What are the risks and opportunities connected with the protests in Hong Kong?

Pasu Au Yeung/Flickr/Creative Commons

During the last weeks, tens of thousands took part in demonstrations in Hong Kong, demanding – in different ways and forms – more democracy. The protests were set in motion when China’s National People’s Congress announced that candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive elections would have to be approved by a Beijing-controlled committee; this, according to the protesters, contradicts the principle of universal suffrage that was established in the handover agreement in 1997. More recently some of the protest leaders became more daring and called for “self-determination” and “independence”.

So far, no meaningful procedure of conflict resolution has been established. The Beijing leadership tries to remain invisible, but calls the shots behind the curtains. The local administration is general powerless and clueless. Increasingly, ‘ordinary’ Hong Kong citizens feel embarrassed and harassed by the ongoing blockades of main thoroughfares and businesses.
In the mainland, many mid-level officials explain their conviction that the current form of governances is not sustainable. Against this background, Hong Kong could also be treated as a laboratory. But currently, the dominant position seems to be to prevent by (virtually) all means a June 4, 2.0. From the outside it is not clear what, if any, spaces for compromise exists.

  1. Peter T. Y. Cheung 4 days ago

    The continuing Occupy protest movement in Hong Kong may push the relations between the special administrate region (HKSAR) and Mainland China to an irreversible path. The increasing inconvenience and frustration caused by the blockage of major traffic arteries in the CBD and commercial districts since Sept. 28 have divided the community. The pro-democracy segments of the Hong Kong community feel empowered and encouraged by this unexpected eruption of massive civil disobedience triggered by students and young protesters, which is different from the initial Occupy Central campaign. But many others believe this violates the rule of law and causes growing socio-economic costs borne by the general public and will bring very negative consequences for Hong Kong’s economy and international reputation. The current protests are the most massive since the 1967 riots, challenging not only the legitimacy of the current CY Leung administration but also the authority of the central authorities in Beijing because the National People’s Congress Standing Committee decision on Hong Kong’s political reform based on a 1,200-person nomination committee for the 2017 Chief Executive elections was considered undemocratic in the eyes of democracy advocates. However this crisis will be resolved, this protest movement will paradoxically invite even more intervention from Beijing into Hong Kong’s domestic governance as it thinks the political situation is growing out of control and detrimental to China’s own state security and political stability.

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  2. Ian Holliday 4 days ago

    The risks are that Hong Kong will be damaged both internally and externally. Internally, the society is likely to become still more polarized, and violence could erupt more frequently. Externally, there is a strong chance that relations with Beijing, and also with the wider Mainland society, will sour considerably. After so many years of acting nice, maybe it’s time to act nasty. It’s even possible that relations with the outside world could be negatively affected if Hong Kong loses its established reputation for stability and predictability.
    The opportunities are that Hong Kong will develop a robust culture of democratic participation that generates more acceptable governance arrangements in 2017, and sustains further progress in subsequent years. Conceivably there could be ripple effects in other parts of China, and demonstration effects in other parts of Asia.

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  3. Alexei Voskressenski 4 days ago

    The economic role of Hong Kong has changed considerably since 1997: its percentage to PR China’s GDP declined from 15% to 3% and it is no more an important world financial center in the PR China-West intersection zone which was badly needed as an important financial channel for the PR China’s authorities during previous historical periods. In this situation the ordinary HK citizens felt embarrassed: there is an attempt
    to rewrite the handover agreement in 1997 and incorporate HK further into the PR China’s political system but at the same time there is less economic clout and thus less possibilities for independence. And what is more important, there is no open political access for the youth within an existing HK system.
    However the youth cannot indefinitely protest without violating the law, but stopping the protests or cracking it means clearly less democracy in the future for the whole of China. The space of compromise is in the reorganization of the HK election system based on a Beijing-approved open political access to HK. It must be done with an understanding that HK is a Litmus test for Taiwan, another Chinese territory inhabited by 28 million Chinese governed by a political regime established in 1911 on the mainland but evacuated to the island in 1949 during the civil war period. If no compromise is found, China probably will never reunite and the Chinese dream will never be accomplished.

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  4. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou 2 days ago

    Still the Road to Nowhere
    Writing about the protest movement in Hong Kong at a time when hotly contested elections that provided hope for fundamental change were held in Ukraine, Tunisia, and Brazil, is a challenge. Street protests albeit for vastly different reasons at different times have been part and parcel of the social and political landscape of these countries over the last few years and this is beginning to have an impact at the ballot box in terms of the kind of body politic the electorate would like. Daniel Serwer, an astute and experienced observer of the ways of the world, correctly refers to the results in the three aforementioned countries as “nothing settled, but progress.” To get to this point, much has occurred in terms of protest, debate, and street conflict, including loss of life.
    The Hong Kong protests on the other hand might be indicative of a changing China in a changing world where almost nothing under the sun can be hidden for long. But they lack the significant mass of popular support of a society at large demanding fundamental change, of a society that sees no opportunity for itself and future generations. A recent Pew Research poll about how countries view opportunity and inequality around the world may provide some of the answers as to why the Hong Kong protests lack the mass support necessary to bring about fundamental change. According to the 9 October report, only 42% of Chinese see income inequality as a major problem, while over 85% see a better future for the next generation. Though the polling numbers do not include Hong Kong, they nevertheless make the case that the protests lack the kind of support necessary to engender change.
    The reduced support for the protests as well as the recently cancelled ballot over whether to accept government concessions are indicative of a movement that has lost some of its punch. The question is whether the civil disobedience movement will have a longer term impact on the consciousness of the average citizen of Hong Kong and mainland China remains to be seen. China’s dissident class may grow and may be forced to seek opportunity elsewhere, yet the clear government victory in weakening the protests may also suggest a stronger lid on future demonstrations. Given Hong Kong’s role in the Asian and global financial markets, continued turmoil there would not augur well for either China or the rest of the world; hence the very limited support Occupy Central has received around the world. It has benefited from the visibility Hong Kong’s importance has provided it, unlike say the Uighur protests in Xinjiang, yet the notion of democracy is still relatively alien and remote to the average Chinese that has seen himself and his country become better off since the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, some 25 years ago.

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  5. Shen Dingli 2 days ago

    Politics is about balance and compromise of interests. Those protesters’ interests might be to assure a “genuine” universal suffrage in 2017, per the 1984 China-UK Joint Statement on the return of Hong Kong to China, while a critical interest of the Chinese central government is to assure the loyalty of Hong Kong after its return, whatever the future election would be.
    These two types of interests may not necessarily be exclusive to each other: a free election of universal suffrage may not necessarily choose Hong Kong’s next chief executive to be anti-Beijing, and Hong Kong’s next leader, nominated by the Committee for Election, may not necessarily fail to cater the will of the majority Hong Kong´s people.
    It is crucial for the protesters and the Chinese central government to balance their respective interests and to reach a compromise. The protesters have to relinquish their intent to use unlawful protests to force the government to back off. In the meantime, the government needs to devise the nomination committee to be greatly representative so that a future chief executive will enjoy wide respect.
    Therefore, the authority and protesters need to compromise through dialogue. The best one could expect from the street demonstration is that they could lead to a commitment to a fair representativeness of the Committee. Otherwise, the chaos does run the risk of physical confrontation. That would not benefit anyone.

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2 Comments

  1. Julia Romero 3 days ago

    The question is whether the protesters will have enough popular backing, not only in Hong Kong, but also from mainland China. And about that I´m highly skeptical. Despite all the problems, people are just too satisfied with the economic development in recent years. Therefore it´ll be quite easy for Beijing to impose its will and to crush the pro-democracy movement.

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    1. Ian Holliday 3 days ago

      Agreed – already many in mainland China feel that Hong Kong has had it pretty good since 1997, and why should it expect still more favourable treatment now?

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