As most people will know, Hong Kong is going through unprecedented political turbulence at the moment – the main roads and the subway system in Central, Hong Kong’s financial district, is currently occupied by three movements: The Occupy Central movement, HKFS and Scholarism (the latter two being student bodies). In fact, the ‘Umbrella protests’ – so called because of the use of umbrellas to mitigate the effects of tear gas canisters – have been paralleled to the infamous student demonstrations in Tiananmen in 1989, without the brutal crackdown by the Communist party (yet). However, it is important to first understand the protests in the context of Hong Kong’s political history before forming an opinion.
In 1842 and with military defeat of the Qing Dynasty, British Warships lay siege to Nanking. Aboard the HMS Cornwallis, representatives from the Qing dynasty and Her Majesty the Queen are discussing the conflict’s resolution – the result: reparations in the form of six million silver dollars, the end of the first Opium War and the cession of Hong Kong to the British (which lasted until 1997).
Under the policy of “One Country, Two Systems”, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region within Chinese sovereign territory, along with Macau and Taiwan. Realisation of this policy, implemented by Premier Deng Xiaoping in 1984, allowed the continuance of capitalist economic systems within these regions, whilst the rest of China would be subject to a Socialist agenda. Therefore, on July 1 1997, when the city was handed back, Hong Kong was granted autonomy over its financial, judicial and legislative affairs. Yet, the politics in Hong Kong are dominated by the People’s Republic of China. Despite having one of the freest markets in the world and the sixth highest GDP per capita globally, Hong Kong falls down at the hurdle of a democratic system that we, in the West, enjoy. Nevertheless, Hong Kong does receive a tremendous amount of autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Civil liberties, such as freedom of press, are suppressed in the mainland but not in Hong Kong.
Democracy, even in its most abstract form, is a young concept in Hong Kong, only ranging back 17 years when the ex-colony was handed back to the China (under British rule, no elections took place) under the condition of it retaining its autonomy for 50 years. Simultaneously, Hong Kong’s “Basic law” was put into effect. This document outlined an agreement that Hong Kong’s political system develop with the “ultimate aim” being “the selection of the Chief Executive by Universal Suffrage… in light of the actual situation in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress’ (Article 45). Note that this does not mean that Hong Kong citizens have the right to Universal Suffrage at this current moment, nor does it mean that it must be implemented tomorrow, only ‘gradual and orderly progress’ be made towards this goal.
Dissatisfaction reached new heights on 1 July 2003, when half a million Hong Kong citizens took to the streets in the largest pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong since Tiananmen Square in 1989. Polls indicated overwhelming demands for universal suffrage for selecting the Chief Executive in 2007 and Legislative Council (LegCo) in 2008. However, the sight of distant democracy was blurred by the fog of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s decision that “the method of universal suffrage shall not be applied”. In 2004, again protestors took to the street to demonstrate their frustration and angry disappointment.
The current protests are a continuation of this fight for universal suffrage – in 2008, then-Chief Executive Donald Tsang announced a promise for Universal Suffrage to be in effect by 2017 and naturally this was a cause for joy amongst the pro-democracy demographic. However, in 2014, Beijing announced that it would effectively vet the list of nominees and the current protests are the consequence – the Hong Kong population is venting its frustration at the increasingly opaque political domain (with calls for the Chief Executive, Leung Chun-Ying, to resign) and the arguable violation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
A month on, Hong Kong citizens continue to protest, but not everyone is in support – the pro-establishment segment, including Business leaders who favour stability, are calling for ends to the protest, which they say are hurting Hong Kong’s international reputation and economy, as well as the working class who are unable to get to work.
It is a difficult situation for both sides – with talks in progress, who knows what Hong Kong’s future will hold?