Protests are happening in Hong Kong, more than 70 students got arrested by the police and about 25 protestants and police officers got injured. This happened within two days.
When I was at a local university on Wednesday, I could see booths and public announcements by students, who called for action to boycott classes and occupy the central area in Hong Kong Island. They stated a 48 hour ultimatum for the Hong Kong government and threatened to surround the government building if their demands are not met. On Friday the demonstrations started on a large-scale.
The political landscape in Hong Kong has experienced a lot of important events in the past weeks. For my friends who are not familiar with Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region and society, I will here summarize some key aspects of the past week.
A lot of the content, that I present here is condensed information from my friends (direct conversation and social media posts), newspapers and books.
Disclaimer: I do not use this article to express my personal political views. Any kind of bias that can be found in my sentences are not intended by me. The aim of this article is to give some ideas on how the situation and mood is at the moment.
Background: About Hong Kong as an SAR
Hong Kong used to be a British colony from 1898 until 1997. After the 99 year contract with Mainland China expired, Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) again and was integrated as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). Since then the official policy from Beijing is referred to as ‘one country, two systems‘, whereas Hong Kong is officially part of PRC, but has its own political system. In order to understand the root of the current issues, we have to look into the political structure of the SAR.
Excursion: The Political System of Hong Kong SAR
Hong Kong is partially what the West would refer to as a ‘democracy’. The Executive Body of Hong Kong SAR is very strong and has a lot of power, however it is not directly elected by the citizens as it would be expected from a western perspective.
On top of the system is the Chief Executive, who is currently Leung Chun-ying or better known as CY Leung (梁振英). The position is elected by the Election Committee, which is a group of selected people from various social sectors. For the last election in 2012 the Election Committee consisted of 1,200 delegates, which included 1,064 people from 38 social sub-sectors, who are part of trade and industry associations from Hong Kong. 60 delegates came from churches and religious associations, 60 from the Legislative Council, and 36 from the National People’s Congress from Beijing (Schubert 2013, p. 238-241).
The structure of the Election Committee has some very strong implications:
- Vast majority of the voters are part of the corporate world or are also referred as ‘Elites’
- The citizens’ influence on the Election Committee is rather weak
- The members of the Election Committee are generally very conservative and Beijing-oriented
- It is not in the direct interest of the Election Committee to advance the democratization of the SAR
2017: The Next Elections
Since the Handover from UK to PRC there were three elections (2002, 2007, and 2012) held in Hong Kong and the size of the Election Committee increased. The upcoming elections in 2017 aim at including universal suffrage for all Hong Kong citizens from age 18 and above. That means Hong Kong is getting a step closer to holding its first ‘truly democratic’ elections.
The most recent development was about the selection of the candidates for the 2017 elections. Beijing stated that: “Candidates for chief executive ‘do not have to love the Communist Party, but they cannot be opposed to the party and its one-party rule'” (South China Morning Post: Friday, 19 September, 2014)
Civil Unrest: The Groups Involved
To understand more about the recent protests, let’s have a look at the major groups that are involved: protestants, Hong Kong government, public security, corporate Elites, and Beijing.
The majority (70% -80%) of the current protesters are students, either from universities or high school. That means they age around 16 to 25, and accumulate to about 80,000 (Reuters, Saturday, 27 September, 2014). They mainly occupy the area around the government building in Admiralty:
Some insights from a friend (via Facebook):
“What is this? CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE. Yes, in this international and so-called city of freedom, a large-scale protest is going on. More than 10,000 students have boycotted their classes since last Monday, even more than 2000 high school students joined on Friday, and they invaded an area in the government HQ since Friday night. The area was then blocked and cleared off by police. Currently, people are still converging on the area, and spreading to the whole district.”
Demands of the Protestants
- The citizens of Hong Kong shall choose freely who can be a candidate for the Chief Executive
- The citizens of Hong Kong shall elect from the candidates freely
Hong Kong Government
The government of the SAR is mainly represented by CY Leung, who has shown to be close to Beijing in the recent years. From students point of view, he might be a bit too close to the Mainland. He directly endorses the decision from Beijing:
The current chief executive, Mr. Leung, has backed Beijing’s plan for electoral changes, which for the first time would let the public vote for the city’s leader, starting in 2017. But critics say the plan includes procedural hurdles that would screen out candidates who do not have Beijing’s implicit blessing, making the popular vote meaningless.
(New York Times, Saturday, 27 September, 2014)
That makes him rather unpopular among the youth in Hong Kong. For example it also happened previously that one student gave him a middle finger during a graduation ceremony that he attended.
It also appears that he doesn’t have a good reputation among former politicians:
“He needs to demonstrate he has the essential ingredients of a good leader: political legitimacy, competence, clear evidence that he shares our core values and empathy with the community, especially those who are less well off. So far, he has not demonstrated he meets any of these criteria,”
(Anson Chan, cited via: BBC, 6 July 2013)
People might say, that the main reason for his political success is due to the fact that he has close ties to the communist party in PRC.
The public security is represented through the Hong Kong Police Force. They are protecting the government buildings and the protesters seem to be very frustrated with the actions by the police:
Thousands are INJURED, because police used pepper spray without prior notice, more seriously, hitting the citizens with their staff, and pushing the citizens to the floor with their shields. Many got sprayed, many fell on the ground, and even got dragged by the police when they got hurt, it was not only sweat and tears, it was blood, but they didn’t give any respond, they didn’t care at all. Even more? They did not allow girls to go to the bathroom and asked them to urinate in public, they did not allow medical assistance to enter the area under blockage when one of the students had a heart attack, they have kept the 17-year-old student leader for more than 24 hours, even searching through his flat and took his laptop away. Some might say the behavior of students is illegal, maybe radical and irrational, but standing before law, there is something called humanity. When the government has utilized its power in such a way that its people are put under great risk, whose fault is it? I did not exaggerate any of the incidents above, many of my friends were/are there, they also got injured and sprayed, they witnessed a lot more, and I am just telling the tip of the iceberg. Fyi, none of the students fought back, they stood still, raised their hands, and begged the police to be peaceful. Why then, that all of us have to experience such violence, and even bloodshed?
(via Facebook, post by friend)
Author’s View: Luckily, Hong Kong doesn’t have its own military force. The only armed forces are under command of Beijing. They never got involved in any internal issues that Hong Kong had since the Handover. Let’s hope that the tradition of ‘not-getting-involved” is being continued.
There is a strong cooperation between government and the corporate world in Hong Kong, which might be one of the success factors of the city. Therefore business representatives usually also favour CY Leung and his approach, as he enables them many good opportunities to engage with businesses from the Mainland. At the same time, since the Handover, more Mainland owned enterprises set foot in Hong Kong and benefit a lot from the SAR.
Although the industrial associations rarely express their political views, it is likely that the recent civil unrest are not in favour of the enterprises in Hong Kong. But overall, they try to stay out of the political stage.
As it was hinted before, Beijing’s ultimate goal is to integrate the SAR into the PRC. The influence from the communist party has increased since CY Leung took over. Therefore the current occupy movement is not what they would like to see. Also the official statements that directly addresses the Hong Kong society have become more recently.
What will happen next?
The current situation makes it difficult to predict on how it will evolve. According to some friends, the recent protests have reached a level that Hong Kong hasn’t seen for a long time. It is quite uncommon here that the police uses pepper spray on a large scale. Furthermore the protestants managed to occupy the government headquarters. Additionally there is no response from CY Leung or Beijing about the demonstrations yet.
My conclusions: I guess the demonstrations will continue for some weeks. People will continue getting injured. I hope it won’t escalate until a person dies.
I also think that it is unlikely that CY Leung or Beijing will give in.
- Reuters: Hong Kong clashes, arrests kick-start plans to blockade city
- The New York Times: Pro-Democracy Group Shifts to Collaborate With Student Protesters in Hong Kong
- The Wall Street Journal: Defying the Man, and Mom: Hong Kong Teenagers Speak Up For Democracy
- Die Zeit: Aktivisten besetzen Finanzdistrikt in Hongkong
- Tagesschau: Proteste für freie Wahlen in Hongkong
- Tagesschau: Hongkong: Verletzte auf Demonstration für freie Wahlen [Video]
- Schubert, Gunter (2013). Das politische System Hongkongs. In: Derichs & Heberer. Die politischen Systeme Ostasiens Eine Einführung. Wiesbaden: Springer VS.