Hong Kong Protests: Why is it a Big Deal
In the last few days, the pro-democracy protest, the “Umbrella Revolution”, at Hong Kong has dominated international headlines. To complain against the Beijing decision on electoral reforms, people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets and the police have resorted to tear gas in a vain attempt to disperse the crowd.
I have been following the news feeds continuously for almost two days now, and while tear gases have not returned there is no resolution in sight.
For a city that is famous (infamous in my opinion) or its dedication to money-making, efficiency and non-violent demonstrations, this is directly against to psyche of the city and about as out of character as it gets in Hong Kong. Therefore, it is also a big deal. How can one explain what is currently happening on the streets of Hong Kong? Like any political argument, this is an extremely sensitive and increasingly polarised issue. Much has been written on the cause of these protests, but I thought I would offer my own view here:
The issue at hand is how the city’s next leader is chosen. To quickly summarise, when Hong Kong was handed over to China it was promised a high degree of autonomy that include a right to directly elect their own leader (or ‘universal suffrage’), currently anointed by a committee of Beijing loyalists. Throughout the 2000s, largely fruitless negotiations dragged on until Beijing agreed to allow direct elections in 2017. However, Beijing then announced in August that they will retain the right to vet candidates in the 2017 elections, which in practice would bar any pro-democrat candidates from even standing. Some see this as the last straw. The students started boycotting classes last week and the rest is still unfolding in our eyes.
However, this is only the most visible issue of a much larger problem, namely what sort of a relationship should there be between Hong Kong and China. Many in the city fear that the current semi-autonomous model (called One Country, Two Systems) is under constant erosion by an evermore authoritarian (but successful) Communist regime. While most people have no problems with Hong Kong under the Chinese flag, they do take the autonomy question very seriously. If Beijing can simply not keep its promise, then the rest of the model will be in peril too.
WHY IS THIS A BIG DEAL?
Hong Kong Protests in itself is nothing special: I often jokingly refer to it as one of our three ‘national sports’; (the other two: reselling iPhones and sprinting across MTR interchange). Annually protest marches are held on July 1st, the day Hong Kong’s sovereignty was transferred to China in 1997, and its turnout is often used as a performance barometer of the Hong Kong government. These marches are almost always well-organised, approved by the police beforehand and non-violent. More importantly, people chose to protest on July 1st because it is a bank holiday, and everything would revert to normal on the next working day.
However, the current protest has completely defied the conventional standards. For the first time, students and even some workers have convinced themselves that the issue at hand is worth sacrificing some of the money. Secondly, the police reaction had also been unusually strong. Tear gas has not been used since 2005, on Korean farmers (i.e. NOT Hong Kongers) protesting against a WTO meeting. The police actions have further polarised opinions on the protest: while some condemned events on the ground as an unnecessary use of force, the city’s conservatism meant that many do support the police’s actions to maintain law and order properly.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN NEXT?
Nobody knows, and that’s the terrifying bit. While Beijing has backed down while confronted by protests before, the issue at hand has never been as sensitive and important. Unlike previous issues, electoral reform, an anti-China leader of Hong Kong and the ultimate possibility of separatism is unthinkable for a CCP government already plagued by similar issues in say Tibet. So I think Beijing is very unlikely to back down.
With the protestors also undeterred by police actions so far, things could go wrong, very wrong. Riot police gear and tear gas had inevitably invited memories from Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. Neither the protestors nor (I sincerely believe) the Hong Kong police wanted this to happen, but, of course, the fear for that will continue to loom in the background…
Though some ‘antics’ within the scenes of the protests had brought up a smile. Signs saying sorry on the barricade. People recycling during the day. I mean, for a protest of this scale, it is so strange that shops haven’t been looted yet, and I am particularly proud of this.
In the meantime, do make sure you follow what’s going on. This is a big deal, and definitely into uncharted territory. but hopefully not the point of no return.