hong Kong -- was trying to persuade some members of the election committee to switch support from one pre-approved candidate to the other, after he gained more favor in Beijing. Soon after, the Liaison Office, which is housed in an otherwise drab tower crowned by an ominous black orb, was also accused of pressuring the media to stop reporting negative news about the favored candidate.  "They cannot do it openly," says Bo. "The Liaison Office gets the blame, but the Hong Kong people know it's the national leaders."

That said, Beijing isn't interested in micro-management. Officials "tend to get in involved in personnel issues," says Bo. "They tend not to get involved in details." But they still have wide-ranging powers, which are only occasionally invoked, usually to postpone universal suffrage. In 2004, in the wake of mass protests against an anti-sedition law proposed by then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa that raised fears about the erosion of political protections, the NPC unilaterally re-interpreted the Basic Law -- which originally permitted universal suffrage to start as early as 2007 -- to rule it out until 2012. (Later that was extended to 2017.) "They have the trump card, always," says Long Hair, the pro-democracy legislator. "It is not interference. It's control."

Such overt meddling in Hong Kong affairs -- legal, but heavy-handed -- not only galvanized the democracy movement, but also backfired in another, indirect way: Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian partially credited his 2004 re-election to the "total failure" of "one country, two systems" in Hong Kong. It's little wonder, then, that the central government prefers subtler methods of exerting influence over Hong Kong. Beijing often tries to shape debate, through propaganda aimed at Hong Kongers -- sometimes directly through media such as the state newswire Xinhua, but also through proxies such as pro-Beijing legislators and newspapers, which often parrot talking points -- as well as through pronouncements from the mountaintop.

At the end of March of this year, a representative from Beijing invited pro-Beijing lawmakers for a closed-door chat across the border in Shenzhen, where he reiterated an oft-stated position: that only a patriot can become chief executive. In the government's coded language, that means someone loyal to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In the upcoming 2017 chief executive election, which is expected to involve universal suffrage for the first time, Beijing could potentially disqualify candidates who don't fit that requirement -- a bit like the mullahs of Iran. Or perhaps it won't have to: The more power Beijing has, the less it needs to use it. Everybody can read the writing on the wall.

In fact, the signs of Beijing's influence are everywhere. Whether it's a patriotic education curriculum exalting the CCP -- that led to street protests last year -- or the occasional deportation of Falun Gong members, it's clear that Hong Kong is guided by Beijing's ethos if not directly taking orders. When revered Hong Kong democracy activist Szeto Wah died in 2011, for example, Hong Kong authorities denied two activists -- both of whom had been student leaders during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests -- entry to attend his funeral. Mainland authorities insisted Hong Kong has the right to handle its own entry requests, but as Albert Ho, leader of Hong Kong's Democratic Party noted at the time, "We have every reason to believe this decision was not made by the Hong Kong government alone."

Other reminders of the mainland's raw power are invisible. China's military, the People's Liberation Army, tasked by the Basic Law with keeping public order -- "when necessary" -- quietly maintains a barracks next door to City Hall. In tense political moments, meanwhile, Hongkongers are often reminded of where their water supply comes from -- across the border in mainland China -- a fact that was also used as leverage in negotiations with the British. But perhaps Beijing's greatest asset is the underground Communist Party in Hong Kong. Even 16 years after the handover, Party membership is still secret, meaning nobody knows who in the government may indeed be taking direct orders from Beijing. The president of the legislature himself, Jasper Tsang, has refused to disclose whether he's a Party member, although Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has denied being one. As former legislator Christine Loh notes in her book Underground Front, the Party has tried to co-opt Hong Kong's elites the same way the British did. "The CCP essentially decided to retain the colonial system because it was a tried and tested way to maintain central control," she writes.

None of this has been lost on the people of Hong Kong -- especially those in the pro-democracy camp. In 2010, when a loose coalition of pro-democracy politicians known as the pan-democrats reached an impasse with Chief Executive Donald Tsang over political reforms, the largest coalition member, the Democratic Party, went over his head to Beijing. (The compromise barely advanced their cause, to the consternation of their allies.) "Everybody knows Beijing holds the key," said Allen Lee, a veteran pro-Beijing lawmaker, at the time. "Do you think pan-democrats still want to talk to Bowtie in the future when they need to negotiate for something?" he said, referring to Tsang by a nickname his fondness for flamboyant neckwear earned him. Similarly, in May, the local media reported that Beijing was preparing a "Plan B" to remove the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, whose short tenure has been mired in scandal. Even though mainland authorities denied the rumor, it would be entirely within their power to replace him, regardless of Hong Kong's supposed "high level of autonomy." 

When it comes to Snowden's case, however, Beijing's behind-the-scenes power may have little relevance. Hong Kong has an extradition treaty with the United States, and it would damage bilateral relations between the United States and China if Beijing tried to invoke its right to block an extradition on national security grounds. Assuming Snowden really did act alone, and China was not involved in the leak, then the mainland government would be playing with fire if it tried to exploit him. Since Snowden has said he has no desire to sell out his country, the only guarantee would be a vociferous objection by the United States. A spat over Chen Guangcheng, the blind human rights activist who sought refuge in the U.S. embassy in Beijing and was eventually given permission to study in the United States, is one thing. A diplomatic war over a potential espionage case is another.

Already, however, the usual gang of local activists, including Long Hair, has begun organizing a march with the slogans "protect Snowden" and "no extradition." The government of Hong Kong might not be all that autonomous, but the people certainly are.

ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images