Hong Kong: China’s war on Democracy

It has been a year since the start of the 2014 pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong where mainly young and educated university students marched in their thousands along the streets.

The protests were over the decision by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress over Hong Kong’s electoral reforms for the upcoming election of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017. Beijing’s decision was to only allow candidates to run after they’d been approved by China’s own government officials, severely restricting those who could run to those who’s policies aligned with the Chinese governments rather than Hong Kong’s own people. 

A riot policeman (R) uses pepper spray during clash with protesters, as tens of thousands of protesters block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. Source: Tyrone Slu/Reuters
A riot policeman (R) uses pepper spray during clash with protesters, as tens of thousands of protesters block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, September 28, 2014. Source: Tyrone Slu/Reuters

The response from Hong Kong’s own government under Hong Kong’s Chief Executive CY Leung was immediate and heavy handed. Thousands of regular and riot police were deployed across the city to clear essential business districts of the student protesters. The resulting clashes gave birth to the “Umbrella Movement”, whose members united behind a push for more western styled democracy to be implemented in Hong Kong.

An injured protester is tended to after clashing with riot police outside Hong Kong government complex on September 27, 2014 in Hong Kong.
An injured protester is tended to after clashing with riot police outside Hong Kong government complex on September 27, 2014 in Hong Kong. Photo by Lam Yik Fei/Getty Images

The demonstrations in Hong Kong revealed deep seeded divisions within Hong Kong’s society, and emphasised the uncertain future that Hong Kong faces after 2047, when guarantees over the autonomous status of Hong Kong by China ends. These divisions and uncertainties faced by Hong Kong continue to exist today, and the spirit and principles of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong continue to exist.

The question remains as to whether the desires of the pro-democracy movement, now led by the youth of Hong Kong over universal suffrage and Western style democracy, would be implemented in Hong Kong in the distant future. Their opposition is tremendous:  an ever increasingly authoritarian Chinese government, with the backing of pro-Beijing politicians such as the current Chief Executive CY Leung, trade unions, business groups, and the conservative side of Hong Kong society.

Police fire tear gas upon pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 28, 2014.
Police fire tear gas upon pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 28, 2014. Photo by Aaron Tam/Getty images

One Country, Two Systems

Hong Kong’s status is quite unique not just in the Chinese context but also in the international context. As a highly autonomous region in China, classified as a ‘Special Administrative Region’ under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. Under the agreement, Hong Kong would be able to maintain its previous capitalist system and way of life that was implemented by the British during the colonial era, which is enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law of Hong Kong (which acts as Hong Kong’s mini-constitution) under Article 5.

Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in 1982 (top), a 19th century map of Hong Kong and (above) Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang sign the Joint Declaration in Beijing in 1984. Photo: AP
Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher in 1982 (top), a 19th century map of Hong Kong and (above) Thatcher and Zhao Ziyang sign the Joint Declaration in Beijing in 1984. Photo: AP

Hong Kong would have a legislature, judiciary and executive, which though not explicitly stated in the Basic Law, has been interpreted by the Hong Kong courts as constituting a separation of powers framework. Fundamental rights that are enshrined in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, including the right to vote, and freedom of political communication are also contained within the Basic Law (see Chapter III of the Basic Law), and under Article 45 and 68, the ultimate aim in Hong Kong’s electoral system is to allow for universal suffrage of the Chief Executive and of the Legislative Council respectively.

Therefore, in comparison to the socialist market system, and the differing financial, legal and political institutions that are employed in China, Hong Kong enjoys a high degree of autonomy and independence from the political, legal and economic frameworks in China.

Protesters on Queens Road, 2014. Source: wikicommons
Protesters on Queens Road, 2014. Source: wikicommons

Old Wounds

The ‘One Country, Two Systems’ doctrine was meant to unify a country that, in the 19th century, was forced to cede territory to a foreign power, but instead has further divided a society and a people to the point where more people in Hong Kong identify themselves as ‘Hongkongers’ rather than ‘Chinese,’ and anti-Mainland sentiment is at an all-time high. Hongkongers and Mainland Chinese maintain different societal values, and ever increasing issues in Hong Kong-Mainland relations, such as the anchor babies issue (the right to abode case), the issue of parallel trading, the behaviour of Mainland tourists, and the ever increasing role of the Chinese Government in the political affairs of Hong Kong had brought their societal relationship to a tipping point.

 Supporters of the protesters in Hong Kong have covered the wall of Hong Kong House in Sydney with hundreds of notes. (702 ABC Sydney: John Donegan)
Supporters of the protesters in Hong Kong have covered the wall of Hong Kong House in Sydney with hundreds of notes. (702 ABC Sydney: John Donegan)

The clash of ideologies, values and systems between the Mainland and Hong Kong came to a head during discussions over electoral reform in Hong Kong, which resulted in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress determining that the people of Hong Kong would be allowed to elect a Chief Executive which has been vetted by Beijing. This essentially means that pro-democratic candidates would not feature in elections for the Chief Executive.

The resulting mass demonstrations of the “Umbrella Revolution” endured for over three months, and divided not only Hong Kong society, but families, as generational differences between the (usually) pro-democratic youth clashed with the conservative views of the older generation.

Workers dismantle a barricade erected by pro-democracy protesters with a banner reading "It's Just The Beginning" near the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty district. (Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg)
Workers dismantle a barricade erected by pro-democracy protesters with a banner reading “It’s Just The Beginning” near the Central Government Offices in the Admiralty district.
(Lam Yik Fei/Bloomberg)

What Now?

The immediate impact of the Umbrella Movement and the pro-democracy movement was minimal. Though the protesters were able to gain some sympathy and goodwill from portions of the population in Hong Kong due to the heavy handed response of the Government and the police force, the disruption they caused to the city quickly caused this to evaporate. Many small business owners who were sympathetic to the cause of the protesters and the students soon turned against them due to the blockading of streets by protesters, resulting in a lack of income to be able to pay for the high cost of living in Hong Kong. Taxi drivers were not able to work due to numerous roadblocks caused by the protesters, which brought traffic to a standstill. The disruptive nature of the protestors allowed the HKSAR and Chinese government to toughen their stance on the demonstration, and the uncompromising nature of the authorities resulted in little reform coming out of the movement.

Soldiers take part in military parade rehearsals in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
Chinese soldiers take part in military parade rehearsals in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

The enduring message of the Umbrella Movement continues to resonate with university students, with many still sporting pro-democratic stickers on their personal possessions, and pro-democratic posters are often posted through the various tertiary institutions in Hong Kong. There are often small rallies occurring in various points in Hong Kong, from Mongkok to Central, with many participants sporting yellow umbrellas, and a large contingent of pro-democracy protestors marked the one year anniversary of the protests in front of the Government quarters in Admirality. The message of universal suffrage through the protests has remain quite influential, and will continue to do so as the youth of Hong Kong enter into influential positions in the professional and academic world.

Just make sure you hang them up neatly. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)
Just make sure you hang them up neatly. (Reuters/Bobby Yip)

Sleepwalking into a Greater China

Though the message of democracy and universal suffrage will continue to live on, it seems as though Hong Kong will continue to take a path that is more prescribed by the Chinese Communist Party. The increased ties and political ramifications of the protests continue to impact Hong Kong in a wide array of societal aspects.

Currently, Hong Kong’s government continues to maintain that the pro-democracy protests were illegal, and its main leaders, such as Scholarism founder Joshua Wong, would be brought to justice. Furthermore, Beijing’s top official to Hong Kong, Zhang Xiaoming, has described the position of Chief Executive as “a special legal position” which gives him “overriding power over executive, legislative and judicial organs.” Comments such as these have resulted in trust between the people of Hong Kong, the HKSAR government under CY Leung and the Chinese government to deteriorate to its lowest point since the Umbrella Movement.

A student protester rests next to a defaced poster of Chief Executive Leung Photo:AP
A student protester rests next to a defaced poster of Chief Executive Leung Photo:AP

Recently the appointment for a pro-democratic academic Johannes Chan (who is also closely associated with Umbrella Movement leader Benny Tai) as pro-vice-chancellor for the University of Hong Kong was rejected by the University Council. The council is made up of government officials and representatives, sparking wide spread staff and student outcry.

Hong Kong continues to face an uncertain political future, as the year 2047 approaches. As the rise of Beijing over the past few decades have allowed for a more assertive and aggressive domestic and foreign policy, accelerated during Xi Jinping’s presidency, it would be interesting to see the development of Sino-Hong Kong relations. This is especially so given that many of the students who have participated in the Umbrella Movement will have greater influence in society, as they take up roles within the HKSAR government as well as within the various commercial and industrial interest groups. The question of Hong Kong’s political status in the future will continue to be the predominant political discourse in the post-Umbrella Movement period.

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