DUBUQUE — Hong Kong’s Central District, the upscale nucleus of the city’s enormous financial industry, has been occupied since Sept. 28. The protests, named by their participants as “Occupy Central with Peace and Love,” appeared after the Chinese government announced its plans for reforming the city’s electoral system. Going against popular demand for universal suffrage and self-government, the Communist Party (China’s ruling political faction) announced that candidates for office in Hong Kong would be selected by a 1,200-member committee, administered and overseen in Beijing. Crowds reaching up to 100,000 responded with peaceful, organized demonstrations demanding democratic elections free of the central government’s control.
Hong Kong was the last overseas colony of the British Empire when it was returned to China in 1997. Since then, it has operated as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). While still remaining under the military and territorial control of the mainland, the city is extended a level of autonomy and independence from Beijing not seen in most of China. Along with Macau, another post-colonial city-state, Hong Kong manages its own domestic affairs (including courts, police, banks and currency) while foreign relations and defense are the responsibility of China’s central government. The electoral reform discussions are in response to the mainland government’s promise to install a system for democratic elections in Hong Kong by 2017. The natural unease that comes from the “two systems, one China” policy means that central oversight of the SAR’s elections will silence dialogue and obstruct policy which do not conform to the aims of the Communist Party in Beijing.
The current protests are the largest and most serious civil upheavals seen in Hong Kong since its transfer to Chinese control. The crowds consist mainly of organized, passive students. The groups are committed to non-violence, noted for their politeness (even by political enemies), and have forbidden the vandalism, looting, and “indecency,” which typically come with large-scale youth movements. Their emphasis on peaceful demonstration and civil disobedience have led to their dubbing by numerous media outlets as the “Umbrella Revolution” — named for their preferred method of defense from police tear gas. While the protesters may be offering little justification for forceful suppression, the Chinese government’s actions in similar past situations (specifically in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989) make their stubbornness in the current episode ominous. Demonstrators have already been subjected to tear gas and beatings.
Friction between the pro-democracy crowds and police is visibly evident. The protesters continue to maintain a large presence in the Central District, though in diminishing numbers. Talks between the Chinese government and the leadership of the democracy activists will begin as police continue to contain the protests with rigid lines and harsh enforcement.
While parallels are being drawn to the massacre of an unknown number of political protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989, there is a key difference between that and the present situation: social media – most forms of which are banned or censored in mainland China. It not only facilitated organization and awareness of the issues and protests, but provided instantaneous and infinite documentation of the events, in both thoughts and photos, putting the government’s reaction in an entirely different light, putting it at the center of worldwide focus. Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-Ying has said that there is “almost zero chance” that the government in Beijing will change their stance. Discussion, protest and police retaliation will all continue in the immediate future.