The Hong Kong Protests in Context

Hong Kong protestsStranded buses and police cars were evident amidst the crowd on the first few days of the demonstration. [Source: © Ella Sadika]

In September, Emily Ting, along with Hong Kongers across the globe, changed her Facebook profile picture to a yellow ribbon: a symbol of solidarity with the democracy movement. Hers was not the only colour of ribbon, however. Throughout Hong Kong, there was a veritable rainbow of colours, from blue, showing support for the police and authorities, to red, demonstrating Chinese nationalism. This range of ribbons echoes the diversity of opinion within Hong Kong and the divides within the city that hampered the protests’ effectiveness, undermining the simplistic narratives presented in the mainstream media.

The protests that divided a city

Hong Kong itself is a Special Administrative Republic (SAR) within the People’s Republic of China. As part of the 1997 hand-over agreement, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Hong Kong was entitled to a “high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years. What exactly constitutes this “high degree of autonomy” has remained open to interpretation, with China in particular highlighting the difference between “full autonomy” and “a high degree of autonomy”. This distinction was at the heart of the protests and remains an area of contention. The protesters sought universal suffrage; specifically, civil nomination for Hong Kong’s electoral candidates. Conversely, Beijing allowed Hong Kongers to vote, but only for selected candidates, vetted by a standing committee chosen by China. The wording of the Joint Declaration itself is vague on the issue, stating “the chief executive will be appointed by the Central People’s Government on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally”.

Known as the “Umbrella Revolution”, the movement was characterised by its non-violent nature, and the umbrellas that protesters used to defend themselves against tear gas. A crucial aspect of the protests was the “Occupy Central with love and peace” movement, which sought to occupy the central business district in Hong Kong to bring attention to the protesters’ cause. The protests have since officially ended, after 2 months, following police clearances in November and December. Initially, opinion was divided over the protests, yet as they dragged on, tensions both among the protesters and Hong Kong’s population at large began to show. By late November, the mood had clearly turned, with a Hong Kong University survey reporting that almost 80% of Hong Kongers sought an end to the “Occupy Central” protests. Even among the student demographic, there is a consensus that the protests would have received more widespread support had they ended earlier. Zenia Ip, a student from Hong Kong, explains: “if the protests had stopped earlier, say within the first ten days when enough attention and sympathy had been gained, [they would have been more successful].”

In addition to their long duration, the protests were characterised by a generational divide. Although there were notable exceptions, students made up the bulk of the protestors, while older people were generally less supportive, especially during the later months of the protests. A poll by the Chinese University of Hong Kong revealed that, while 47% of people under 24 backed “Occupy Central”, this fell to 20.9% among those aged 40-59. The “Silent Majority for HK” group, which opposes the protests, also counted over 100,000 members on Facebook. The protesters themselves were also divided and lacked a clear, undisputed leader. Not only did this make co-ordinated action difficult, but also meant the movement lacked credibility and ultimately direction.

Hong Kong

[Source: © Ella Sadika]

Britain’s ambivalent legacy

Hong Kong is no stranger to protests, both under Chinese and British rule.  The large-scale leftist riots that took place in 1967, in particular, demonstrated the strength of opinion against British governance. Triggered by a labour dispute, the riots resulted in six months of violence and 5,000 arrests, as leftists sought to instigate a cultural revolution. The riots radically changed the British view of Hong Kong, leading to the recognition that China would clearly not accept an extension of Hong Kong’s 99-year lease, began in 1898. As Gary Ka-Wai Cheung argued in his book, Hong Kong’s Watershed: the 1967 Riots, the demonstrations prompted the introduction of widespread social reforms, for example in labour rights and education. Indeed, the British government only introduced free primary education for all in 1972.

Given the large scale of the riots, British Hong Kong was certainly not as rosy as some have made it out to be. Until the reforms of the 1970s, the colony was a colonial sweatshop, with very few labour rights. Educational provision was evidently lacking: of the 10-14 year olds in the 1966 census, only 13% had received some form of secondary education. While improvements were clearly made in the last decades of British rule, there was surprisingly little development in terms of democracy; the colony only really achieved limited forms of democracy in 1984. Furthermore, Britain declined to provide Hong Kongers with full British citizenship, instead offering the British National (Overseas) passport. British rule in Hong Kong is thus often characterised as a time of prosperity, rather than one of democracy. As Natasha Santos, student from Hong Kong, explains: “even under the rule of a ‘democratic’ nation – the UK – colonial rule meant that full democracy was never a part of the HK system.”

Looking further into the past, Britain clearly had a profound impact on China’s development, and continues to inform its foreign policy. The scars of the Opium Wars, when Britain opened Qing-dynasty China up to international trade by force, are still raw. In 2010, for example, David Cameron and senior cabinet ministers provoked controversy when they wore remembrance poppies during a trade mission, due to the poppy’s association with opium. Japanese intervention, particularly the notorious Rape of Nanking, also had a deep impact on Chinese policy. This history of foreign intervention shapes China’s current policy, which aims to prevent any external intervention into its domestic affairs. China has applied this policy to the letter in Hong Kong. Recently, for example, a delegation of British MPs was banned from entering Hong Kong to survey the progress of the Joint Agreement. That ban is itself a violation of the Joint Agreement, which established Hong Kong’s right to control its own borders until 2047.

“One country, two systems” in the future political landscape

2047 is a crucial watershed: it marks the end of the 50-year interim period and thus Hong Kong’s full integration into the People’s Republic of China. As faith in the “one country, two systems” policy begins to crumble – a survey conducted by the University of Hong Kong calculated that only 41.6% of Hong Kongers felt “confident” in it – Hong Kong can look forward to a future increasingly dominated by China. A generational divide is also evident here: a September poll conducted by the same organisation found that only 11% of respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 said they felt “confident” in the “one country, two systems” policy.

Many Hong Kongers believe that this transition away from Special Administrative Status will occur before 2047, and is already in progress. But for many Hong Kongers, this is not necessarily a problematic state of affairs. Jane Lu, for example, a student from Hong Kong, describes herself as “not very concerned” about the changeover, believing that the gradual termination of the policy is already in progress. This sentiment is echoed by many Hong Kongers, who believe that, in order to maintain the region’s prosperity, the ethos and identity of Hong Kong is unlikely to change. Recent events support this conclusion: in 2012, China attempted to introduce compulsory “national education” classes, but was forced to back down. The fact that the Hong Kong government did abandon nationalist education proposals in the face of popular outcry demonstrates that the pace of such change will have to be gradual if it is to be accepted by Hong Kongers.

Although gradual change seems inevitable in Hong Kong, this is not the case in Taiwan. Taiwan, while still being technically a part of China, functions as a different state. China hopes to resolve this by drawing Taiwan into closer integration via a “one country, two systems” policy like Hong Kong’s. It is clear that the Hong Kong protests have dealt a blow to the “high degree of autonomy” promised by this policy, thus damaging future prospects for reunification. This was reflected in Taiwan’s local elections in November, which saw the defeat of the pro-Beijing party (the Nationalist Party), who lost key strongholds such as Taipei. The Nationalist Party’s defeat ultimately resulted in the resignation of their Premier, Jiang Yi-huah. The example of Taiwan thus pertinently demonstrates the international impact that the protests have had in weakening the credibility of “one country, two systems” policy.

Hope for change

It is evident that the Hong Kong protests did not achieve their stated aim: civil nomination for the territory’s Chief Executive. Nevertheless, viewing the protests from a more holistic angle, small gains do seem to have been made. The protests have politically awakened a generation, a generation that will be much harder to ignore once China begins to implement more widespread changes in the run-up to 2047. Perhaps more importantly, it is a generation with a chip on its shoulder, one that feels more economically disenfranchised than its parents. It is a generation that is increasingly concerned about social responsibility, confronted, in particular, by rising inequality: Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient increased from 0.45 in 1980 to 0.54 in 2011 and approximately 20% of the population live below the poverty line. House prices have also especially affected the young, and are currently 14.9 times the median income in Hong Kong. CY Leung, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, has recognised the power held by this disenfranchised demographic. Indeed, Leung said that he was wary of democracy proposals precisely because they would bring about more populist policies. Thus, while there is little hope for universal suffrage, the protests may well follow the precedents set by the 1967 protests under British rule and bring about widespread social and welfare improvements. As Hong Kong can no longer rely on its economic miracle to ensure support for the government, improving the welfare of its most disenfranchised citizens may provide the answer.