On October 1, the sixty-fifth anniversary of the founding of the Peoples’ Republic of China (PRC) and a national holiday, the streets of Hong Kong rang with dissent. Crowds turned out to stage the largest pro-democracy rally the city has ever seen. The images of the protests broadcast from Hong Kong stand in stark contrast to the scenes of violence that took place a few days earlier on September 28, when police intensified their crackdown on the protesters. Officials have set a Monday deadline for police to be able to access the government headquarters, which is currently blocked by protesters. The current conflict over the future of Hong Kong’s chief executive is the result of decades-long political developments. Just how did events reach this point? Who are the protesters? And what results can we expect to come from the crisis at hand?
Origins of the Conflict
On July 1, 1997, the United Kingdom handed back Hong Kong to the Peoples’ Republic of China. The Joint Declaration laid the foundation for the “one country, two systems” model of governance. This model allows the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) a “ high degree of autonomy” from Beijing for fifty years after the transfer of power. As a result, Hong Kong citizens have certain rights—such as the freedom of speech, assembly, and universal suffrage—that are otherwise restricted in the PRC.
The Joint Declaration also created the HKSAR’s de facto constitution. It states, “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage.” Currently, the chief executive is elected by a 1,200-member government committee, but the Chinese government has promised the direct election of the chief executive by 2017.
On August 31, 2014, the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in Beijing set the stage for the ongoing protests. The Standing Committee ruled that the voters of Hong Kong will be restricted to choosing between two or three candidates for chief executive selected by a special nominating committee. This “broadly representative” body would match the composition of the current 1,200-member panel that selects the chief executive, and would largely be made up of pro-Beijing representatives.
The Umbrella Revolution
Pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong believe this nominating committee will bar any candidates that Beijing disapproves of and cripple the power of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage. The largest of these pro-democracy groups, Occupy Central, is leading protests against the Standing Committee’s decision. The group has been demonstrating for free and open elections since the beginning of the summer. Hong Kong University law professor Benny Tai leads the group. Tai is dedicated to maintaining nonviolent civil disobedience while demanding universal suffrage and, more recently, the resignation of C. Y. Leung—the current chief executive.
Student demonstrators stand alongside Occupy Central in its mission of civil disobedience. One group, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, staged class-boycotts on September 22, with several thousand university students gathering outside government buildings in central Hong Kong. The crowds swelled to the tens of thousands over the week as the movement spread. “We are doing well, but Hong Kong is not,” said Kayee Lee, a friend of the writer and a student protester from Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Lee has been demonstrating in the streets since late September. “The Chinese government is trying to deprive us of the right of electing the chief executive. So we are going on a peaceful strike, protesting for true democracy.”
This peaceful strike took a violent turn on Sunday when police fired tear gas and pepper spray at the protesters. Students used makeshift umbrella-shields (now a symbol for the movement) and lab goggle-plastic wrap masks to hold their position on the main thoroughfare. Following a global media outcry, the Hong Kong police toned down their use of force over the next few days. Indeed, the protests of recent days have been marked for their civility. “I feel like one big family protecting our home, our people,” said Lee. “There were food, water and a first-aid station. Not one car was burnt, not one glass was broken. The protesters collect and recycle trash. There was no irrational behavior, none.”
In addition, the demographic composition of the protesters is changing. Academics, members of older generations, industry professionals, and lawmakers are coming out to support their younger peers. This shift is notable because there has traditionally been an ideological gap between the post-Tiananmen generation and their elders with a different understanding of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) power.
To a great extent, however, this gap is still present. While 7.2 million people live in the HKSAR, protests have been limited to the tens of thousands. Many older Hong Kong citizens worry about the economic impact of the protests, especially in their effect on the traditionally steady business confidence in the HKSAR. Lee says that it is not uncommon for young people to be stopped from joining the demonstrations by their parents, who don’t share their children’s views. In addition, counter-protest groups such as the Silent Majority have staged rare pro-Beijing rallies in recent months.
Shadows of Tiananmen
With the crowds assembled on Wednesday and this past weekend, the protesters’ demands have been clearly stated: oust C. Y. Leung and force Beijing’s hand to grant true universal suffrage.
It is unlikely that the protests will yield immediate reforms. Politicians standing alongside the demonstrators are in the minority and pro-democracy parties don’t have much say in legislative policymaking. Mr. Leung himself said that even if Hong Kong politicians wanted to change the current policy, they have no influence over the decisions made in Beijing. There is no direct influence from Hong Kong (either from demonstrators or politicians) on the NPC’s actions, as the CCP retains ultimate authority over the HKSAR. This interpretation of the “one country, two systems” doctrine was articulated in a June white paper written in Beijing.
The larger threat to Beijing lies in the mainland. As reports of the Hong Kong demonstrations spread, officials in Beijing have become rightly concerned that the seeds of dissent might be planted outside of the HKSAR. Regions like Tibet and Xinjiang, already known for their unrest, could see escalated anti-government movements if communities become motivated by the so-called “Umbrella Revolution.” As a result, the state has cracked down on the spread of information from Hong Kong to the mainland. To a significant extent, they have been successful in this endeavor. State-run media have formally denounced the Hong Kong demonstrations, altered reports to make the 10/1 protests appear as a celebration of National Day, and blocked Instagram alongside other Western social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
This strategy still leaves the CCP in a predicament. On one hand, too soft of a response could elicit copycat campaigns in the rest of China. On the other hand, a Tiananmen-style crackdown would raise an international outcry. But just how much damage would such outcry have on the PRC? The US and other Western nations have lent their ideological support to the protesters and would certainly condemn any use of violence, but little else could be done. China evaded severe punishment in 1989, and its geopolitical power is much greater today than it was twenty-five years ago. At this point, it can at least be said that the Hong Kong protests still have the potential to become a highly volatile situation.
Some say that the protesters’ demands are unrealistic. Tangible outcomes are becoming a secondary concern to the protesters. Jennifer Chan, a Hong Kong national studying at Oxford, told the writer that the movement is, “at its core, an assertion of ideological consciousness.”
Even if no meaningful policy comes from the protests, the number of demonstrators that came is significant. “A lot of us see this as an assertion of regional identity,” says Chan. “In fact for a lot of people this 'regional' identity of being a 'Hong Kong-er' overrides the sense of national identity as a 'Chinese' person.” These shifts in attitude will set the stage for Hong Kong politics in the coming decades, leading up to the reintegration of the city in 2047. Today’s eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds will be 2047’s fifty-one- to fifty-seven-year-old political leaders. As the population ages, the long-term effects of this movement will see the expansion of the cultural gap between Hong Kong and the Beijing-administered mainland.