(Title photo source: AP Photo/Vincent Yu)
The pictures have flooded the channels over the past few weeks. Thousands of Hong Kong citizens have blocked thoroughfares in Hong Kong’s central business districts, wielding umbrellas to ward off tear gas canisters and pepper spray. Met by police in riot gear, the protests have been largely peaceful; even so, many Westerners look at the protests with apprehension and suspense. Will the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” of 2014 become another Tiananmen protest, 1989? Will Hong Kong’s movement spark something larger, or is it a much smaller deal than it has been made out to be?
The 2014 protests primarily reflect a disagreement over the future of the relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland, and how the “One Country, Two Systems” formula should be interpreted. In 1997, Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the government of mainland China, after over 150 years of British control. According to the Joint Declaration of 1984 between China and Britain, Hong Kong was to be guaranteed a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years after the handover. In response to the Tiananmen response, Britain demanded further safeguards for democracy for the territory – a demand that the Chinese government codified in Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the mini-constitution that sets out Hong Kong’s legal system, by promising a high degree of autonomy except in foreign affairs and defense and direct elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive by 2017.
The current protests, however, should not be regarded as a revolution, but instead a movement demanding that China respects the “One Country, Two Systems” formula. Two groups, “Occupy Central with Love and Peace,” a group that had planned mass sit-ins on National Day, Oct. 1, 2014, in order to put pressure on the PRC to allow genuine universal suffrage in Hong Kong, and “Scholarism,” a student activist group that was originally formed to protest the PRC’s implementation of pro-mainland subjects in Hong Kong’s curriculum, make up the bulk of the protests. The movement is angry with the Chinese government for failing to properly adhere to their Basic Law and promises for democracy. The current chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-Ying, was elected by a 1200 person election committee, which under Basic Law aims to be broadly representational.
But, many Hong Kongers view it as a rubberstamp body that only vets pro-mainland candidates. The protesters demand his resignation and for the next Chief Executive to be chosen by direct election. So far, the PRC has not budged; a white paper released in June of this year claimed that China had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over the territory, and in late August ruled out the possibility of direct elections. This final decision was the spark that ignited the current protests.
So what is next for Hong Kong? The mainland government is unlikely to back down, having taken such a strong stand on what they see as the future of Hong Kong, but a Tiananmen-style crackdown seems unreasonable to expect, due to the international backlash that the PRC would receive. Nor, however, should we expect to see the protests dissipate without some substantive change being affected. Whatever the outcome, Hong Kong’s future will be important, as it will lay out what future other regions, such as Xinjiang or Tibet, should expect from the