What's Going on in Hong Kong?

protest in Hong KongOver the last week, one of Asia’s most economically important cities (and, not coincidentally, one of its most celebrated cities in the West) has been in thrall to popular protests occupying the busy city center. These protests, according to the territory’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying, have behaved in a manner counter to the needs and demands of a peaceful society. The protestors, many of whom are students and have resorted to completing their homework mid-sit-in, beg to differ. The crux of the issue lies with a fundamental difference in how each side views democracy. For Leung, the very fact Hong Kong residents are engaging in civil disobedience is by itself a disruptive act, a position partly attributable to a certain strain of Chinese Confucian conservatism but also attributable to a Beijing view of Chinese politics that recognizes specific processes as valid (i.e. processes over which the Chinese Communist Party can exert an acceptable level of control) and others as not.
What is it that the Hong Kong protesters want? In the immediate, they want the Chinese government to fulfill a promise made in 1997 to hold open direct elections for Leung’s successor in 2017. The protestors believe Beijing’s offer of a predetermined list of acceptable candidates fails to fulfill this promise. For the protestors and the millions around the world living in countries practicing democratic systems, the conflict between the concept of open elections and the incumbent power retaining the right to narrow the scope of candidates is obvious. For Chinese government leaders in Beijing, it is less so.
The story of Hong Kong, or at least the modern narrative of Hong Kong, begins with European greed and the weakness of the Qing Dynasty in the nineteenth century. British traders, frustrated by their inability to penetrate an economic market that showed little interest in European goods, drove an illegal trade in opium that wrought significant hardship on communities in southern China. When the Chinese government sought to cripple the trade that had seen its southern coast riddled with addiction and subsequent social problems, the British responded with military force. Two Opium Wars and two unequal treaties later, the British demanded and received the island of Hong Kong, ceded to the British crown in perpetuity in 1848. In 1898 the British signed a ninety-nine year lease of the New Territories, land considered part of modern day Hong Kong.
Over the following century, Hong Kong became one of the most important financial hubs in the world, but as the 1980s dawned the territory’s business community became concerned at the impending return of Hong Kong to Chinese auspices in 1997. Margaret Thatcher’s government subsequently discovered that Beijing had every intention of taking possession of Hong Kong and had little interest, to put it politely, in a continued political role for the British. Once Thatcher had gotten over the shock that China wasn’t keen on continued foreign imperial control of Chinese territory, an agreement was hammered out in 1984 leading to China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Certain assurances were given and Beijing formally agreed that Hong Kong would be administered as a separate administrative region, thus guaranteeing the continued independence of Hong Kong’s economic engine, which suited all involved. There were also a series of clauses making relatively vague statements about the rights of Hong Kong residents to enjoy the same freedoms they were entitled to under British rule.
The British determination to guarantee the people of Hong Kong such freedoms did not reflect a long-standing commitment to democracy in their soon-to-be former colony. London had ruled over Hong Kong from thousands of miles away for decades, and beyond limited electoral reforms designed to limit the risk of the population becoming ungovernable, had never displayed much interest in democratizing the territory. The current politically active movement in Hong Kong, however, derives from those limited reforms and the accelerated reform brought into play in the two decades before the handover in 1997. Perhaps some in Beijing feel they have been fed a poisoned pill: The People’s Republic of China did not inherit a colony marked by significant economic wealth and a neutered political system entirely reliant upon a greater national authority, as much as the Chinese government might today insist it did. It inherited an economically, culturally and politically vibrant territory clearly influenced by a middle class with a rapidly developing taste for democratic representation. Today Hong Kong is the only part of China where people can openly discuss the Tiananmen Incident, the tragic end in June 1989 to weeks of popular protest in Beijing when in the early hours of June 4th armed soldiers and tanks entered Tiananmen Square to forcibly disperse thousands of peaceful protestors. The topic remains taboo in China today, where the government polices even passing mention of the incident online. In Hong Kong, thousands gather to remember the incident’s victims, including a major protest this past June to recognize Tiananmen’s twenty-fifth anniversary.
Those same people have now taken to the streets to demand a free election they believe they were promised. The Chinese Communist Party insists the promise is being kept while holding on firmly to its traditions of asserting the role of caretaker of public morality, an aspect of Chinese government that dates back centuries before Karl Marx was around and has naturally survived the continued influence of his ideas in present day Chinese government. For decision makers in Beijing Hong Kong is not so much a hotbed of outrageous denial of government authority as it is an utterly incomprehensible political environment, the booby-trapped return gift of a long since passed imperial age. It’s difficult to know if Chinese leader Xi Jinping and his colleagues truly understand why the option of providing Hong Kong with a shortlist of candidates for chief executive fails even the most elastic of tests of the democratic process; in the end the issue of whether this is genuine or contrived ignorance is neither here nor there. The people of Hong Kong want democratic representation, they believe it has been promised to them, and the Chinese government to which their allegiance is bound has no idea how to deliver on that promise.
The greatest risk for the Chinese government, which they seem yet to fully grasp themselves, lies in the risk of resolutely refusing to accede to demands that may not necessarily lead to secession or, much worse, the contamination of the Chinese Mainland with a virulent strain of popular protest tied to demands for genuine government reform. The apparent continued determination of the Chinese government to envision this scenario brings them closer to just that reality, or at the very least, exposes them to significant criticism from the international community. Beijing can tell the United States and Europe not to “interfere” all it likes, but their intransigence has made a rod for their own back and turns increased international attention to the otherwise ignored behavior of the Chinese government in Xinjiang and Tibet. Meanwhile, people from all Hong Kong walks of life gather to protest peacefully asking for concessions that seem reasonable to much of the international community and incomprehensible to the Chinese government. They also take on a certain risk, particularly as they become more assertive in demanding specific reforms such as Leung’s resignation: will Beijing’s difficulties in understanding the nature of the protests and their reluctance to afford democratic reform to the former colony result in a government crackdown, and if so, where will their friends in the international community be then? In the only part of China where public remembrance of Tiananmen is possible, the spirit of those protests lives on.
John Harney is Assistant Professor of Asian History at Centre College.

By |2014-10-02T18:04:43-04:00October 2nd, 2014|Asian Studies blog|