Hong Kong and the “Umbrella Revolution”

Protests in Hong Kong over free elections, now known as the Umbrella Revolution, continue to grow. Although the movement has no centralized leadership structure, it has maintained its unity and discipline, and has avoided becoming violent or destructive. Substantial donations of food and supplies have allowed the movement to maintain its momentum and are emblematic of widespread local support beyond just the protesters in the street. Volunteers have been picking up trash and handing out water, masks, and food. The umbrella has become a symbol of the popular movement, acting as the protesters’ shelter, signboard, and even as a shield, protecting from teargas.

The protesters’ primary objection is over the method by which the city’s chief executive, the highest government official, is chosen. Formerly a British colony and economic hub, Hong Kong was only surrendered to the Chinese in 1997. Though subsumed into China, Hong Kong maintained a degree of independence, with greater civil liberties, free press, and some self-rule. Although past chief executives were chosen by a special pro-Beijing committee, the Chinese government made a commitment when reclaiming Hong Kong to allow more free elections by 2017. The protesters claim that Beijing is reneging on the commitment after a new framework was announced in August which allowed for a popular vote, but only on 2 or 3 carefully vetted candidates.

On September 26, a group of nearly 150 students attempted to occupy the Legislative Council grounds in protest of the August framework. They scaled the walls of the compound but were met with pepper spray, and 13 were arrested by the police. Over the weekend protesters responded by flooding the streets, gathering in the financial and shopping districts to demand the resignation of the current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying. But Leung has refused to step down. The response to the movement by Beijing and Hong Kong leaders has been to wait out the protests, relying on economic pressure to drive people back to work. After the deadline set by protesters for Leung’s resignation passed on Wednesday, protesters moved to gather in front of the offices of the chief executive.

The ramifications of this movement could reach beyond just the island of Hong Kong. Not only does the unrest have the potential of ruining Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable financial hub, but Beijing is worried about long term political implications both in Hong Kong and on the mainland. Efforts to limit the flow of information to the mainland include banning from the web terms related to the movement, such as “Umbrella Revolution,” and banning travel visas from the mainland to Hong Kong. But it would be impossible to prevent all information on the movement from spreading given the sheer volume of videos, pictures, online posts, and individuals involved. Banning internet search terms and limiting travel will do little to keep knowledge of the protests from mainland China. They will also not help resolve the underlying issues driving the ongoing protests in Hong Kong.

It has been a week since the adoption of the wait-and-see strategy, following the clash with the police on September 26. The protests have not diminished. Instead, more individuals have rallied to the cause with protesters proving themselves to be persistent, disciplined, and organized. The way in which Beijing chooses to proceed could have lasting ramifications for the future of both Hong Kong and China as a whole.

The Chinese government has a number of options for resolving the unrest without simply acquiescing to their demands. It has already tried waiting for the protests to die down on their own. Although the protests have ramped up in the last week, it is unclear how long people would be willing to stay out on the streets and risk losing income and jobs. For Beijing, the longer the protests last, the more likely they could spread to the mainland and the weaker the Chinese government would look for not being able to end them.

The most politically savvy option may be for Beijing to agree to talks with the protesters, in order to stall and diffuse the movement’s momentum. Late on Thursday, Leung agreed to talk with protesters in order to prevent them from storming the chief executive office building. But rather than approach the negotiating table himself, Leung stipulated that the talks will be with his deputy, and that his own resignation will not be up for debate. Slow, limited, and long lasting negotiations would ease the tension in the streets and allow the majority of the protesters to go home feeling that they had achieved something. The downside for Beijing is the dangerous precedent set by agreeing to talk. Not only could the Chinese government be perceived as losing face to the protestors by engaging in dialogue, but other future disagreements in Hong Kong, and on the mainland like in Tibet and Xinjiang, could result in mass protests with the perception that Beijing is susceptible to public pressure.

A more likely option could be a major crackdown by pro-Beijing loyalists, the police, and the military. In the past, the Chinese government has proven itself to be both paranoid and willing to use force. By putting down any nongovernment sanctioned protests, arresting dissidents, and limiting free speech, Beijing proves that it does not worry about human rights when protecting its supremacy. The government may feel that the best way to prevent future protests is to end the current one as quickly and harshly as possible, arresting any leaders to eliminate the threat they pose. For the sake of the individuals risking their lives and freedom on the streets of Hong Kong, we can only hope that the Chinese government chooses another course of action.

Whether these protests end with a victory, are crushed by force, or wane over time, this is a remarkable occurrence, the largest and highest profile protest in China since Tiananmen Square in 1989. With the internet, blogs, social media, international press, and cell phone pics, the protests cannot be ignored or swept under the rug. Chinese citizens are taking notice of how the Umbrella Revolution is unfolding, how the protesters are behaving, and the way in which the Chinese government responds.

The limited freedoms allowed to the people of Hong Kong have resulted in a willingness to take to the streets when wronged. And despite Beijing’s efforts to limit the flow of information, mainland China is watching.

Photo by Pasu Au Yeung/ CC BY-SA 2.0

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