For more than a week, tens of thousands of pro-democracy activists have engaged in civil disobedience to call for constitutional reform in the special administrative region of Hong Kong.The demonstrators, primarily students and other well-educated youth, are sounding off against creeping Beijing control and have called for the head of government in Hong Kong, Chief Executive CY Leung, to resign. Through the occupation demonstrations beginning in late September, protestors forced the shutdown of many businesses and government institutions. The latest round of demonstrations have seen diminished numbers, but the implications of the standoff are tremendous. The masses of students taking a stand for democratic reform have highlighted a younger generation at odds with the central government in Beijing. The conflict is reflective of Hong Kong’s unique and often strained relationship with the People’s Republic of China (hereafter China), as well as the tension within the country and its political systems.
A regional economic powerhouse home to over 7 million people, Hong Kong was previously a British colony for most of the 20th century. Hong Kong was officially restored to Chinese control in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration established in the 1980s. The agreement allows for Hong Kong to operate under a high degree of autonomy, retaining its own domestic affairs and giving an exception to pursue free-market capitalism in contrast to mainland China’s single-party socialism. Beijing maintains the authority and responsibility of managing defense and foreign affairs. The other Special Administrative Region of Macau, a former Portuguese colony that was returned to China in 1999, shares a similar relationship with Beijing. This policy referred to as ‘one country, two systems’ is set to remain in force for Hong Kong until 2047, and Macau until 2049.
The current confrontation was sparked by the passage of a recent law that eliminated civil nominations for the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Per the new rule, the next leader of Hong Kong may be voted through universal democratic process, but only from a list of candidates selected and vetted by Beijing. In response, Occupy Central along with the student-led Hong Kong Federation of Students and the Scholarism student activist group, vowed mass action to counter the decision. After days of peaceful protest, pro-government groups staged counter-protests. Before negotiations were set to begin, student leaders called off talks with the government due to violence carried out against peaceful demonstrators by pro-government individuals in Mong Kok. Police announced that several of the arrested attackers have links to Triad gang syndicates, and pro-democracy activists have accused the government of paying thugs to provoke fear. After the cancelled talks, the protests have continued with lower numbers though group leaders have voiced their commitment to persist.
The key crux of the ongoing debate is to what extent will Beijing allow Hong Kong to govern itself and decide its future within the ‘one country, two system’ model. At present, the system is designed so that the people of Hong Kong will only be able to choose between pro-regime loyalists. Revealing this facade of universal democracy is an accomplishment in itself for the pro-democracy camp, but in order to actually revamp the process they must win concessions from Beijing, which is unlikely. What will come next will likely be talks that ultimately deflate the waning energy of the protests for a less than ideal compromise.
The most important takeaway from the wave of civil disobedience can be found in its composition. The young and the educated of Hong Kong have overwhelmingly shown their contempt for Beijing’s interference in their front yard. This level of activism is likely to continue to play a part in the ongoing political story of Hong Kong regardless of the outcome of today’s movement.