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Monday, October 6, 2014

Get it On, Bang a Gong, Protest in Hong Kong

Title inspired by the classic T.Rex song.

It's been a year of protest in the world. Nine months into 2014, the world has seen Ukrainians, Venezuelans, Bosnians, and Thais, among others, protest in enormous numbers against various injustices.

That protest fever has spread to the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, a financial hub and culturally distinct region of the People's Republic of China, where thousands are jamming the streets.

 Central Hong Kong during the recent protests. Photo from the NY Times.

To shed light on this development, I have asked multiple people with connections to mainland China and to Hong Kong about the current situation. They are two fellow GW students named Kevin and Li, and a young woman named Fiona, who I met at a small protest outside the Chinese Embassy.

What is going on in Hong Kong, and why? What do the protestors want? 

Kevin: These protests come down to one thing-universal suffrage. Hong Kongers want a greater share of democracy for themselves. So now Hong Kong's business district's central streets are jammed with people demanding universal suffrage. This all started when the National People's Congress in Beijing released their procedure for the elections of the Hong Kong Chief Executive. The candidates will be personally evaluated and approved by the Election Committee, which is indirectly controlled by the government in Beijing. Hong Kongers are worried that this means that the candidacies aren't going to be open to everyone. You've probably heard the term "universal suffrage" thrown around a lot if you've been reading about what's going on. The protestors want their candidates to be able to secure a nomination without approval from mainland China. 

Fiona seemed to agree. 

"These protests are a statement. Hong Kongers are protesting in opposition to an attempt by Beijing to control Hong Kong's voting rights. We've always had a large amount of democratic practice in Hong Kong, including the freedom to elect our leaders in fair, transparent elections. Beijing's recent decision [to vet the candidates] will limit this. The pool of candidates will be limited and not truly free. It's a direct challenge to the rights we enjoy in Hong Kong. Naturally, Hong Kongers are upset. They see this as one of what could be many attempts by Beijing to chip away at our freedoms and our way of life. So thousands of young people, many college students, are out in the central streets and neighborhoods. These protests are in Admiralty, a financial district where the central government's building is located, Mong Kok, which is like Hong Kong's entertainment and shopping district, Causeway Bay-another business and shopping hot spot, and Central, the main business district.  The protesters have been extensively documenting their movement through pictures and videos. The protests have been incredibly organized and peaceful, something we're very proud of.

Li, however, had a different perspective.

"It's a pro-democracy protest, mostly college students, and chaos, directly caused by Beijing’s method of candidate nomination in what is a democratic, universal-suffrage election in 2017. The demands are pretty simple, really. The protestors want an electoral system in which everyone not only has the right to vote, but also the right to run and be elected. Keep in mind this was unheard of in the 150 years of British rule in Hong Kong. I think the deeper, underlying cause of this chaos, though, is a sense of frustration and desperation. Hong Kong used to be the financial and trade center of Asia, so some Hong Kongers have displayed a bit of arrogance and hubris towards the population on the mainland, and therefore many Hong Kongers are reluctant, even unwilling, to recognize Beijing as Hong Kong’s government. It’s also important to note that this probably wouldn’t happen without the political, financial, and personal support of western governments, ngos, and business leaders, especially those from the United States."

Earlier this year, Hong Kongers staged a large demonstration in remembrance of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which occurred on the 4th of June, 1989. The bustling hub is no stranger to demonstrations. So I then asked- did these protests start as a quick reaction to the news that Beijing wanted to vet the candidates, or has discontent been brewing for longer? Once again, there was a good deal of consensus. 

"It's a bit of both. Every year there have been protests asking for more political freedom, as well as a large demonstration every June 4th to commemorate the events of Tiananmen Square in 1989. These specific protests, though, are directly triggered by the recent announcement from Beijing," Kevin explained. 

Fiona affirmed this.

"It's a gradual problem that's festered for a while. Keep in mind, the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened on June 4th, 1989, a mere eight years before the official handoff of Hong Kong to China in 1997. I think everyone's been on edge since '89. That's actually the reason my family left-if you had the means, you would travel and even move abroad, and much of that was because they didn't want to deal with whatever Beijing was going to do.  As for those who stayed-they were promised 50 years of self-government because of the "One Country, Two systems" policy. Under this policy, Hong Kong would remain a "Special Administrative Region", which means it would be able to keep its own system of government-in this case, democracy. People see Beijing's recent moves as a threat to that democracy."

Li seemed to agree.

"These protests are a culmination of festering discontent resulting in sporadic protests since the end of 2013."

Now, Hong Kong speaks a different dialect of Chinese than their mainland counterparts. Hong Kong speaks Cantonese, the mainland speaks Mandarin. Media coverage in the United States and in the west commonly alludes to Hong Kong's unique culture and customs. How is Hong Kong culturally different from mainland China?

"For one, Hong Kong is one of the only two regions in China that was entirely colonized by foreign countries for more than a century. China had no say in Hong Kong's local politics during that time. Promise of economic prosperity in order to quell uprising never works in Hong Kong as it is far more developed than the rest of the China."

Whereas Kevin focused on history, Fiona focused on the mentality of the people of Hong Kong. 

Hong Kong has a much more western mentality-you could even call it American in some ways. Think of the difference between the United States and that of China. In the United States, we receive a huge wealth of information, from many different perspectives. On the mainland, Chinese kids are raised with selective information. Many of them don't even know about the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and that's just insane. It's like Germans who don't know about the Holocaust or Japanese who don't know about World War II and the atomic bombs. Information is incredibly limited on the Mainland. Thus, a lot of mainland Chinese grow up with this selective mindset that the government in Beijing wants them to have. 

Li believed the difference to be rooted in mentality, not culture.

"I would not say the culture is much different. What is different is people’s mindset, as the Hong Kong population see themselves as generally more “Western” or even “superior” to the mainland population, as they have been under British rule and have enjoyed a higher economic standard due to being the financial and trading gateway of a closed China."

Hong Kong is hardly the only region of China that has strained or peculiar relations with Beijing. Our conversation turned to Taiwan-a small island to the east of Hong Kong. After the communists took power on the mainland, the Nationalist government led by Chiang Kai-Shek fled to the island then known as Formosa, and set their government up there. The authoritarian regime of the Kuomintang gradually became democratic, and still considers itself the "true" government of China. The nation is known as Taiwan in the west, Chinese Taipei on the Mainland, and the Republic of China formally.

Will these protests have an effect on Taiwan/Chinese Taipei? 

Kevin explained the situation: 

Taiwan is an interesting case. It operates as its own country, but it's also stuck in recognition limbo-only about twenty or so countries recognize Taiwan as its own country. If these protests continue, though, it could accelerate the independence movement in Taiwan. Taiwanese supporters of full independence (hawks) could cite "a deterioration of human rights" in Hong Kong since the reunification in 1997 as its main argument for independence.

Li summed it up quickly and decisively.
"These protests could feed a further sense of opposition and distaste of Beijing for Chinese Taipei."

Fiona, excitement in her voice, was happy to discuss Taiwan.

Taiwanese people have been very supportive, as have Taiwanese-Americans. It's a very similar fight they have on their hands in Taiwan, so they are easily driven to stand in solidarity with Hong Kong.

The shadow of 1989 still hangs heavy, as I learned. On the fourth of June, 1989, the People's Liberation Army crushed a large demonstration in Beijing's central square, killing hundreds. The incident remains covered up by Beijing. 

Protests on Tiananmen Square, a few days before June 4th. 
Photo from CNN. 

Both of these movements are student-led, and both are categorized by the Central Government as movements driven by foreign influence and people who dreamt about western democracy”. 

"Both started as democratic protest with deeper economic cause," Li said.

Tiananmen in 1989 had its Goddess of Democracy statue. Hong Kong has a similar symbol-the umbrella. 

A protestor holds an umbrella amidst tear gas. 
Photo from the International Business Times. 

"It's a symbol, but it's also practical. It's been raining and people bring umbrellas for practical reason. And people found that the umbrellas are great to deter pepper spray."

Fiona delved into detail. "Hong Kong is famous for its peaceful demonstrations. People aren't afraid to speak their minds, but very rarely are they driven to violence. I think the umbrellas started as just a way to shield from the sun, as that's a fairly common practice in Hong Kong, but when the police started using tear gas and pepper spray (which came as a shock to many) the umbrellas became a defense mechanism. Also, there's something to be said for the visual camaraderie, seeing thousands holding umbrellas together.  

Li caught my attention when I asked him whether he knew anyone in Hong Kong, being from Beijing. 

"I have many friends in Hong Kong, but they are not involved in the protests. From my discussion with them, I understand that this is because that as the middle to upper class of the Hong Kong demographic, they are less likely to be instigated by political agendas and slogans, and they recognize better than the average population, that Hong Kong’s development relies on a healthy and constructive relationship with mainland China as its ruler."

While reading about these events, I noticed a name that kept coming up: C.Y. Leung. 

C.Y. Leung. Photo from Wikipedia. 

"C.Y. Leung is the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong, like a mayor or city governor. He is seen as a puppet of the central government by the protesters. He ordered the law enforcement personnel to use pepper spray and tear gas. He might receive the order from Beijing, but I highly doubt that."

Li's opinion was a bit different. 

"C.Y. Leung is is the chief executive officer of Hong Kong-he works with both Beijing and Hong Kong as a coordinator.  Because of this he is really stuck in the middle in this confrontational situation.

Hong Kong is a seemingly endless parade of soaring office buildings, being a financial hub for China and all Asia.  Have these protests had any impact on the financial industry of Hong Kong?

Kevin: Hard to say. The Hong Kong Stock Exchange (Hang Seng Index) dropped 1.28% on 9/30. We will have to wait and see the long term impact.

Li: "There's been serious traffic disruption, temporary closure of schools and banks, and a slump in the Hang Seng index." 

China recently celebrated their National Day (October 1), similar to the 4th of July in the United States, where the communist government's takeover is celebrated. Did this have an effect on the protests? 

People's Liberation Army soldiers raise the Chinese flag as the national anthem, March of the Volunteers, plays, on October 1, 2009. 

Photo from the Chinese Government's official portal site,

Kevin seemed to see it as a convenient distraction. 

News coverage will focus on the holiday celebration, which is a great diversion. Protesters are actually really calm and organized. There have been organized groups that were formed in order to prevent to more radical groups to interrupt the official celebration in Hong Kong. 

Fiona looked at the holiday as a foreign concept. 

"When I left Hong Kong in 1994, we didn't celebrate the October 1st holiday. That must have come after 1997.  The original protests, which were dubbed "#OccupyCentral" were originally going to take place on October 1st because it's China's National Day, but since Beijing made the announcement to personally vet the candidates, Hong Kongers decided to start early, so to speak, and get out in the streets before October 1."

Li seemed to believe that it was an extra ounce of symbolism to continue protesting on the 1st. 

"Yes, I think the protestors intended to intensify their disruption on the 1st of October to send a message of their disobedience and resistance."

Mainland China has been infamous for its censorship tactics, especially concerning the internet. Have the people of Hong Kong been able to spread their protests' message to the mainland, or has Beijing's internet censorship been effective in keeping it out?

"Censorship is pretty strong on the mainland, Kevin said. For one, Instagram is blocked in mainland for the first time. The only news mainland gets is that the protesters are blocking road and delaying emergency vehicles to arrive on scene on time. Beijing is cultivating support by blaming Hong Kong's protesters. 

Fiona agreed. "I think it's a bit of both, at least that's the idea I get when I talk to people." Fiona replied. "I know that the social media site Instagram was shut down from the Mainland, but I've seen a good deal of commentary from mainland Chinese regarding these protests, so they know something about it, and it's something they have opinions about."

Li went a bit further in his answer.

"The state censorship has not been very effective because only mainstream state-controlled media has successfully kept the Hong Kong news out. On social media such as the Chinese versions of twitter and facebook, you can find a lot of coverage of what's happening in Hong Kong."*

China has many homegrown social media sites like Weibo, QQ, and Renren. 

And Hong Kong's crusade may be resonant with the people in different locations around the large nation. Tibet's status has been in some sort of dispute for a long time, and Uyghurs in the autonomous province of Xinjiang have been the subject of unrest in the far west. Could it spread? 

Kevin was unsure.

Highly unlikely, Beijing has a tight control on these two regions. Whenever there is an uprising in Xinjiang, police there shoot first and then arrest whoever left. Only two months ago, ethnic violence left nearly 100 dead, and Urumqi was rocked by rioting in 2009, that killed nearly 200. As far as Tibet, I'm not sure, but there are rumors that Dalai Lama has been negotiating his return to China in the near future. This might hinder the talk as Dalai Lama might fear for his life.

Fiona agreed, as did Li.

Tibet's such a sensitive area, I'm not sure, but there have been protests in the past. Beijing keeps a much tighter grip on Tibet in particular, but I know the protests in the past have ended very badly, even worse than what we've seen in Hong Kong. 

" Yes, they could, but during times like this the security will be ramped up, especially in traditionally sensitive areas."

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