Multicoloured rows of umbrellas cover the streets of Central and Admiralty, the heart of the financial centre in Hong Kong. Underneath each umbrella, smart looking students, no older than 25, wear protective lab goggles, masks and anything else to endure the tear gas and rubber bullets fired by the normally passive Hong Kong Police Force. Placards and signs written in both traditional Chinese characters and English are held up in one hand, whilst smartphones are clenched in the other. Surrounded by endlessly tall skyscrapers, rows of police officers in antiriot gear face the protesting students. Tensions are rising.
If you hadn’t noticed yet, dear reader, apolitical Hong Kong is exploding.
Hong Kong protests erupted last month and have been going on intermittently around government buildings and the business district (Central), and in Mong Kok, a residential and shopping area in Kowloon. The protesters are angry at China’s rulers for limiting their choice of leader in the next election in 2017, amongst other grievances. Protesters, most of them students, accuse Hong Kong’s current leader, CY Leung, of failing to stand up to the Chinese Communist Party.
Hong Kong has never experienced democracy, not really.
Hong Kong, at the time a relatively unimportant small agglomeration of islands in South East China, was ceded to the British Empire by the Qing Dynasty about 150 years ago. Weakened by the Opium Wars, Dynastic China was also forced by the British to open its lucrative market to the world and to deregulate Opium trade. Under subsequent treaties (the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the Treaty of Beijing in 1860, and The Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory in 1898), the British gained control of the territory known today as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Hong Kong’s political system and culture are a product of 150 years of British Rule. As a colony, Hong Kong was never able to elect its own officials, and was under British subjugation for most of its history. Executive power in Hong Kong was concentrated in the hands of the colony governor, a position appointed by the British crown without any democratic input from Hong Kong citizens.
Under the concept of “one country, two systems” Hong Kong was ceded to China on July 1st, 1997. The concepts of transparency in business, freedom of speech and respect for the rule of law, three things the mainland is particularly terrible at, were guaranteed by PRC officials during the transfer of sovereignty, referred to as “the Handover” internationally or “the Return” in China.
Hong Kong citizens today, however, view themselves as different from the mainland Chinese. The British certainly left their mark in the island. High tea at the Peninsula hotel (quite possibly the most bourgeois activity in the planet) and horse races at Happy Valley (a close second for the dubious tittle) are cultural staples in the island. Obsession over distinction from the mainland sometimes verges on the xenophobic (or racist? Sino-phobic? Mainland-phobic?). Chinese-Canadian expats living in the island have commented on how differently they are sometimes treated, relative to their white or Non-Chinese looking friends (i.e.: your author), for looking Chinese but not speaking Cantonese, the local language (Beijing refers to it as a dialect).
Stories of clashes between mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers permeate the media. A shouting match over a mainland girl caught eating in the subway, a big faux-pas in the island, was captured on YouTube and gathered headlines. A group of Hong Kongers raised funds to publish an ad that depicts mainland Chinese going to the island as locusts. The animosity goes both ways. Peking University professor Kong Qingdong referred to Hong Kongers as “bastards” and “running dogs of the British government”. Of course these are extreme examples, but they serve as evidence for some of the simmering tensions felt by locals.
The biggest, if not the most relevant, condition for the transfer of sovereignty to China in 1997 is encompassed in the Hong Kong Basic Law articles 45 and 46. The articles promise elections and citizen consultation, in accordance to the situation in the island. The laws emphasize gradual change. Argue legal nuances all you want, these articles were interpreted by Hong Kong citizens as a promise of democracy to come. The scheduled change in Chief Executive, Hong Kong’s top political position, for 2017 was to be the changing point. Mainland authorities, however, were not on the same page and decided to deny universal suffrage in the next scheduled elections.
The protest movement has its origins in the hallways of Hong Kong University. Professor Benny Tai of the faculty of Law, along Chan Kin-man from the Chinese University of Hong Kong and other colleagues, founded the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement (there has to be a Beatles song that plays along in the background every time somebody says “Occupy Central with Peace and Love” ). Their demand is for universal suffrage of the Chief Executive in the 2017 elections.
The movement was initially polarizing, with about half of the island population supporting it, and the other half rejecting it. However, an overwhelmingly violent, and surprising, response against the largely peaceful demonstrators on September 26th and 27th, shifted public opinion in favour of the students. The small student movement suddenly went mainstream in the island.
Money talks and the protests have started to hurt the economy. Capital Economics, a UK-based economic research consultancy, says that in the short term tourism and retail sectors, which comprise 30% of GDP, are facing a downturn. If the protests drag on, as they are expected to, the ever important financial sector could be affected too. The protests might drive foreign direct investment away from the territory, and jeopardizing Hong Kong status as “the gateway to China”. Nearly two-thirds of all foreign direct investment into the mainland comes via Hong Kong and the territory is a key source of financing for Chinese companies, who currently raise more money on Hong Kong’s stock exchange than on either of the major domestic exchanges. “Not all of this investment originates in Hong Kong”, comments Gareth Leather, an analyst at Capital Economics in an interview for Deutsche Welle, “but the city’s role in facilitating this investment should not be downplayed.”
Hong Kong has the 10th highest GDP per Capita in the world according to World Bank figures, one of the highest HDI’s in the world and is the centre of higher education in Asia. Four Hong Kong universities rank in Times Higher Education top 20 Asia schools list, and Hong Kong University consistently ranks amongst the top three schools in Asia. True, the same can be said of students in Singapore and Qatar, however, Hong Kong prides itself in its freedom of speech, although self-censorship has been a concern since the 1997 handover. Hong Kong universities are also notoriously liberal and signs of interference in university affairs have let to backlash and protests in the past. Hong Kong is a hotbed for PRC dissidents. Scholars and media in the island are the only reliable, somewhat uncensored source of news and research on the PRC there really is. Lectures in political and legal matters at Hong Kong University, for example, would usually start with a reminder that this was a free academic environment and, unlike in the mainland, students were free to express dissidence regarding the Communist Party. Professors would usually flash a somewhat awkward, proud smile after stating this fact to their students.
It has been deemed the umbrella revolution, some of its most fearless fighters I’ve meet personally. They are everyday university students, worried about the menial things that every 20-something worries about these days. Maybe perhaps a little bit more studious than their Western counterparts. There is also a lot of anger amongst them. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that a young generation that has slowly seen the freedoms they were born in to and grew up with substantially deteriorate would have such a reaction to the authorities they deemed as illegitimate.
Hong Kong today gathers a sense of helplessness. The promise of freedom and democracy is slowly being taken away from them, slipping through their hands with every passing day. Protests are starting to get ugly, with incidents of violence becoming more frequent. The Hong Kong authorities are playing the waiting game, hoping for the movement to implode or simply fade away. The mainland is watching closely. The West, and Britain in particular, have been notoriously quiet in the matter, they have abandoned the former colony in fear of angering a sleeping giant. The silence stings.
However, the young students refuse to be a lost generation. They are in a strong position relative to the local authorities. Protestors are very well organized and persistent; they have wide popular support and are able to hurt the authorities directly via the economy. The world is meticulously watching, even if world leaders turn a blind eye. Whatever Hong Kong’s future is, the end result will have strong repercussions across China and the prospect of democracy in the powerful middle kingdom (more on that in an upcoming article).
Featured Photo by Pasu Au Yeung.