Hong Kong Activists Welcome Oscar Mention by Selma Songwriters

2015-02-24
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Musicians Common (L) and John Legend (R) accept the Best Original Song Award at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 22, 2015.
Musicians Common (L) and John Legend (R) accept the Best Original Song Award at the Academy Awards in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 22, 2015.
Getty Images North America/AFP

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong and China on Tuesday welcomed a rare mention at the Oscars by the winners of an award linked to the Martin Luther King biopic "Selma."

Singers Common and John Legend made specific mention of the Occupy Central movement as they collected their Oscar after a live performance of the movie's theme song "Glory" that bagged them the award.

The song contains a reference to a bridge where a 1965 march led by Martin Luther King spurred national support for the Voting Rights Act in the United States.

"The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to those in Hong Kong protesting for democracy," Common said, accepting the award.

"This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated with love for all human beings."

Legend added: "We wrote this for a film that happened 50 years ago, but the struggle for justice [is] right now."

"When people are marching with our song, we want to tell you, we are with you. We see you. We love you, and march on. God bless you," he said.

Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong, who heads the academic activist group Scholarism, said Hong Kongers could learn much from the movie.

"The movie gives a realistic portrait of Martin Luther King without idealizing him too much," Wong told RFA on Tuesday. "He faced conflict at home, differences of opinion with his fellow activists, and between different groups [fighting for civil liberties]."

"There are a few similarities with the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong."

Indecision, debate

Hong Kong's Occupy Central movement for universal suffrage began on Sept. 28 with clashes with riot police wielding tear gas, batons, and pepper spray, prompting hundreds of thousands of citizens to pour onto the streets of the former British colony at the movement's height.

The umbrellas protesters used to shield themselves from pepper spray gave the movement, which occupied major highways in Hong Kong for 79 days before being cleared away by police, its name.

However, the movement was also riven at times with apparent indecision and long-winded debate, as more radical protesters pushed for a more confrontational approach to put pressure on Beijing to change its mind over its election reform plans, amid growing counterprotests and public anger over disruptions to businesses and transportation routes.

The older generation of academics who initiated the movement took a back seat as the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism took charge amid mass popular protests, encampments, and political rallies that captured world headlines for weeks on end.

But differences of opinion emerged over whether and how to further escalate protests, and Wong and four other students began a hunger strike which they abandoned on medical advice after a few days.

Benny Tai, one of the original Occupy Central founders, said the comparison between the U.S. civil rights movement and the Umbrella Movement was apt.

"The movie shows the struggle of Martin Luther King for equal voting rights, which has a lot of similarities with the desire of Hong Kong people for universal suffrage in recent years," Tai wrote on his Facebook page after the Oscar ceremony.

Global talking point


Political affairs commentator Poon Siu-to said the songwriters' comments showed that Hong Kong is still a global talking point.

"This can only be good for Hong Kong," Poon said. "There is no downside."

"Internationally, we can see that Hong Kong is still a hot issue, and we know that no matter what happens, for better or worse, the international community will be watching," he said.

"This will be helpful to preserving the 'one country, two systems' concept, because at least it will put a certain pressure on Beijing, so that they can't act rashly or in an unconsidered manner [in Hong Kong]," he said.

Under the terms of the 1997 handover to Beijing, Hong Kong was promised universal suffrage, the continuation of its existing freedoms, and a "high degree of autonomy."

But an Aug. 31 ruling by China's parliament said that while all of the city's five million registered voters will be allowed to cast a ballot in the 2017 elections for the next chief executive, they will only be able to choose among candidates vetted by Beijing.

Pan-democratic politicians and Occupy campaigners dismissed the ruling as "fake universal suffrage," as it will likely exclude popular pan-democratic politicians, and called on the authorities to allow some form of public nomination.

Both Beijing and Hong Kong officials have said the policy will not change, however.

'Impossible to hide'

Across the internal border in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong, independent author Xu Lin said China's state-run media had largely ignored Legend's comments.

"The Oscars are an award of global importance, something that everyone pays great attention to every year, so the media can't avoid it," Xu said.

"But they always edit out any comments in award-winners' acceptance speeches that might reflect badly on the [ruling] Chinese Communist Party," he said.

But he said the complex system of blocks, filters, and human censorship known as the Great Firewall is still circumventable by more technically minded Web users.

"A lot of people will have gone over the Wall, or they will have got the news via other channels, so it's impossible for them to hide it entirely," Xu said.

"It is a cause for celebration that the Hong Kong Occupy Central movement is winning international support," he added.

Reported by Lin Jing for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Yang Fan for the Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.

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