The last few days have been pretty intense in Hong Kong, as the city has been invaded by crowds of students and democracy activists demanding more democracy.
On the 1st of October, which is the 65th anniversary of Communist rule in China, students started to occupy the streets of Hong Kong leading anti-government demonstrations and demanding democracy. Allegedly over 100,000 people took to the streets armed with umbrellas, which became the protests’ symbol, so that many had named it the “umbrella revolution”.
The protests sparked as a consequence of Beijing’s August ruling over the 2017 elections in Hong Kong. This will be the first occasion on which the Hong Kong Chief Executive is chosen directly by its voters. China, though, ruled that candidates must be approved by a dedicated Chinese committee first. This decisions angered democracy activists and pushed them to take over the Central business district, under the slogan of “Occupy Central”.
Historically, this is the first big student-led protest since 1989 and it presents Beijing with several challenges. At the beginning of 2012, on New Year’s Day, people started another protest against a 2001 court decision that children who were born in Hong Kong to mothers from Mainland China had the right to abode. This initiated contrasts between natives and mainlanders, who have been depicted as “locusts” since then. This year’s debates over the 2017 elections have only reignited these tensions and differences within the two groups remain palpable.
However, discontent amongst Hong Kongers has deeper motivations that go far back and are entangled in a past of Western colonialism and capitalism, as well as a nationalist sentiment motivated by a century of humiliation.
Beijing had always feared the so-called “One Country, Two Systems” that the two arranged after Hong Kong gained independence from Britain in 1997. This agreement will guarantee the region’s autonomy until 2047, which entails: a British common law system, a British education system, and non-interventionist economic policies. As a result, Hong Kong has long boasted the freest economy in the world, excellent schools and universities, and accomplished civil rights. Considering that the region has “enjoyed” over 150 years of British rule, Hong Kongers’ identities have been indelibly shaped by those years and this had effects on the way Hong Kong natives perceive themselves with respect to the Chinese people. The population in Hong Kong remains divided into two sides when it comes to attitudes towards Mainland China: one side is pro-Beijing, while the other regards China’s rule as colonial – only 31% of the population consider itself as Chinese, whereas 67% see itself as Hong Kongers.
One of the most controversial aspects of the tensions between Hong Kong and China is that the territory became rich thanks to the Chinese, not to the British. When Deng Xiaoping launched his ambitious program of economic reforms in 1978, China began to grow at a rapid pace, and so did Hong Kong. Multinational companies and banks were attracted to invest there as a way to access the flowering Chinese market. Those who prefer to identify themselves with westerners rather than mainlanders do so because Mainland China made them richer than their natives counterparts, not because they had enjoyed democracy in previous years: the British, in fact, never allowed them any form of it.
Things have changed from 1997, as Hong Kong has been dwarfed by other financial centres such as Shanghai, Guangzhou and Beijing itself; many Hong Kong Chinese still need to adapt to this new reality. They are struggling to accept the fact that releasing themselves from China’s grip might be harder than they thought.
One of the effects of the British rule is that Hong Kong’s authorities are expected to react to protests in a different way than the Chinese would do in Mainland China (such as through bargaining, violence, and tightening controls over the media). They are instead expected to handle unrest in a more democratic way. It is also in the interest of Beijing, though, to treat the protests in a milder way, as a harsh response could easily undermine one of the world’s wealthiest economies as well as Xi Jinping’s image.
The territory’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, repeatedly stressed its endorsement of the elections plan, claiming that it would finally give Hong Kongers the universal suffrage they have been long expecting, and urged citizens to end the protests. As a consequence, protesters are now also calling for Leung’s resignation.
Xi Jingping is presented with hard challenges here. More than any other Chinese leader so far, he has consolidated his power effectively and tightened control over the media, and opposed intellectuals and activists. With regards to separatist movements, he has had a tough stance on border tensions such as those in the Xinjiang region. Also, the way Beijing will handle the Hong Kong protests will also affect cross-strait relations with Taiwan. As it happened with the Scottish vote for independence, which encouraged the Catalans to again raise their voice against Spain, Taiwan’s model was of inspiration to the Hong Kongers as how democracy can be successfully implemented. The Sunflower Movement inspired protesters in the territory and there have been exchanges of solidarity between students in both places. At the same time, what is happening now in Hong Kong might serve as a warning for Taiwan, which has repeatedly been offered the “One Country, Two Systems” formula as a means of unification by Beijing. The Taiwanese are now getting worried that the situation in Hong Kong might become their own situation, if they ever decided to accept this solution. Therefore, a positive and quick solution to the “umbrella revolution” does not only entails relations between Hong Kong and China, but also between the latter and Taiwan, which makes it even harder for Xi Jinping to adopt any measure.
So long as political solution is not put forward, it is likely that the protests will continue to fill the streets for days to come. And given the differences between those who feel more Chinese and those who rather feel Hong Kongers, there is still no clear end to it.