Hong Kong, the last outpost of the British Empire, was handed back to China in 1997, but only under terms that allowed Hong Kong to operate under a ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. The city enjoys a high degree of autonomy in governing itself in areas outside of defence and foreign affairs.
Or at least it is supposed to. To many in the city, the concessions given to Hong Kong in the handover of 1997 have been eroded steadily in an increasingly one-sided relationship with the Chinese government. This has been coupled with a large influx of mainland-born Chinese migrating to the city and increasing competition for professional jobs. Data from the Hong Kong Transition Project shows that in real terms, young people’s salaries have fallen by 10%-15% since 2000. There is disharmony between many Hong Kongers who feel their city and its people are gradually losing their unique identity and mainland Chinese influence.
Vexation with the rapid change Hong Kong has experienced as a city since the handover, coupled with a slowly growing discontent with China, surfaced with a decree from Beijing in late August. Under it, all future candidates for the position of Chief Executive of Hong Kong must be vetted and approved by a pro-Beijing nominating committee. To many, this was a betrayal of a promise that elections in 2017 would be genuinely democratic; a one person, one vote affair.
Dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution”, protesters carried umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas and the elements on 22 September. The Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) led thousands of students and lecturers in protest, encouraging them to skip classes for the week. The protesters swelled in numbers, the youthful energy of the students catalysing the creation of new campaigns like “Occupy Central”. These combined with the student-led protests to encourage, at its peak, more than 100,000 people onto the streets in multiple areas of the city centre. After more than a week of protests, the current Chief Executive of the city, CY Leung, has offered formal talks with protesters.
To be sure, the protests mark one of the strongest challenges to the ruling Communist Party since Tianamen. The decision to crush those protests by force restored order, but marred relations between China and its citizens, as well its dealings with the rest of the world.
Instead, Beijing’s strategy closer resembles damage prevention. News of the Umbrella Revolution has largely been restricted from hitting the rest of China, the government for instance blocking Instagram in the height of the protests. In the modern era, the ability to block the flow of information completely seems impossible. In Hong Kong, ever inventive protesters were able to communicate “off-grid” on Bluetooth or Wi-Fi via the app Firechat, bypassing any attempt to prevent the protest being organised.
The ruling party are perhaps nervous that this story could initiate other pro-democracy movements elsewhere in the country. The Communist Party typically assert legitimacy because of improving prosperity and maintaining stability in the country. Nevertheless, are people in China starting to question more openly how they are governed?
Surely the Communist Party views these protests with an eye on the past, China having a long history of extraordinarily bloody struggles for power. From Beijing’s perspective, if the ruling party lost its firm authority, the nation may once again descend into chaos.
The stunning civility and peaceful nature of these protests run counter to that analysis, their actions providing an example for all citizens in how to engage a government at the grassroots. For instance, after clashing with police, students recycled plastic bottles that were littering the streets.
At the time of writing, the excitement surrounding the movement has ebbed and the protests have lost steam. However, the Umbrella Revolution has shown conclusively that the country can jump over the firewall and challenge the leadership. The student leader of the protests, Joshua Wong told a crowd “People are criticising what we are doing as pointless and saying we won’t achieve anything, but history has shown us that is not the case.” He continued: “All our actions are like planting a seed.”
China needs to find a way to enter a dialogue with its citizens about how the country is run without it becoming a struggle for the nation’s soul. Hong Kong, with its history of free expression and semi-detached relationship to the mainland, would be a great place to start doing this, if Beijing took the initiative.