Protest in Hong Kong

The ongoing protest in Hong Kong has shown that China has not learned its lessons from the past, particularly from the Tiananmen Square incident of 1989. The rigidness and hard line approach could be the biggest stumbling block for China in finding a peaceful resolution of the current situation in Hong Kong.

All the problems from the history have been only brought under control but none of them could find a complete resolution. For example, situations like occupation of Tibet, verbal duel with Taiwan, control over Xinjiang and inner Mongolia and sovereignty over Hong Kong, perhaps, will take at least 100 years to get solved only if the Chinese leadership show flexibility.

Hong Kong has not seen a protest on this scale for years. Those out on the streets have been angered by the Chinese government’s ruling limiting who could stand as a candidate in elections for Hong Kong’s leader, due in 2017.

The protesters are demanding open elections for Hong Kong’s leader, the chief executive. In 2007, China promised that Hong Kong residents could vote for the chief executive in the 2017 election. But in August this year, China’s legislature proposed changes to the electoral process, prompting the recent protests. China’s legislature rejected any change in election rules that would open the race to candidates not vetted by a committee that is reliably pro-Beijing. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong have reacted angrily after Beijing ruled out open nominations for the election of Hong Kong’s leader in 2017.

Tens of thousands have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in the past weeks in defiance of tear gas and government warnings.

Polarized politics

At the heart of this is a civil disobedience movement launched by democracy activists Occupy Central. When China made its ruling, Occupy Central promised demonstrations.

The police use of tear gas on supporters further fuelled protesters’ anger. The initial sit-in at the Central district spawned more protests at Causeway Bay and Mong Kok, and a fourth site opened up at Canton Road days later.

Protesters have since called for the resignation of Chief Executive CY Leung for his handling of the situation, but the Chinese government has publicly pledged its support of his administration through the Chinese Communist Party newspaper People’s Daily.

Hong Kong, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 following a 1984 agreement between China and Britain. China had agreed to govern Hong Kong under the principle of “one country, two systems”, where the city would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs” for 50 years. As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected. And they have used this right to effect in the past. A controversial national security law known as Article 23 was proposed in 2002, but dropped after large protests the following year. More recently, the government was forced into a U-turn on “patriotic education” classes.

Its leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200-member election committee. A majority of the representatives are viewed as pro-Beijing. Public protests play an important role in Hong Kong. Locals have free speech and the right to protest, even though they cannot directly elect their government.

Hong Kong rallies are generally peaceful and well-organised. But as Hong Kong’s politics has become more polarized, protests have become more confrontational. Occupy Central insists it is a non-violent movement, but the rapid growth of the student-led campaign could also change the dynamic.

Hong Kong protesters are united around two specific demands-the resignation of their Beijing-appointed leader, Leung Chun-ying, and the ability to choose that leader without government intervention. When Leung ran for chief executive, critics repeatedly raised the question of whether he was a secret member of the Chinese Communist Party.  Leung denied the charges, though many Hong Kong residents harbor suspicions. After Leung won the chief executive job, People’s Daily, referred to him as “comrade,” a term officially reserved for party members. The word was later deleted from the online posting.

Recently the government under leadership of Leung Chun-ying said it was ready to offer dialogue with the Hong Kong Federation of Students on constitutional reform, as previously agreed, but only if demonstrators cleared the roads and lifted the blockade of government facilities. Although hundreds of protesters defied a deadline to disperse and remained outside the government’s headquarters in the central area of Admiralty, they did not prevent civil servants from entering offices they successfully blockaded earlier.

Many protesters know that, in reality, there is little chance of Beijing agreeing to give Hong Kong any more democracy. But instead of giving up, the opposite has happened. The tear gas incident, the sinister mob attacks and then the apparent ultimatum issued by Hong Kong’s leader have all served to galvanise support and strengthen the protesters’ resolve. What began as a peaceful sit-in to demand democracy escalated when riot police used tear gas against unarmed students converging on the government headquarters. The police response was widely condemned as an overreaction, prompting thousands of people to join the rallies.

Divided opinions

However divisions have appeared within the protest movement with the time. Some decided to withdraw from Mong Kok neighbourhood and the gate outside the chief executive’s office and to remove barriers, but hundreds more promptly arrived to replace them.

There is a large spectrum of opinion in Hong Kong which analysts say appears increasingly polarised. The campaigners and protesters want political reform and democratic elections that meet international standards.

But Hong Kong is also a business-minded city, and many will be reluctant to take part in civil disobedience, or anger Beijing, fearing it could hurt the economy.

Recently, anti-Occupy protesters began heckling the pro-democracy demonstrators at the Mong Kok site, which later escalated into scuffles and violence.

Pro-Beijing groups, such as Silent Majority for Hong Kong and Caring Hong Kong Power have emerged, criticizing pro-democracy activists for “endangering” the city. They argue that continued civil disobedience and opposition to Beijing would only damage the city’s reputation and economy, as well as its relationship with China.

These groups have organized several protests against Occupy Central and the pro-democracy movement.

The rally was unusual as large-scale pro-government protests are rare in Hong Kong. Several questioned its legitimacy, especially when reports emerged that some marchers were paid to attend.

Business leaders, who favour stability, have also opposed pro-democracy protests. However it could be the impact of meeting of Chinese President Xi Jinping with business tycoons from Hong Kong earlier this month.

President Xi Jinping has used the meeting with some of Hong Kong’s leading industrialists to reinforce Beijing’s unyielding position against political change in the former British colony, lending his personal authority to the government’s efforts to undermine the pro-democracy movement and to signal to the city’s business elite that it should toe the official line.

President Xi’s decision to meet with the business elite appeared to reflect a recognition of Hong Kong’s financial importance to China, as well as to signal that China’s Communist leadership was allied with business.

China’s concern

The size and passion of these protests have taken observers by surprise. Demanding full democracy would radically change how Hong Kong is governed and China is unlikely to cave in on this - it would be seen as a dangerous precedent.

China does not want any movement that could be perceived as a challenge to its authority. Nor does it want a pro-democracy campaign spreading from Hong Kong to the mainland. The leadership is always concerned that protests in one part of China, if left unchallenged, might encourage people in other parts to rise up. Hong Kong, which was given limited autonomy and freedoms upon its return to China from British colonial rule 17 years ago, was supposed to be a showcase for Beijing’s ability to manage a cosmopolitan financial hub with a minimum of intervention.

China has even accused external forces” of meddling in Hong Kong’s affairs and encouraging ”separatist sentiments”. China has defended its ruling on election candidacy. It has condemned the pro-democracy protests and called the unofficial referendum a “farce”. China has stressed that while Hong Kong has a “high degree of autonomy”, it is “not full autonomy”. China still has “comprehensive jurisdiction”.

President Xi has been involved in Hong Kong policy at various points in his career. For several years before becoming Communist Party chief in 2012, he held the portfolio for Hong Kong affairs as a member of the leadership. During his time in President office, Xi has emerged as a powerful defender of national sovereignty issues along the nation’s borders and internally with a nationalistic slogan, “the China Dream.

But now, President Xi faces tough choices: Modify the proposed formula for Hong Kong’s election system and appear weak, or dislodge the protesters with force and risk conjuring memories of Beijing’s bloody 1989 pro-democracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square.

Hong Kong has been under Beijing’s sovereignty for long enough now that even modest concessions could send signals across the border that mass protests bring results-a hint of weakness that Mr. Xi, a leader who exudes imperturbable self-assurance, seems determined to avoid.

The size and length of the protests also present Xi with a difficult choice. Conceding to even some of the protesters’ demands could embolden them to press for even more, and potentially damage Xi’s uncompromising reputation at home.

As troublesome to Xi as they may be, demonstrators in Hong Kong have cast a glaring light on many of the shortcomings in government that Xi himself has criticized.  That Beijing now faces this outburst makes his arguments for Communist Party reform all the more resonant.

One major problem, according to Xi, is that party officials have spent too much time building relationships with business people while neglecting the masses. Another is that officials have pursued economic growth to the exclusion of everything else, not recognizing that a swelling GDP is no guarantee against political discontent. A third is that the party too often fails in communicating effectively with the public.

The unexpected outbreak of massive pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong has presented authorities in Beijing with a pivotal challenge. China’s ambitious and very powerful President, Xi Jinping, faces a host of options, each loaded with heavy risks.

Leaders of the Occupy Central movement at the head of Hong Kong’s democracy demonstrations know they may not achieve the full sovereignty they have demanded for the territory but believe that having tens of thousands of people on the streets will compel Beijing to make concessions.

The choices present three possible paths. Beijing can compromise; it can crack down; or it can watch and wait, hoping the protests will die down.

Xi knows very well that any crackdown on Hong Kong protesters will be seen by the world in real time. The outcome of the conflict in Hong Kong is being closely watched by neighboring countries that have maritime disputes with China-Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia. And Taiwan, a self-governing “province of China” (as Beijing calls it), has also been watching. The island nation is doubtless now far less inclined than before to embrace the formula of “one country, two systems,” under which Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, to achieve its own “reunification” with the mainland.

So the pressure is on officials in Hong Kong and Beijing to find a compromise. The question now is whether party leaders will ultimately sacrifice Leung to pacify the protesters.  If this happens, it will allow Beijing to shift blame for the turmoil onto Leung for the crisis in Hong Kong.

This might work as protest organisers say it is not a revolution at all, stressing that participants are not calling for independence or the overthrow of the government, but delivery on a promise of universal suffrage.

The crisis

•   Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, when China resumed sovereignty, is governed by a
    mini-constitution, the Basic Law.

•   The city maintains an independent judiciary, and residents enjoy greater civil liberties than
    residents of mainland China. Hong Kong has a robust tradition of free speech.

•   Democratic groups say Beijing has chipped away at those freedoms, citing an election law
    proposed last month that would limit voting reforms.

•   China had promised free elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive in 2017. But the government
    rejected a call for open nominations, instead proposing that candidates would continue to be
    chosen by a committee dominated by Beijing.

•   The current city leader, Leung Chun-ying, has clashed with the pro-democracy opposition. After
    the crackdown on protesters Sunday, some called for his resignation.

Even the promise to form some sort of working committee with a combination of officials from the mainland and representatives of groups within Hong Kong could also give some hope to the protestors.

Hong Kong’s future, therefore, may rest heavily on whether President Xi has the required skill and vision to find an agreeable solution to the current problem without denting his tough and strong leader image.

Though the government and students have agreed for talks, the students have expressed anger and disappointment at officials' unwillingness to address their real issues.

China, in the past, has avoided and ignored such mass protests thinking it will have a negative impact on the other autonomous region of China. However, this has been proved as a biggest mistake which now needs to be corrected. Banning the social media and suppressing information is not the long term solution for such uprising, which will happen more in future if not handled properly.

Therefore China cannot put all the blame on the regional leaders for the unstable situation, it will have to become a party to the negotiations and settlements if it wants it should be globally accepted and respected as a true regional power.

China needs to adopt a fresh approach and create hope for the citizens of mainland and the autonomous region. China, by carefully handling the recent protest, can create Hong Kong as a bright model of its successful “one country, two systems” policy. China should now get into the negotiation with the protestors while giving them hope of maintaining the peace and democracy in the country.