It’s been 17 years since Britain’s handover of Hong Kong to China. While Beijing celebrated its achievements earlier this year with a rally in Hong Kong’s Bauhunia Square, claiming widespread support for its policies, elsewhere popular support for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) is less obvious, with hundreds of thousands of HongKongers recently taking part in the now annual 1 July protests 七一遊行 in favour of democratic rights.
There were regular protests against China in the early years following the handover, but initially at least they were not focused around a specific agenda, but rather about general concerns on human rights and democracy under the new regime.
That began to change and become more specific after the publication of Basic Law Article 23 in 2002, which states: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies”.
Once the draconian implications of the Basic Law became apparent, the first of the now annual protests was held in Hong Kong on 1 July 2003. They have taken place every year since, culminating this year in an event that even by conservative estimates was huge. The law continues to generate huge controversy and worries amongst the locals and on a non-governmental level has increased the tensions between HongKongers and visitors from the mainland.
This year the protest was larger than ever. According to several estimates, over 500,000 people participated in the pro-democracy protest, demanding the Hong Kong government refrain from accepting the “white paper” issued by the State Council on 10 June, which stresses the central government’s “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, and redefined the degree of autonomy in Hong Kong as subject to Beijing’s oversight.
The protesters also demanded that the Hong Kong government respond to the unofficial referendum requesting the right of the Hong Kong public to choose its chief executive directly, instead of from a list of candidates selected by a nominating committee. The poll, which took place over 10 days and was designed by the University of Hong Kong and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, drew almost 800,000 votes over a 10-day period. The most popular choice for a method of choosing the chief executive, put forward by the Alliance for True Democracy, proposes candidates should be nominated by a minimum of 35,000 registered voters – or by any political party which secured at least 5% of the vote in the last election for Hong Kong’s legislative committee.
The referendum was considered to have marked the “critical juncture” for the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong, according to Chan Kin-man, professor of sociology at the University of Hong Kong and one of the founders of the Occupy Central With Love and Peace movement. “I believe that people feel that our autonomy has been threatened and is going to be threatened even more by Beijing. People feel outrageous [sic outraged] and so they want to make their voice heard,” he told the BBC.
However CY Leung, the Beijing-appointed chief executive of Hong Kong, has so far refused to respond to the referendum and ignored the Scholarism student activist group who had been waiting outside his office all night. He was spotted by the independent Hong Kong House News, having quickly driven into his headquarters in the morning to avoid the protesters.
Young students constitute a major force in the pro-democratic movement. One of them, 17-year-old Joshua Wong, told the New York Times that Hong Kong will lose the relative harmony it is enjoying if the government doesn’t deal with the source of the political conflicts, including electoral reform. For the younger generation, even civil nomination is at present merely a dream, although they are pleased to see that over 700,000 HongKongers who voted in the referendum are dreaming this dream together.
The protests in Hong Kong were preceded earlier this year by a similar movement in Taiwan. There, the Taiwan Sunflower Student Movement led protests in March and April over the signing of a cross-border trade treaty between Taiwan and the PRC which they believed would hurt Taiwan’s economy and leave it open to political pressure from Beijing. Hundreds of students occupied the legislature and later took part in a huge rally that filled the Ketagalan Boulevard in Taipei.
The protests in Hong Kong were joined by many elderly who tried to protect the students from arrest by the police. The BBC reported that over 500 protesters who staged a sit-in in the city’s Central district after the main demonstration were arrested on charges of illegal assembly and obstructing police officers. On their release the next morning, the young protesters had lost none of their spirit, with one telling the Hong Kong House News that “the only way of repaying our parents’ hard work and sacrifice for our current comfortable life is to fight for a just society for the next generation, that’s our way of ‘passing it over’”.
Overall, the protests have raised some important issues. First, how can Hong Kong negotiate with its colonial past and establish a constructive identity in the new world order? So far the “HongKonger” identity has been a passive one, characterised by denying what it is not (i.e. HongKongers are not mainland Chinese).
Second, to what extent does the outside world care? Despite the widespread coverage of the protests, is there really support for a movement that threatens to upset the most populous nation – and the second biggest economy – in the world?
Writing in The Guardian, Isabel Hilton remarked that as a British colony, Hong Kong never enjoyed universal suffrage, but this was subsequently promised in elections for both the chief executive and the legislature – half of whose members are elected by elite special interest groups that include bankers and lawyers. Beijing has repeatedly delayed the introduction of a fully democratic system and, critics say, steadily expanded its influence in Hong Kong’s affairs.
The growing protests will not only test China’s willingness to allow Hong Kong’s people to vote freely for the candidates they choose, but will also affect China’s international standing. Treaties may be made of paper, but a sovereign state’s binding commitments are more than just words on a page – they influence whether it can be trusted and respected in a world that seeks to be governed by rules rather than force.
If China wants to be seen as a “new kind of great power” and a benign force in the world, honouring solemn promises is essential. However 25 years after the Tian’an Men Massacre in 1989, China is now a major market and source of manufactured exports. Only last month Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang came to Britain to sign up for billions of pounds’ worth of business contracts, during a visit where, at his insistence apparently, he was given an audience with the Queen. HongKongers need seriously to consider who are their allies.
Nevertheless, as one of the protesters commented, “I am not fighting to change the world, I am fighting to remain true to myself”. Civil disobedience will not necessarily bring social reform – particularly in authoritarian states – but if it can help to shape new ways of self-understanding as well as global vision, then that in itself is already a success.
Observing the protest as an American-born Chinese, Elliott Chen told independent media BlossomsEverywhere: “Seeing the videos of the young kids in Hong Kong, not yet old enough to vote, speaking with overflowing passion and sincerity filled me some hope. While I do not believe these protests will change even 1% of the actions of Communist Party leaders in Beijing, what the demonstrations show is even more important than democracy and free elections. The kind of change that is happening is not about governments. It is about individuals. It is about individuals changing their thinking, reorienting their values. These demonstrators show me that Hong Kongers are rediscovering their soul.”
Indeed, when most foreign social media are banned in the mainland – you will find scant mention of the protests anywhere – neglect and misunderstandings prevail among mainland Chinese, HongKongers, Taiwanese and the larger world. Which is why it is becoming urgent to increase outward looking awareness at an individual level. The voices of Hong Kong are rising, eager for the world to hear, but most importantly eager to be heard by themselves.