For the past week, Hong Kong has been the center of the biggest challenge against the Chinese central government since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. Thousands of Hong Kong citizens have taken part in rallies across the island, demanding the Chinese government allow open nominations for the 2017 chief executive elections. Given that this will be the first time in history that Hong Kongers are allowed to vote for their main representative, guaranteeing a real democratic process is of vital importance for the activists. While many have praised the democratic movement for its idealism, its peacefulness and its orderly organization, others believe that the polarization of the population in Hong Kong, along with Beijing’s refusal to change its policy, will lead to the protests achieving little at best, and resulting in violent clashes at worst.
On August 31, the Chinese government in Beijing stated that, while Hong Kong citizens will be allowed to democratically elect their Chief Executive in the 2017 elections, all candidates will require the approval of at least half of the existing 1,200-strong elections committee. The committee, which has been in charge of selecting Hong Kong’s chief executives since 1997, is comprised of legislative representatives as well as representatives from different professional industry sectors, social services and labor associations, and representatives of the Chinese government.
Even though the required approval of the nomination committee is also outlined in Article 45 of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini-constitution as a special administrative region,) current protestors have rejected this system as an attempt from Beijing to implement “fake democracy” in the island. Since many consider the elections committee to be largely dominated by pro-Beijing groups, they argue that the current procedure would give Beijing effective veto power over Hong Kong elections. In other words, the elections would allow Hong Kongers to choose the candidate they desire, provided that the Chinese government chooses them first. Thus, from the protestors’ perspective, “the 2017 elections would be democracy with participation but without competition, which is no democracy at all.”
As a consequence of popular dissatisfaction with the political arrangements for the upcoming elections, several student groups began organizing strikes and boycotts of class in their universities at the end of September. Then, the “#OccupyCentral” group (led by HKU Law Professor Benny Tai) began a coordinated protest in the island’s central financial district, where they have been based since September 28. While the protests attracted several thousand during the first days, the arrest of 17-year-old high school student Joshua Wong (the high-profile head of the pro-democracy student organization “Scholarism”), as well as the police’s use of pepper spray and tear gas against peaceful protestors, resulted in an outpouring of anger and support for the protestors as tens of thousands of more Hong Kongers flooded the streets.
The stated goals of the protests have evolved in the past few days, shifting from requesting the Chinese government honor universal suffrage in the 2017 elections, to demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying, accused by some of being a “Chinese proxy”.
The legitimacy of the protester’s first request is backed by the results of an unofficial referendum organized by #OccupyCentral in June, asking the Hong Kong public how nominees should be selected for the elections of 2017. Out of almost 800,000 votes (1/5 of the total registered voters,) 42 percent of them expressed that the public should have a greater say in the nomination process.
Regarding the second request, the accusations of C.Y. Leung serving Beijing’s interests before those of the Hong Kong people is a clear indication of the underlying fear over the future of the “one country, two systems” model, which has defined Hong Kong-China relationships since the handover from Great Britain in 1997. The attacks against journalists and freedom of expression in Hong Kong (which I addressed in an earlier article) and the growing influx of Mainland Chinese into the region, have resulted in many Hong Kongers worrying about the autonomy of the island. Even though public pressure has successfully fought off several Beijing-lead initiatives, including the proposed “patriotic education” reform, many Hong Kongers fear Beijing’s ever-growing involvement with the city’s affairs. .
Despite the fact that the Chinese government has dismissed the possibility of open nomination, declaring it inconsistent with the Basic Law, and C.Y. Leung’s refusal to step down, the participation in the protests has remained consistently strong. Up until the past few days, there was a common perception that progress was being made. In fact, pro-democracy groups had initially agreed to engage in talks with government representatives this weekend.
Unfortunately, after the violent clashes between Occupy supporters and pro-Beijing activists Friday, the protestors called off the talks with the government officials. According to them, government-sponsored groups infiltrated into the movement and attacked the peaceful demonstrators, while the police just watched. Additionally, Amnesty International has released a report of anti-protesting groups sexually harassing women, while the media has blamed triad gangs for the violence. “The government has not kept its promise,” pro-democracy leaders stated, “and therefore we have no choice but to shelve the talks.”
While the exertion of violence against pacific activists is obviously unacceptable, it is interesting to consider the fact that many Hong Kong citizens not only disapprove of the protests, but also actively support the ruling of the Chinese government regarding the chief executive elections. Some Hong Kongers prioritize maintaining a good relationship with China for the sake of the island’s economy and national unity, while others point to the fact that the protests have so far costed Hong Kong over $2 billion HKD ( about $250 million USD) For many, their view is articulated by the South China Morning Post: “On the road to democracy, progress is always preferable to a standstill.”
The Occupy movement, however, has already had an impact in the region as a whole. Taiwan has become increasingly suspicious of the growing influence of China in its economy (as I have previously written about here and here,) and Taiwanese-Chinese relations have been strained by the protests, taken as a sign by an already wary Taiwan that China doesn’t want cooperation, it wants submission. Though the Chinese government has, thus far, resisted taking extreme measures against the protests, it is impossible not to draw parallels with the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Twenty-five years later, it is now the turn of Chinese President Xi Jinping to face a pro-democratic student movement, and many wait with trepidation for China’s next move.
The Umbrella Revolution, as it has come to be known, is an ongoing movement, and its rapid development makes speculation about even the next few days, let alone the next weeks, a near impossibility. However, there is no doubt that the movement will have significant historical and political implications in the region. While opposition to the protests may be growing, the Hong Kong government enjoys even less support. While the increasingly politicized police force has been largely unable to quell the protests, ultimately though, it is the polarized nature of Hong Kong society that has threatened to destroy the Occupy movement from within. Even though the fear of another Tiananmen is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, it will not matter that the whole world is watching, as the movement seems set to be destroyed by the growing divide within Hong Kong itself.