Big trouble in little Hong Kong
Hong Kong is formally returned to China. Image from the Guardian.
In 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China after 100 years as a British Colony there were questions about how this island of around seven million was going to function as a part of the Communist mainland. In 1985 after years of tense and sometimes heated negotiations between the UK and China and agreement was finally reached to return Hong Kong to China. The program called one-country two systems meant that while Mainland China practiced Communism, Hong Kong would continue practicing Capitalism. In addition, the agreement stated that Hong Kong would have the right to choose its own leaders. Now doesn’t mean that Hong Kong had democratic elections, the first chief executive was elected by a committee of 800 members, mostly business leaders and professionals. This system certainly hasn’t been without issue in the past, but by and large it has led to a stable pseudo-democratic nation, that it is easy to forget is still a part of China. This most recent round of protests, coupled with the Occupy Central movement are challenging this stability, and raising important questions about the right of the people of Hong Kong to self-determination.
Protestors use umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray and tear gas. Photo from the AP
There are a number of factors that led to these most recent protests, but chief among them has been a decision by the Chinese government about how the next chief executive will be chosen. Whereas before executives have been chosen by a committee, China bowed to some of the pressure for more democracy from Hong Kong, and is allowing a general election, with one large restriction. All the candidates will be vetted and selected by the Chinese government. There will be no write-in candidates, no primary elections and no chance of any one the Chinese government dislikes being elected. This decision was the primary catalyst for the protests currently sweeping the city, as demonstrators are calling for “true democracy”. This round of protests has been largely student led, including many who were born shortly before the Changeover of Sovereignty and who have grown up outside the firewall of China with exposure to democratic ideals of other countries. Among many of these students, Democracy is the only way for Hong Kong, and they refuse to accept anything less, but the Chinese government is not giving up.
In the early stages of the protests police deployed pepper spray and tear gas grenades to clear crowds, but these actions had the opposite effect, attracting more people to the protests than before. The Chinese Government has so far not agreed to any of the protesters demands, and seems positioned to simply wait them out. Negotiations between some of the protestors and the government have been offered, but whether anything will come of them is uncertain. It seems unlikely that given the media exposure that these protests have, that the Police or the Military would be deployed to clear the demonstrators, but given china’s history of dealing with pro-democracy movements, this is certainly a possibility.
The protests have, of today lost a lot of their steam. Only a fraction of the numbers remain today, but many claim that they are resting for some time while talks take place, but stand ready to return to the streets if their demands aren’t met. As the negotiations take place China will find itself in an interesting situation, as its citizen’s clamor for democracy with the eyes of the world on them, how can China respond? No matter what happens in the next few days or weeks, this is not a situation that will be resolved quickly, and it’s going to be important to keep an eye on it.