Do You Hear the People Sing: What Hong Kong’s Protests Mean

Photo of a protester at Hong Kong’s July 1 protests in 2011. July 1 is the anniversary of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong and the date of annual protests. (Ding Yuin Shan/Flickr)

Two sides. One election. At the heart of the matter: how should Hong Kong elect its next chief executive – its top political office – in 2017? Can voters directly nominate candidates, much like how American primaries function, or should candidates be pre-selected by an intermediary electoral body? Ban direct nomination and risk criticism that heavy-handed interference in local affairs. Remove the Election Committee and pro-establishment officials warn of runaway populism.

And as it is with the most contentious debates, the arguments made by both sides make sense,- depending on how one conceptualizes Hong Kong’s relationship with China. Politically and legally, Hong Kong operates under the umbrella of Chinese governance. Yet this has come into conflict with how many Hong Kong residents identify: as culturally and ideologically distinct from the mainland, which is increasingly seen as disrupting a way of life that existed well before the 1997 handover.

The controversy hinges on who decides which candidates appear on the ballot. One side, championed by the activist civil group Occupy Central with Love and Peace, wants citizens to be able to directly vote for any candidate that receives a certain number of voters’ signatures. The opposing pro-establishment camp wants to be able to “pre-screen” candidates before election day and have a nominating committee broadly similar to Hong Kong’s Election Committee. Democratic reformists claim this is a smoke screen for allowing increasing interference in Hong Kong politics by Beijing officials.

At its legal core, the debate over the 2017 elections hinges around what “universal suffrage” means. Contrary to popular belief, the promise of universal suffrage by 2017 is not codified in the Basic Law, rather, it is based on an informal promise the Chinese government made in 2007. Nonetheless, both Hong Kong and China have taken the deadline seriously, but factions have interpreted the promise in different ways. Pan-Democrats claim voters must have a direct say in the entire election process, beginning with the selection of chief executive candidates. Pro-establishment forces believe universal suffrage means allowing everyone to vote for the chief executive from an Election Committee-curated selection of candidates.

Despite the wildly successful Occupy Central referendum, pro-establishment forces are likely to prevail. The Hong Kong Bar Association has already come out against direct nomination of candidates, calling it in contravention to the Basic Law. At an event at Asia Society in New York, Johnny Mok, Senior Council for Hong Kong SAR and an appointed member of its Basic Law Committee, has called the Occupy Central referendum flat-out “unconstitutional.”

“The way that I see it will pan out in the end is that China and the Hong Kong government will definitely not accept that the proposal that the public will have the right [to nominate candidates].” Instead, he stressed the importance of the passage of a package of democratic reforms currently making its way through the Hong Kong legislature.

If Hong Kong is indeed “just a city,” as a prominent businessman recently told me, then China has a strong case for exercising greater control over the island. After all, mainland China’s citizens can only indirectly elect their top political officers, because, as a desperate-sounding Global Times editorial proclaimed, “the country would fall into tumult if all regions conducted [a] similar referendum.” Adherents of this perspective see Hong Kong as errant and ungrateful for the protections and privileges China has awarded it in return for its acquiescence to be merely one of many provinces and regions of the PRC.

Yet on July 1st, 2014, the largest protests in Hong Kong since 1997 began in Victoria Park. The protesters are demanding, among other things, “genuine” universal suffrage during the 2017 elections, democratic reform, a crackdown on government corruption, and independence from the Chinese Communist Party. On paper, Hong Kong may be “just a city” of China; in reality, its residents see themselves otherwise.

Since its handover from British governance to China in 1997, Hong Kong’s relationship with its mainland counterparts has been ill-defined, largely due to the fact that no precedent exists for how a country can reincorporate a post-colonial territory that, counter intuitively, is more economically developed, infrastructure-wise more advanced and politically more progressive than its motherland. When Deng Xiaopeng and Margaret Thatcher finalized negotiations over how their respective countries would navigate the transition of Hong Kong from British to Chinese territory in 1984, Deng Xiaopeng assured an apprehensive Hong Kong that China would abide but what it called the “one country, two systems” principle. Under this principle, Hong Kong would legally be considered part of China but would be allowed to exercise much greater autonomy in economic and political matters. In 1997, Hong Kong was made a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China, meaning that it could retain its own system of government (Macau, a former colony of Portugal, became China’s second SAR in 1999). Today, Hong Kong and Macau still retain their own immigration policy (meaning mainland Chinese citizens must present their passport when entering either of the two SARs) and in 2008, Hong Kong competed separately in the Beijing Olympics.

Yet many, particularly in the areas of business and finance, have begun to see Hong Kong more and more as nothing more than a city under the larger umbrella of the People’s Republic of China. Hong Kong remains a global financial nexus point but trade with China is growing. Six of the biggest ten companies listed on Hong Kong’s stock market are Chinese-owned with Communist-appointed CEOs. Concomitantly, Beijing has increased its oversight in Hong Kong’s internal affairs, reversing its approach in the years after 1997, during which China adopted a rather laissez faire relationship in order to mollify Hong Kong and welcome it into the fold.

Unsurprisingly, business interests have been the strongest advocates for sidling closer to Beijing. Ronnie Chan, a Hong Kong real estate magnate, told Hong Kong to “grow up” during remarks made at Asia Society New York a few weeks ago. Instead of alienating Chinese government and business leaders, Hong Kong should try harder to get commercially closer to Beijing, according to Chan. “Let us not lose our uniqueness,” Chan added. “Let us continue to prove our unique worth to the motherland.” In a move further indicative of where their primary concerns lay, the “Big Four” accounting firms in Hong Kong took out a paid ad the day before Tuesday’s massive pro-democracy protests warning that such activities would financially hurt Hong Kong’s economy.

Yet within the sphere of daily matters, Hong Kong residents have expressed rising resentment with their mainland brethren, complaining about the influx of Chinese tourists to the small island and their famously bad manners. Moreover, in the last few decades, dissatisfaction with the Hong Kong government has grown in recent years, particularly among the younger generation. Research by the Hong Kong Transition Project shows that 21-29 year olds are the age group most dissatisfied with the Hong Kong government, largely because of growing income inequality, dwindling economic opportunities, and growing cronyism between business interests and government.

In reaction, organized resistance against the perceived intrusion of Beijing into Hong Kong affairs has ramped up. Several days before Occupy Central launched its online referendum, several hundred lawyers marched in silent protest against a recently-issued white paper which demanded judges of the courts at different levels and other judicial personnel must meet the political requirement of “loving the country.” In 2012, Hong Kong residents defeated a measure that would have introduced the Chinese national “patriotic curriculum” into their schools. The July 1 protests will unleash yet more, possibly violent, backlash.

Thus, the Occupy Central referendum and July 1 protests can be seen in this context as the culmination of a long train of miscommunications and misaligned goals. Direct nomination of candidates has become a political proxy for a host of interrelated issues. It is as much an affirmation of pro-democratic sentiment as it is a negation of interference from China; a signal of growing discontent with Hong Kong’s government as it is a signal of faith in the power of the public; and a rejection of Chinese rule as it is an assertion of Hong Kong’s autonomy and exceptionalism.

This article is a part of our partnership with Duke University’s Duke East Asia Nexus. View the original article here.

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Emily Feng

is a freelance journalist based in Beijing, where she is currently a researcher with The New York Times. She graduated from Duke University in 2015.

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