Protesters Return to Streets of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Image courtesy of Fotalia/Microsoft

Protesters Return to Streets of Hong Kong
| published February 2, 2015 |

By Thursday Review staff


Back in late November and early December it looked as if the pro-democracy forces of Hong Kong were fading in both number and energy. After reaching a crescendo in the summer and early fall of 2014, with tens of thousands taking to the streets and public spaces, blocking traffic, and setting up an ad hoc city of sorts in Hong Kong’s gleaming city centers—all part of a wider movement calling itself Occupy Central—the protests began to fade in the face of a tightening noose managed by police and security, and many yielded to the growing mood of many average Hong Kong citizens who were simply tired of the disruptions.

In early December, police and law enforcement carefully and systematically eradicated the enclaves of protesters, eventually sending some to jail, and many others to their homes or apartments. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement—once one of the most active, colorful, and visible in the world—was nearly snuffed out from a combination of self-exhaustion and a losing, slow-motion battle with police.

But on the same day that tens of millions of Americans prepared for their Super Bowl parties or watched the big game, thousands of demonstrators again took to the streets of Hong Kong in the first major pro-democracy rally this year. Armed with signs, bullhorns, noisemakers, and hundreds of bright yellow umbrellas—a symbol of the protesters’ first line of defense against police use of pepper spray and mace—between 10,000 and 12,000 people marched in a mostly peaceful demonstration against what the movement considers interference in (and suppression of) Hong Kong’s right to choose its own leaders through open elections.

At issue is China’s insistence that a specially-picked committee back in Beijing screen, vet, and eventually select all candidates for municipal or state office in Hong Kong. Opponents of this screening process say that what Beijing really wants is control over elections in Hong Kong, period, and they complain that members of that pro-China committee will simply pick candidates already disposed toward Beijing.

Many people in Hong Kong say that the city deserves the right to select its candidates for city offices through open nominating and voting processes, without guidance or screening by China. Protesters and dissenters also worry that China’s attempts to micro-manage local elections are the first of many steps designed to eventually snuff out the democratic institutions of Hong Kong, which was for more than a century a British colonial outpost and trading hub, but which reunited with the People’s Republic of China in 1997. If Beijing is allowed to closely screen candidates for public office, protesters say, it will only be a matter of time before China takes control of every part of Hong Kong life—from the press and television and the internet, to business and commercial operations, even to the vibrant social life of Hong Kong’s open and multi-cultural society.

Hong Kong’s merger with China, despite some fears in the late 90s and early aught years, was generally expected to go well. There was an agreed-upon template: one country, two systems. This catch-phrase was meant to alleviate fears that Hong Kong’s robust engine of capitalism and its vibrant, urban, upscale materialism could remain intact, even though politically the city would be integrated into mainland China. China was receptive to the reunification, and was more than happy—or so it said at the time—to let Hong Kong retain its power as an engine for trading, finance, and economic growth. But even as big brother China has itself become one of the world’s mightiest economies, it remains stubbornly attached to its Marxist-Leninist political structure. Examples: though China boasts the largest number of internet users in the world, it blocks Facebook, severely limits access to Google, and bans dozens of other open-ended search engines and news sources from its population. China also recently took great technological strides to quash any online or digital references to the twentieth anniversary of the protests and massacre at Tiananmen Square.

China says it will honor its original agreements to give Hong Kong its unique space in Asia, and the government says it abide by the concept developed in the late 1990s—one country, two systems. But officials in Beijing take issue with what many people in Hong Kong might define as free and open elections. China regards what the protesters demand—a wide-open nomination process complete with competing political parties and open policy comparisons in the media—as tantamount to chaos. Such unvarnished, laissez faire displays of electoral democracy are, from Beijing’s point of view, confusing and disruptive, a perhaps an unseemly force for instability.

But the dissenters and the protesters say Beijing is stuck in its Maoist past. What China sees as unseemly and disruptive, the Occupy Central masses see as healthy and even necessary mechanisms of democracy. Elections in Hong Kong are scheduled for 2017, and the protesters hope to have the issue of candidate selections resolved well before the start of 2016. In Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, pro-democracy members constitute about 40% of the seats—enough, they say, to veto any attempt at imposing screening or vetting by Beijing. But Beijing says it will, if needed, exercise its higher powers and shut down any attempts to field candidates for office if those candidates are not first approved by China.

The two sides are obviously at loggerheads over the issue of elections, and the protest movement, all but snuffed out months ago, seems destined to inch forward despite heavy-handed attempts to shut it down completely.

On Sunday, protesters chanted and shouted with bullhorns as they marched amidst the yellow umbrellas. Originally planned for January 1, movement leaders and planners rescheduled the rally to coincide government meetings between Hong Kong and Beijing officials on electoral reform and democracy. Law enforcement and police agreed in advance that the protests could take place on Sunday, as long as the dissenters moved at a steady pace and made no attempts to shut down streets, block intersections, or occupy public spaces for more than a few hours.

Though there was little violence, protesters told reporters that they do not intend to back down on their demands for free and open elections—which for them means no interference from Beijing into the matter of who can run for public office.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Will Hong Kong’s Protest Movement Falter?; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; November 26, 2014.

Hong Kong's Economy May Suffer From Political Chaos; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; Sept. 18, 2014.