For days now, the world’s media has been plastered with images of Hong Kong residents wielding umbrellas in a desperate attempt to ward off tear gas. The protests, led by students and a group known as Occupy Central, started with class boycotts on 22 September; but over the past week they’ve evolved into the peaceful blocking of major roads throughout the city, accompanied by an increase in censorship from Beijing.
The protests seem to have accelerated remarkably quickly. Actually, though, the roots of the dispute stretch back much further than the headlines might suggest.
One Country, Two Systems
The problem goes right back to 1997, when Britain handed the city-state over to Chinese control. The Hong Kong authorities and Beijing agreed upon a “One Country, Two Systems” form of government. Hong Kong would be part of China; but the national government would restrict its control to defence and foreign affairs. Apart from that, Hong Kong would govern itself.
When this agreement was reached, part of the deal was the introduction of universal suffrage by 2017 (to Britain’s shame, Hong Kong has never been fully democratic). Instead of a mayor, the city has a chief executive, elected by a 1,200-member committee drawn from the city’s elite and chosen by powerful interest groups. Since 1997, this has been dominated by a pro-Beijing party.
The result of this settlement is that there’s been no danger of a separatist, pro-democracy leader taking power. This suited Beijing nicely: any move towards independence in Hong Kong would risk encouraging independence movements in other territories like Tibet and Xinjiang.
In August, Beijing announced a reform which would finally allow Hong Kong residents to vote. But there was a catch: only candidates vetted by that same elite committee could stand, and would-be chief executives now need to demonstrate a “love for their country”. Which, one assumes, means mainland China.
A protester stands with his homemade banner. Image: Getty.
In fact, faith in the “one country, two systems” policy was already shaky: according to polling collected by the University of Hong Kong, it’s fallen from 75 per cent in 2007 to 38 per cent today, and many fear that “one country, two systems”, could easily become “one country, one system”.
Now, the protestors are claiming that the proposed new electoral system reneges on China’s promise of local democracy. They’re demanding a change in the policy and the resignation of the current pro-Beijing chief executive, CY Leung. The umbrellas they’re using as defence against tear gas and the island’s thunderstorms have become the symbol of the protests, representing universal suffrage and democracy.
China’s internet censorship doesn’t stretch to Hong Kong. So protestors’ use of Instagram and Twitter (as the BBC put it, there’s an “embarrassment of hashtags” surrounding the protests) shows that the protestors are keen to emphasise the freedoms they have as a result of their semi-separation from the rest of China.
By contrast, Twitter has been blocked on the mainland since 2007; while Instagram was blocked over the past week to prevent images of the protest reaching the mainland. Protesters have also taken to FireChat, a messaging service which uses mesh networking to bypass standard mobile or web networks, and so cannot be censored.
Will it work?
So far, both Beijing and chief executive Leung remain unmoved. The latter has said that the electoral policy will not be changed, the protests are illegal and he will not step down (despite disapproval ratings of 57 per cent even before the protests started). Beijing has warned foreign leaders not to get involved, though that hasn’t stopped some, such as UK deputy prime minister Nick Clegg, from speaking out in favour of the protestors.
Similar tactics have worked in the past. Two years ago, residents held protests when Beijing tried to introduce a patriotic education curriculum in Hong Kong schools; the program was cancelled as a result. That was, however, a much smaller issue – and these protests have gained far more publicity, making any compromise by Beijing more public and therefore (in their eyes, at least) more damaging.
Protesters gather near a National Day ceremony. Image: Getty.
Today is China’s National Day, which means a day off work in Hong Kong, so the numbers of protesters have swelled. Meanwhile, images of CY Leung swigging celebratory champagne at a National Day party are circulating on the internet.
Alex Chow, secretary general of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, has said that the protesters are considering occupying government buildings or calling strikes if CY Leung doesn’t give in. It doesn’t look like either side will be compromising anytime soon.
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