Those watching the news over the weekend have probably noticed growing reporting on the protests in Hong Kong, under the name of ‘Occupy Central’. Discontent has been brewing for a while, in anticipation of changes to the Hong Kong electoral system. Hong Kong was officially handed over from British rule to China in 1997, and a big part of the handover agreement included the idea that Hong Kong would be ruled under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model. Consequently, Hong Kong has it’s own Basic Law, a form of constitution based on the system it inherited from British rule, which guarantees freedom of speech and assembly until 2047. On an everyday level, this means that today, Western social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, which are banned in mainland China, are still accessible in Hong Kong. In 2007, China promised that Hong Kong would attain universal suffrage by 2017. Hong Kong is ruled by a Chief Executive, currently Leung Chun-ying, and China promised that the post of Chief Executive would be elected – one person, one vote – by 2017, and it is this promise that is the focus of the current protests.
Currently, the Chief Executive is elected by a committee, and the plan is for the committee to remain, but that it will nominate candidates which are then up for election by universal suffrage. This is where the problem arrives: on August 31st, Chinese authorities announced that candidates would need the support of more than half of the ‘broadly representative’ nominating committee to appear on the ballot: and the committee contains a high number of Beijing loyalists. Consequently, only candidates which Beijing approve of would have a chance to get nominated. This is what the protesters of ‘Occupy Central’ are unhappy about.
So who are Occupy Central? The movement was initiated by an associate law professor at the University of Hong Kong called Benny Tai Yiu-ting, in early 2013, when he proposed an act of civil disobedience in the Central, the finance district of Hong Kong. The movement has included large consultations with citizens about Hong Kong’s democratic development, and has been slowly gathering support throughout 2014. It’s important to recognise that not everyone is unhappy about the Chinese decision, nor does everyone support Occupy Central: some polls have suggested that only around 50% believe Hong Kong should reject Beijing’s proposals. It’s an eclectic movement made up of academics, students and a number of other groups, the full name of which is ‘Occupy Central with Love and Peace’. Occupy Central have been warning Beijing that protests would ensue if it’s election proposals did not meet the standards they expect, and so after the decision on August 31st protests have been gathering support, with huge numbers turning out over the weekend and into today.
China has made it clear that Hong Kong is still ultimately under Chinese rule, despite the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model, and have so far signalled that they have no intention of budging on their decision. Earlier in the weekend, the army responded to the protests with tear gas, but yesterday and today protests have continued, calling for the resignation of the Chief Executive for pandering to China. Today (Wednesday) more people are expected to join: many are off work as 1 October is a national holiday, celebrating the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. Tensions are set to rise as protesters use the day to bolster support.
Some suggest that Beijing is losing the hearts and minds of Hong Kong. News reports of the events in Hong Kong have been blocked in mainland China, and Instagram, which was used to share photos of the protests, has also been blocked in the mainland. It is very difficult to tell how this is going to end: some have drawn parallels with the Tiananmen protests in 1989. However, the spread of information, particularly via social media – even within mainland China – makes a cover-up of any military response impossible. Xi Jinping, the Chinese President, has been amassing and centralising power since taking over, and has even modelled himself on Deng Xiaoping, who was behind China’s opening up to the West. However, Deng was also in charge in 1989.
The protests taking over 1 October celebrations is likely to be particularly testing. At this point, no one knows how China will deal with the situation, but those with any influence should be emphasising restraint. A military response would lose China any international and domestic support, but the lack of military intervention since Sunday is a good sign: let’s hope the protests open the space for conversation about Hong Kong’s electoral system, instead of bloodshed.