Hong Kong, Sept 29 — Hong Kong is in the midst of its longest series of political protests since the 1997 handover. Pro-democracy activists say they are making good on a long-threatened vow to try and paralyze the city’s financial district — a key business hub for the region and beyond — through sit-ins and civil disobedience. Clashes between students and police this weekend have been the most heated in a long summer of anti-Beijing protests. Dozens have been reported injured by authorities. Their goal is to pressure China into giving the former British colony full universal suffrage. Beijing has so far refused to cede ground on its stance, setting the scene for growing, and more intense, clashes.
Protest marches and vigils are fairly common in Hong Kong, but what began on Friday and escalated dramatically on Sunday is unprecedented. Mass acts of civil disobedience were met by a shocking and swift police response, which has led to clashes in the streets and popular outrage so great that analysts can only guess at what will happen next. What’s going on in Hong Kong right now is a very big deal, and for reasons that go way beyond just this weekend’s protests. Hong Kong’s citizens are protesting to keep their promised democratic rights, which they worry — with good reason — could be taken away by the central Chinese government in Beijing. This moment is a sort of standoff between Hong Kong and China over the city’s future, a confrontation that they have been building toward for almost 20 years.
On Wednesday, student groups led peaceful marches to protest China’s new plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 election, which looked like China reneging on its promise to grant the autonomous region full democracy (see the next section for what that plan was such a big deal). Protest marches are pretty common in Hong Kong so it didn’t seem so unusual at first. Things started escalating on Friday. Members of a protest group called Occupy Central (Central is the name of Hong Kong’s downtown district) had planned to launch a “civil disobedience” campaign on October 1, a national holiday celebrating communist China’s founding. But as the already-ongoing protesters escalated they decided to go for it now. On Friday, protesters peacefully occupied the forecourt (a courtyard-style open area in front of an office building) of Hong Kong’s city government headquarters along with other downtown areas.
The really important thing is what happened next: Hong Kong’s police cracked down with surprising force, fighting in the streets with protesters and eventually emerging with guns that, while likely filled with rubber bullets, look awfully militaristic. In response, outraged Hong Kong residents flooded into the streets to join the protesters, and on Sunday police blanketed Central with tear gas, which has been seen as a shocking and outrageous escalation. The Chinese central government issued a statement endorsing the police actions, as did Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, a tacit signal that Beijing wishes for the protests to be cleared. You have to remember that this is Hong Kong: an affluent and orderly place that prides itself on its civility and its freedom. Hong Kongers have a bit of a superiority complex when it comes to China, and see themselves as beyond the mainland’s authoritarianism and disorder. But there is also deep, deep anxiety that this could change, that Hong Kong could lose its special status, and this week’s events have hit on those anxieties to their core.
This began in 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong, one of its last imperial possessions, to the Chinese government. Hong Kong had spent over 150 years under British rule; it had become a fabulously wealthy center of commerce and had enjoyed, while not full democracy, far more freedom and democracy than the rest of China. So, as part of the handover, the Chinese government in Beijing promised to let Hong Kong keep its special rights and its autonomy — a deal known as “one country, two systems.”
A big part of that deal was China’s promise that, in 2017, Hong Kong’s citizens would be allowed to democratically elect their top leader for the first time ever. That leader, known as the Hong Kong chief executive, is currently appointed by a pro-Beijing committee. In 2007, the Chinese government reaffirmed its promise to give Hong Kong this right in 2017, which in Hong Kong is referred to as universal suffrage — a sign of how much value people assign to it.
But there have been disturbing signs throughout this year that the central Chinese government might renege on its promise. In July, the Chinese government issued a “white paper” stating that it has “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and that “the high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.” It sounded to many like a warning from Beijing that it could dilute or outright revoke Hong Kong’s freedoms, and tens of thousands of Hong Kong’s citizens marched in protest.
Then, in August, Beijing announced its plan for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections. While citizens would be allowed to vote for the chief executive, the candidates for the election would have to be approved by a special committee just like the pro-Beijing committee that currently appoints the chief executive. This lets Beijing hand-pick candidates for the job, which is anti-democratic in itself, but also feels to many in Hong Kong like a first step toward eroding their promised democratic rights.
People in Hong Kong have long wondered whether the Chinese government, famous for its heavy-handed authoritarianism and its fear of democracy, would really allow Hong Kong to become fully democratic or even keep what freedoms it had under British rule. The 2017 election was going to be a test case. So when China began to break its promises for the election, it raised a very scary question: is Beijing just going to erode Hong Kong’s freedoms a little bit, or is it going to impose the same dictatorial rule it uses in mainland China, one of the least free societies in the world?
So these protests aren’t just about Beijing’s plan to hand-pick candidates for the 2017 election, they’re about whether Hong Kong will remain fundamentally free, an ongoing and open-ended question that will continue for years no matter how these protests resolve. The other thing you have to understand is that the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which the Chinese military mowed down 2,600 peaceful pro-democracy protesters in Beijing and other cities, looms awfully large in Hong Kong. While Hong Kong was unaffected by the massacre (it was under British rule at the time), the city holds an annual vigil in memory of the event, which has been so heavily censored in China itself that many young people have never heard of it.
Hong Kongers feel they have a responsibility to keep memory of Tiananmen for the fellow Chinese who cannot, but they also earnestly fear that it could happen to them. So that is a big part of why Hong Kong’s residents are so upset to see their police donning military-like uniforms and firing tear gas this weekend; it feels like an echo, however faint, of 1989’s violence. And in July, when Hong Kong residents protested the Chinese “white paper” implicitly arguing that China could revoke their freedoms, some pro-Beijing officials seemed to warn, even so subtly, that China’s military could hypothetically put down any unrest in Hong Kong.
1. It’s not just another Chinese city
A city of towering skyscrapers on China’s southeastern tip, Hong Kong is home to 7 million people. When the city was returned to China in 1997 a deal was struck promising “a high degree of autonomy” to Hong Kong under a formula dubbed “One Country, Two Systems.” The city’s Basic Law or “mini-constitution” has allowed the city to carry on with its own legal and financial system and Hong Kong enjoys civil liberties unseen in mainland China such as an independent judiciary, freedom of the press and the right to protest. It also states that “universal suffrage” is the ultimate aim for Hong Kong but it does not give a timetable or detail how political reform should take shape. Currently, Hong Kong’s leader, known as the chief executive, is elected by a 1,200-strong committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.
2. People are fed up
Surveys show that the government’s approval rating is sinking, while distrust of China’s central government in Beijing is at its highest level since the handover. Discontent, especially among the young, is driven by a widening wealth gap and many resent the influx of free-spending mainland Chinese visitors to the city who buy up everything from apartments to baby milk formula. A survey released on September 21 said that one in five people were considering emigrating. The latest wave of protests came after Beijing in August rejected demands for people to freely choose the city’s next leader in 2017.
Pro-democracy groups responded by unleashing threats to disrupt the city’s Central financial district — where many big banks and other businesses are located — in a campaign known as “Occupy Central.” Democracy supporters come from a broad cross section of society including students, religious leaders, university professors and financial professionals. After months of forewarning, Occupy Central began formally on Sunday, with thousands of protesters, many wearing eye and clothing protection, beginning a sit in around government buildings. Supporters want to force discussions, and even concessions, over Beijing’s influence on Hong Kong.
3. Not everyone supports the protests
Pro-Beijing groups like “The Silent Majority for Hong Kong” say the activists will “endanger Hong Kong” and create chaos. They have held their own rallies against Occupy Central and ran advertising campaigns in local media to highlight their fears. The biggest rally, on August 17, was attended by thousands, although questions were raised about its legitimacy amid reports that marchers were paid to show up. Businesses fear that any campaign targeting the city’s financial district will harm Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe and stable place to do business. An opinion poll conducted this month by Chinese University said that 46% did not support the Occupy Central campaign, while 31% backed the civil disobedience movement.
4. China thinks Hong Kong is “confused”
Beijing, in a policy document released in June, said that Hong Kong does not enjoy “full autonomy” and residents are “confused or lopsided in their understanding” of “One Country, Two Systems.” The rhetoric indicates that Beijing is unlikely to budge on its prescription for electoral reform in the city. Li Fei, a senior Chinese official, suggested that screening candidates was necessary to ensure the chief executive “loves China, loves Hong Kong and will safeguard the country’s sovereignty, security and development interests.” China has also sought to blame the pro-democracy opposition in Hong Kong on interference by Britain and the United States. All eyes are on Beijing and how it will respond to the growing waves of protests. The central government is in a tricky situation of not being able to be seen as backing down on its stance but at the same time needing to be wary over the use of force and the implications of doing so.
5. The government says Hong Kong should accept deal on offer
The Hong Kong government says its people should accept the deal on electoral reform offered by Beijing. The new framework will allow Hong Kong’s 5 million registered voters to select their leader, although candidates must be approved by a committee similar to the one that selected the city’s top official in 2012. Critics say that this means only candidates favored by Beijing will appear on the ballot, but Hong Kong’s current chief executive, C.Y. Leung, writing in an op ed for, says that this is not the case. We have not even started to discuss the detailed but crucial aspects of the nominating process for potential chief executive candidates,” he writes.
– PHOTOS BY: GETTY IMAGES / ASSOCIATED PRESS (AP) / HONG KONG PRESS PHOTOGRAPHER ASSOCIATION (HKPPA)