Tension is mounting in Hong Kong, where the massive student-led democracy protests known as the “umbrella revolution” that have paralyzed its central business district are drawing comparisons to the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
The mass civil disobedience comes in response to the Chinese government’s announcement in August that the territory’s first-ever election of its chief executive in 2017 would be held only with Beijing’s approved candidates on the ballot.
“They want one person, one vote,” says Attar Hussain, director of the Asia Research Center at the London School of Economics. “And, it would be one person one vote, but the people who will stand for, as a candidate, will have to be first approved by the Beijing government, and that’s a non-democratic aspect.”
The move was a breaking point for young people already fed up with Beijing’s handpicked chief executive for Hong Kong, CY Leung, and with China’s slow constriction of democratic freedoms in the former British colony.
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Beijing has diminished “Hong Kong’s press freedom, it has intervened in our election of the chief executive,” says Ming Sing, a professor who researches politics at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. “Leung was widely regarded as a China supporter for Beijing’s policy. Beijing has also…intervened in many other domestic policies.”
Suspicion of Beijing is grounded in Hong Kong’s history. When the United Kingdom first agreed to transfer Hong Kong to China in 1984, the two countries signed an agreement that stipulated that Hong Kong be granted universal suffrage. That was buttressed in 1990, says Ming, by a “mini-constitution” known as the Basic Law, which states that when the time is right, Hong Kong’s chief executive should be elected by the people.
When the territory was formally handed over from the United Kingdom to Beijing in 1997, it was under the “One Country, Two Systems” doctrine. Hong Kong could keep its independent judiciary, free press and capitalist system even while operating as a part of Communist-ruled China. That agreement is set to expire in 2047.
Seventeen years later, Hong Kong is no closer to freely electing its own leader. “People have been waiting for that to happen for nearly 30 years,” says Sing. “Beijing has tried to delay it again and again by using all kinds of pretexts.”
Although Hong Kong has strengthened its ties to mainland China since the end of British rule –more mainland Chinese students now enroll in Hong Kong universities than locals and Mandarin has overtaken English as a second language to Cantonese—there are still important differences.
Hong Kong’s GDP per capita in 2013 of $38,124 is more than five times that of the Chinese mainland, according to the World Bank. Despite recent encroachments, its citizens still enjoy greater civil liberties than those on the mainland. Those include rights to assemble, access to Internet sites blocked in China and media outlets less fettered by the central government.
Hong Kong’s status as a financial center makes it important economically to China—and any violent crackdown on protesters could send foreign businesses fleeing as well as dissidents.
“In a way it seems sometimes Hong Kong is like the jewel in the crown for the Chinese mainland state by virtue of the fact that it’s such a lucrative city,” says Sam Wild, a freelance journalist who recently filmed a documentary exploring Hong Kong’s governance. “It brings in so much money and the Chinese mainland officials accept that with that comes this limited democratic model, so I don’t know how much they want to disrupt that.”
But the continuing protests pose a larger risk to the Chinese Communist Party—that students on the mainland may begin emulating their counterparts in Hong Kong. In an effort to keep the protests from spreading, China has censored social media, banned Instagram, and blocked Chinese internet searches for the equivalent of “umbrella revolution”—a moniker derived from the student protesters use of umbrellas to shield themselves from police-fired tear gas.
To date the media blackout has proven largely effective. But keeping demonstrations of 200,000 people hidden from view indefinitely is a tall task even for China’s extensive media surveillance apparatus. Artists in a small village outside Beijing were caught planning a demonstration and quickly blocked by officials, the BBC reported Oct. 2. Mainland tourists to Hong Kong have been provided with an unusual glimpse of civil disobedience directed at their government.
Much may depend on what the student leaders of the protest movement do next. Some hardliners have been advocating for a more aggressive approach, while others for a pause to recuperate.
“Should the hardliners win the upper hand, they may try to storm some buildings to maintain the momentum of the movement because they realize the danger if they do nothing and just sit there,” says Sing. “Another possibility is some scholars and some movement activists would like the students to have a tactical retreat try to tune down the aggressiveness in order to recuperate. If this is going to happen the movement may [go on] a bit longer.”
With Tatiana Darie and Anna Kowalska
News graphic by Bita Eghbali