Going Global

What’s going on in Hong Kong?

Charis Au / The Runner
Charis Au / The Runner

Tristan Johnston

In September, many parts of Hong Kong ground to a halt when large swaths of students protested Beijing’s decision to further falsify their democracy. The central Chinese government, which has had formal control over Hong Kong since 1997, had announced that they would allow the people to select their leader in a popular vote, but only candidates pre-approved by Beijing.

“Yellow ribbon” protesters are sitting in the streets, demanding that Hong Kong be allowed to choose their own representatives, and many are calling for the resignation of CY Leung, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive. The first several days were the largest, but the crowds have since thinned out slightly.

A poll from the Chinese University of Hong Kong showed that 37.8 per cent of respondents support the protests and 35.5 per cent oppose them. The rest had “no opinion” or fell within the margin of error. Despite the numbers you see on the streets, a large portion of the population just wants to get on with their day.

According to Reuters, over a thousand blue-ribbon protesters showed up near the Star Ferry pier on Oct. 25, shouting, “Give me back Hong Kong!” and “Clear the streets immediately!” There has been some speculation that Beijing is paying them to show up, and police believe that some anti-Occupy protests have been supported by triads or organized gangs. Interestingly, Chinese state media has claimed that Occupiers are backed by foreign governments, but this is more likely to be mere propaganda, not what Chinese officials actually believe.

“Blue ribbon” counter-protestors believe that the occupiers are simply attempting to delay the inevitable, that China will get to do with Hong Kong as it pleases. Opinions among them aren’t necessarily pro-China, but more “anti-Occupy” as in their view, protesters are needlessly blocking the streets and making it difficult to get to work. Taxi drivers are especially upset with protesters taking up their valuable resource (the road), and along with others who oppose the movement, have collected 980,000 signatures. This petition was organized by the “Alliance for Peace and Democracy,” but they were criticized for not doing enough to ensure people weren’t signing multiple times each, citing questionable enforcement of Hong Kong ID checks.

Student representatives have since met with government officials for a televised meeting, and neither side wanted to compromise.

Ever since the handover from Britain to China, the people of Hong Kong have had Beijing looming over them. The people know what life is like in the People’s Republic; they have freedom of speech, unrestricted internet, freedom of movement, and various rights that Canadians would be accustomed to. The Index of Economic Freedom dubbed Hong Kong the most “economically free” country in the world for the 20th year in a row, in regards to ease of doing business, while also citing transparent regulatory environment and a competitive tax regime. It’s for these reasons that Hong Kong is profoundly valuable as a country, given its relatively small size and population. China has been unusually restrained in its influence, because they understand that “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

However, China is now encroaching further upon Hong Kong, and many are afraid that their quality of life and freedoms will be damaged with more Chinese influence. If China is willing to remove one, simple democratic right, what’s to say they won’t remove more? Even though Xi Jinping met with business leaders in Hong Kong, and told them there would be no deviation from Basic Law, what’s to say their minds might not change?

During a professional luncheon at the Japan Foreign Correspondents Club on Oct. 14, Ian Bremmer, the founder and president of Eurasia Group, gave his very realist perspective on the situation. “I doubt we’ll be talking about [this] in 2015.” He said that the situation wouldn’t change, citing the idea that the USA, UK, Canada, and so forth, consider their relationship to Beijing to be worth much more than their value in Hong Kong remaining democratic. Nor would it be likely for protesters to deviate from their calm demeanor, as the people of Hong Kong still have Tiananmen Square on their minds, they still remember how China approaches criticism to its governance.

“It’s a non-violent movement . . . It’s relatively leaderless . . . There’s not any international support. Not a lot of support in Hong Kong. What they can do is wait them out, wait for their number to diminish, or they can bring in pro-Chinese demonstrators, then the police to say that they’re ‘restoring order’ then so much for ‘Occupy Hong Kong,’” Bremmer said.

Political scientists might not be surprised by the silence coming from the Obama administration regarding the protests. Secretary of Defense, Chuck Hagel, in a phone call to Chinese officials at the beginning of the month, didn’t mention Hong Kong at all. When it comes to foreign policy, the United States and China are definitely playing the “realist” game with each other, both states believe that the other is completely self-interested, and both seek to increase their own security.

Not only this, but in carefully worded statements, the Chinese have stated that Hong Kong’s business is China’s business, and that all other countries should respect their sovereignty. This is important to note, most countries won’t interfere with anything involving China, as trade with them is extremely important for any country’s future economic growth, especially the US, Canada and Europe. China will not have its authority challenged, and US-China relations haven’t always been peachy.

In an interview with Council on Foreign Relations, Elizabeth C. Economy, a C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies, said that, “Party leaders have reportedly met with foreign business communities to inform them that Beijing expects them not to support the protesters or their businesses will suffer. There is a lot going on behind the scenes, but in terms of the actual negotiations and discussions, the Hong Kong government is directly managing the negotiations with the protesters.”

In some way, these protests are of note to those around the world. The people of Hong Kong ultimately won’t be able to sway Beijing. They simply don’t have enough weight to push back against a country as massive and as powerful as China. In other countries, a protest of such scale would be much more capable of changing something.

These protests matter, and they’re reassuring especially in a time when the youth are politically inactive. All over the western world, young people consistently vote the least. It seems to be that you care a lot when you haven’t a choice, but it’s easy to get apathetic when you do. After the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, Hungary’s internet tax protest, and now the Umbrella Revolution — all are making Canadian youth look more and more passive.

Tristan Johnston holds British-Canadian dual citizenship, and has lived in both Berlin and Vienna for six months each. During 2010, he spent two weeks in Hong Kong.