The past week has seen a dramatic escalation of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement, against the Chinese government’s obstruction in Hong Kong’s electoral process. In scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring uprisings, 30,000 college students and supporters occupied streets in Hong Kong’s central financial district, encircled by riot police armed with batons, pepper spray and tear gas. For many protesters, there is also a striking parallel to the Tiananmen movement more than two decades ago — particularly because Hong Kong is the only place in China where hundreds of thousands of people gather each year on the anniversary of Tiananmen movement.
The latest civil disobedience has been organised by college students who began their occupation outside the government headquarters last week. On Sunday they were joined by the Occupy Central movement, which previously had planned a similar occupation for 1 October to coincide with China’s National Day. Hong Kong is no stranger to protests in recent times, but none has had such a spectacular impact. Thanks to Hong Kong and international media coverage (Chinese media has maintained a virtual blackout except for condemnations and reports of a counter-protest) we have been able to monitor the protest’s development closely.
The atmosphere was extremely tense on Sunday night. Protesters came equipped with goggles and umbrellas — the image of an umbrella is fast becoming the most visible symbol of the protest — to protect themselves against pepper spray. To disperse the protesters, riot police shot tear gas directly into the crowd. Dozens were injured, and scores more arrested. Demonstrators also feared the possible use of rubber bullets, and organisers have urged them to leave in such a situation. The harsh police response has been roundly criticised in Hong Kong. While some activists left overnight, the mobilsation continued well into the early hours of Monday as thousands remained on the streets.
China’s political interference
The protests have arisen out of anger toward China’s encroachment into Hong Kong politics after the latter’s return to China in 1997. While notionally permitting a high degree of autonomy, China has impeded moves towards direct election of its Legislative Council and Chief Executive, as encoded in its Basic Law. In particular, pro-democracy activists have been frustrated by obstruction of the election of the Chief Executive, which has been appointed by Beijing since 1997. While Beijing has said it will allow an election for the first time since Hong Kong was integrated in to China, set to take place in 2017, all candidates are to be selected by a nominating committee. There are fears this could screen out candidates unacceptable to Beijing.
The protest last week was sparked by an announcement in late August, by the Standing Committee of China’s National Congress, which ruled out open nominations. Keenly aware of the possibility of losing control over Hong Kong and that impact in the mainland, the Chinese government has refused to back down in the face of mounting opposition. The opposition movement included an unofficial referendum in June and a mass demonstration of 500,000 on 1 July, which is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China. Hong Kong’s business elite has warned the democracy movement against jeopardising Hong Kong’s economy.
Protesters have made their objectives clear. The Hong Kong Federation of Students threatened class boycotts and strikes over its demand that China’s National Congress withdraw its announcement and implement open nominations of candidates. They have called for the resignation of the Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying. The political clarity and wide acceptance of these goals has galvanised the movement. Other Hong Kong activist groups and trade unions are trying to include social issues, urging the government to legislate on work hours and pensions, restrict real estate speculation, protect housing rights, and implement social policy for workers, women and ethnic minorities.
The demonstrations have been fuelled by resentment of Beijing’s meddling in Hong Kong. Beijing is widely seen as exercising subtle and not-so-subtle influences that threaten Hong Kong’s cherished civil liberties, such as freedom of the press. In 2012, a planned introduction of “moral and national education”, seen as political indoctrination, was resisted by mass mobilisation. The tightening of social and media control on the mainland in the last couple of years has only reinforced fears of what may happen to Hong Kong. In this respect, the protests in Hong Kong share many similarities with the Sunflower movement in Taiwan early this year. Also a student-led protest movement alarmed by China’s encroachment, the Sunflower protest challenged the Taiwanese government in its handling of a trade agreement with China. For Taiwan, the Hong Kong protests only underscore scepticism of the “One China, Two Systems” model.
In recent years, hostility toward the mainland has grown in Hong Kong as a result of mainland emigration to Hong Kong. It is seen as straining resources and destroying Hong Kong’s identity and quality of life. This has pitched people in Hong Kong and the mainland against one another, seriously militating against forging solidarity at a critical time like this. The anti-China/Chinese sentiments, coupled with a reassertion of local identity, have the effect of alienating people on the mainland. However, the recent protests have not seen such sentiments become prominent, and individuals in China have posted messages and photos of solidarity with Hong Kong protesters. Yet more organised solidarity remains elusive.
Trade union mobilisation
The protesters have been able to keep up momentum, but what is the possibility of wider mobilisation?
The pro-democratic Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions has been active in supporting the protesters. On Sunday, it issued a call for general strike: “workers have been demanding a fair election system to rectify the longstanding problem of the business-leaning government”. On Monday morning, about 80-100 delivery workers at Coca-Cola Hong Kong staged a strike after emerging from their union meeting. On Monday afternoon, organised by the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, about 1000 social workers and social work students gathered at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in solidarity with the protesters. The Confederation was also active in supporting the dockers’ strike in 2013, in opposition to the pro-China Hong Kong Federation of Trade Unions.
While the Hong Kong government softened its approach on Monday, pulling back riot police and sending a team to negotiate with protesters, activists have returned in large numbers for another night’s demonstration. It is unlikely that either Hong Kong or Beijing will accept the protesters’ demand on direct election, although Hong Kong’s Chief Executive (whose election in 2012 was marked by controversy due to his relationship with China) may resign under pressure. If so, it will be a humiliating defeat for Beijing, and complicate the mainland’s relationship with both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
At this point, it is impossible to tell how the Chinese government will respond. It cannot quell the protest in the same way as it deals with domestic protests. Yet, if the protest continues, China will undoubtedly put more pressure on the Hong Kong government to do so. The use of lethal force would, however, be fatal to the Hong Kong government. Always sensitive to international interference, China’s Foreign Ministry has warned the United States and other nations to stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs. However, the more important question on the minds of protesters is whether the Chinese government can stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs.
Kevin Lin is a PhD student researching labour politics in China.