Hong Kong Rocked With Protests As China Tries To Limit Political Rights

The streets of Hong Kong have been filled with protesters upset over China's efforts to control the city's political future.

Hong Kong Protests

When China and the United Kingdom came to an agreement on the status of Hong Kong before the turn of the century and the end of Britain’s right to control the city under a treaty, one of the terms of that agreement was that Beijing would allow free elections in the city, which has largely been allowed to govern itself over the past 15 years, by 2017. Recently, however, the Chinese have been sending signals that they have quite a different idea of “free elections” than the people of Hong Kong do, specifically that only people approved by Beijing would be allowed to put themselves up for office. The reaction to this has been, to say the least, quite negative among the people of Hong Kong who have taken to the streets in increasing numbers over the past several weeks in protest that haven’t gotten much attention in the U.S. until now. On Sunday, for example, police used tear gas and rubber bullets fired into the air to disperse crowds, an effort that largely failed and only seems to have angered the protesters even more because they’re back on the streets again today:

HONG KONG — A wave of protest in Hong Kong extended into the working week on Monday as thousands of residents defied a government call to abandon street blockades across the city, students boycotted classes and the city’s influential bar association added to condemnation of a police crackdown on protesters a day earlier.

The continued public resistance underscored the difficulties that the Hong Kong government faces in defusing widespread anger that erupted on Sunday, after the police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up a three-day sit-in by students and other residents demanding democratic elections in the semiautonomous Chinese territory.

On Monday afternoon, the Hong Kong government canceled the city’s annual fireworks show to mark China’s National Day, which falls on Wednesday — an implicit acknowledgment that officials expect the protests to continue for days.

he police crackdown Sunday not only failed to dislodge protesters from a major thoroughfare in the heart of Hong Kong but appeared Monday to have motivated more people to join the student-led protests. A government announcement that the riot police had been withdrawn from the protest centers also seemed to open the door to growing demonstrations. The number of protesters, which had ebbed overnight, swelled again by midday Monday, as office workers in slacks and dress shirts mixed with crowds of students in black T-shirts.

Many of the new arrivals said they were angered by the police’s actions on Sunday, which they called excessive.

“This morning I was happy to see that they stayed and insisted on continuing the protest,” said Cindy Sun, a 30-year-old bank worker who joined protesters in the Admiralty district during her lunch hour.

“What they were doing was not appropriate, especially the tear gas,” she said. “The students were completely peaceful.”

Chloe Wong, 46, a mother of two, said she was inspired to join the protesters in Admiralty by the scenes of tear gas being fired the day before. She said she could only find time to participate for an hour but wanted to show her support.

“The protesters, they are so young,” she said. “They are fighting for our future, for my children’s future.”

Demonstrators were also blocking major streets in the busy shopping district of Causeway Bay and in Mongkok in Kowloon, one of the world’s most densely packed places.

(…)

The protesters are calling for fully democratic elections for the city’s leader, the chief executive, in 2017. Hong Kong, a former British colony that was returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, had been promised universal suffrage by that date. But under China’s plan for conducting those elections, only candidates vetted by a Beijing-friendly committee would be allowed to run.

Alison Fung, a magazine editor who said she had been at the Admiralty sit-in since Sunday night, said that she and other demonstrators were angered by what she called the “wordplay” used to present China’s election proposal as a democratic advance.

“Probably about 10 years ago, Hong Kong was not so concerned about politics,” Ms. Fung said Monday. “But we want a more fair election so we can decide our own future. People feel that our opinions aren’t listened to.”

The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the organizations leading the protests, called Sunday night for an indefinite student strike. On Monday, images of students holding gatherings at their schools in lieu of classes, many of them wearing black in support of the protests, could be seen on social media and in local news reports.

In another indication that the protests could broaden, the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union called Sunday for a general strike by teachers in the city. The organization, which has around 90,000 members, called the police “enemies of the people” and said they had used “ruthless force” against unarmed civilians.

There have been inevitable comparisons between these protests and the Tiananmen Square protests in June 1989, which seems appropriate given the fact that both sets of protests have the demand for political reform at their roots. One significant difference, of course, is the fact that Hong Kong has a long history of political independence that has largely continued even in the 17 years since the Chinese took control of the city back form the British. Because of this, one imagines that residents of the city have gotten used to the idea that they are, in some sense at least, politically separate from the rest of China even though this belief may seem incredibly naive given the fact that the Chinese could easily impose its will on Hong Kong if it wanted to. Added to that history of greater political autonomy, of course, is the commitment that the Chinese made to allow free elections in Hong Kong within 20 years after taking over control. The fact that the Chinese now appear to be trying to back out of that promise by limiting the choices that will be available to voters and placing other restrictions on the elections that seem designed to ensure continued Chinese control of the city and temper any ambitions for similar elections in other parts of the country obviously isn’t sitting well with city residents who have taken to the streets and, interestingly, adopted the “Hands up, don’t shoot” stance used last month by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, which if nothing else is a sign of just how widely events can resonate around the world in today’s digital age.

It’s hard to tell where all of this will lead. To date, the protests have become larger and larger and what started out as mainly something led by students is now being joined by other members of Hong Kong’s population, which is of course something that happened during the Tiananmen Square protests as well. The difference this time is that it seems unlikely to me that the Chinese would be likely to adopt the same hard line tactics that they did in 25 years ago. For one thing, times have changed significantly in China in those two and a half decades. The People’s Republic is both more prosperous and more interconnected with the world than it was back then, the kind of heavy handed crackdown we saw in 1989 would have wider international political, diplomatic, and economic consequences that the Chinese leadership, notorious for not wanting to rock the boat if it isn’t necessary, would probably rather avoid. Secondly, Hong Kong isn’t just another Chinese city, it is a major business and financial hub and a major source of revenue for Beijing. Continued unrest, followed by some kind of violent crackdown, would have huge repercussions. Already, the protests and the actions of the police have rattled markets in Hong Kong itself and in Europe, and that seems likely to continue if unrest grows. All that being said, of course, if the protests continue or spin out of control, there’s no telling what the Chinese leaders might decide to do if their backs are up against the wall or the protests threaten to inspire similar movements in other Chinese cities.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. The difference this time is that it seems unlikely to me that the Chinese would be likely to adopt the same hard line tactics that they did in 25 years ago.

    What did you base this conclusion on?

  2. The People’s Republic is both more prosperous and more interconnected with the world than it was back then, the kind of heavy handed crackdown we saw in 1989 would have wider international political, diplomatic, and economic consequences that the Chinese leadership, notorious for not wanting to rock the boat if it isn’t necessary, would probably rather avoid.

    There’s just such a heavy handed crackdown going on right now in the Xinjang region, and no one seems to care.

  3. @Stormy Dragon:

    Because Xinjang is not Hong Kong. Totally different issues and circumstances.

  4. Robert in HK says:

    I just got back from the office in Central HK – what struck me, beyond how massive the crowd felt, was how orderly it was. Admittedly I haven’t seen many similar event, but there was almost no police in sight, and the protesters appeared to be policing themselves, making sure they didn’t pass over certain areas for example.

    Another thing is that I’ve two friends from the mainland studying here for college and graduate school – both are protesting and have changed their Facebook profiles to represent this. I imagine this is the larger concern for Beijing, that the protests spread to the Mainland.

  5. Dave D says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    interestingly, adopted the “Hands up, don’t shoot” stance used last month by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, which if nothing else is a sign of just how widely events can resonate around the world in today’s digital age.

    I’ve seen this disputed

    Most Hong Kong protesters aren’t purposefully mimicking “hands up, don’t shoot,”as some have suggested. Instead, the gesture is a result of training and instructions from protest leaders, who have told demonstrators to raise their hands with palms forward to signal their peaceful intentions to police.
    Asked about any link between the gesture and Ferguson, Icy Ng, a 22-year-old design student at Hong Kong Polytechnic University said, “I don’t think so. We have our hands up for showing both the police and media that we have no weapons in our hands.” Ng had not heard of the Ferguson protests. Another demonstrator, with the pro-democracy group Occupy Central, Ellie Ng said the gesture had nothing to do with Ferguson and is intended to demonstrate that “Hong Kong protesters are peaceful, unarmed, and mild.”

  6. Dave D says:

    Student Protests and organizations have been very important in the recent history of China. The amount of new schools and a surge in intellectuals led to the founding of the Revive China Society and the Xinhai Revolution that deposed the Qing Emperor. And the Cultural Revolution and the Red Guard were led by students. Never underestimate a large group of angry young people.

  7. KM says:

    @Doug:

    interestingly, adopted the “Hands up, don’t shoot” stance used last month by protesters in Ferguson, Missouri, which if nothing else is a sign of just how widely events can resonate around the world in today’s digital age.

    It’s fascinating to see a symbol of the fight against racism and police violence in America become a symbol of democracy and freedom halfway around the world, however it got there.

    It’s even simpler then that. It’s a show of non-violence straight from Ghandi – a display of deliberate helplessness that gives power to the protestor by displaying the aggressiveness of the oppressor. It takes balls to approach those who would hurt you with your hands too far away to defend yourself. It’s a shaming technique, something that would resonate in an Asian culture more deeply then it would in a Western one, I think. Very visual defiance, even in a theoretical submission state.

    It’s not just about freedom or anti-racism or democracy or a hundred different causes that could adopt that pose. It’s about telling those that would willingly push you down into the dirt that you aren’t going to stand for it and that you are taking the higher road by not being like them.

  8. Nikki says:

    @Dave D: Why did you think they were doing it in Ferguson? It’s the EXACT SAME THING.

  9. Davebo says:

    The truth is Hong Kong isn’t nearly as important to the Chinese economy as it was 10 years ago when you did business in China through Hong Kong.

  10. Slugger says:

    When the hand over of HK to the PRC was imminent, P.J. O’Rourke suggested that we issue green cards to anyone in HK who wants one. His argument was that they were hardworking entrepreneurial people with a great culture and great cuisine. Made sense to me then.