Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Protests Strike a Global Chord


The world has been closely watching developments in Hong Kong, where pro-democracy forces have protested Beijing’s proposed election reform for the city. Chinese authorities have stood firm in the face of the protests, raising the possibility of a long-term stand-off between the two sides. Kurata Tōru, a professor at Rikkyō University, examines the protests, which he views as occupying the front line of a new “cold war.”

On September 28, Hong Kong residents took to the streets en masse, demanding the right to choose the city’s chief executive through free elections. Police, in an attempt to disperse the demonstration, fired tear gas and pepper spray into the crowds, which in turn led protesters to initiate the ongoing occupation of major thoroughfares in the city’s financial district.

On the surface, these events appear to be nothing more than peaceful protests by unarmed students and average citizens over elections to decide the city’s top post. But events in Hong Kong have quickly become a focal point for international politics, with Western leaders openly commenting on the movement, and the cover of Time magazine featuring Joshua Wong, who heads one of the influential protest groups.

One reason why Hong Kong’s democracy movement has caused such a global stir is that the issues involved are not unique to the city; they also have major ramifications for China’s central government and for global politics.

Traces of British-Style Democracy

Hong Kong’s move toward democracy had its start in the 1980s, coinciding with the initiation of handover talks between the British and Chinese governments. As with other territories, leaders in London had looked to instill a British-style democracy in the colony prior to its return in 1997. Beijing fought against this, but eventually expressed willingness to sustain democracy after the transfer, keeping a provision in the 1990 Hong Kong Basic Law stipulating that the city’s chief executive be chosen through popular elections. Many Hong Kong residents during this time were uneasy about the handover and fearful of coming under the sway of the Chinese Communist Party. But Beijing’s promise to allow Hongkongers to retain the right to choose the city’s leader helped quell such concerns.

Since then, Hong Kong’s road to democracy has been marked by ups and downs. But a historical moment was reached on August 31, when China’s Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress announced that open elections would be allowed for Hong Kong’s chief executive by 2017. This seemed to be the fulfillment of a democratic goal first voiced 30 years earlier. But there is one catch. In an attempt to filter out undesirable nominees, Beijing declared that only candidates receiving majority approval from the nominating committee, which is stacked with appointees sympathetic to the central government, would be eligible to run in the election.

This means that candidates holding opposing views to Beijing would effectively be shut out of elections. Needless to say, elections consisting solely of preapproved candidates sympathetic with the central government are closer to the electoral process of mainland China than that of the West. Since the 1997 handover, the Chinese Communist Party has used its authority to recast the British–style democracy first planted in Hong Kong into a Sino-styled system where elections are controlled by Beijing. Similarly, the Chinese central government’s decision concerning the 2017 elections is an attempt to reshape democracy in Hong Kong along Chinese lines.

Hong Kong’s Civil Disobedience

Pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong, who have steadfastly pursued the global democratic standard of the right to vote freely, reject the move by China to install a centrally controlled election system. And Beijing’s ruling was what incited Hong Kong students and residents to take to the streets in protest.

One characteristic of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has been the influence of Western values and concepts, with demonstrators adopting what might be considered the “international standard” for protesting. At the beginning of 2013, Benny Tai, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, put forward the idea of staging sit-in protests in Hong Kong’s busy financial district. The planned demonstrations, dubbed the Occupy Central movement, were to be held if Beijing failed to extend democratic rights to the city’s residents. Tai, like so many of Hong Kong’s elite, is strongly influenced by Western ideas; he studied at the University of London and is a devout Christian and scholar of constitutional law.

Tai’s vision of an occupation movement composed of city residents was influenced by the peaceful civil disobedience espoused by Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Nelson Mandela. He also looked for inspiration from the Occupy Wall Street movement that swept the globe in 2011.

The Whole World Is Watching

The Internet and smartphones played a key role in bringing demonstrators together into a cohesive movement. During the first day of protests, countless images of police using teargas and pepper spray against protesters were shared over the Internet via mobile phones. Outraged residents spilled onto the streets, rapidly expanding the scale of protests.

Western media outlets have followed the protests closely, providing up-to-date coverage. Videos of demonstrators holding up umbrellas as protection against police pepper spray bolstered support for demonstrators worldwide. Facebook, which is banned in mainland China, has served as a vital pipeline linking Hong Kong with supporters overseas.

The nonviolent nature of the protests has heightened the movement’s global credibility, particularly since events have unfolded in full view of the world’s media. Hong Kong and Chinese authorities have been reluctant to forcibly end the protests so long as the eyes of the world are turned on the city. The willingness of students and average citizens to stand up to police brutality, as well as their collective desire for basic democratic rights, has enabled the occupation of the financial district to stretch on.

A Battle of Ideologies

Fueling the standoff in Hong Kong is the conflict between two political systems: the autocratic Chinese-style system and a system founded on basic democratic rights. The demonstrations are rooted in an ideological battle between the “Washington consensus” that espouses a democratic, free market philosophy and the “Beijing consensus” of authoritarian state capitalism. Hong Kong is now at the front line of what has the potential to develop into a global standoff that could be deemed a new cold war.

The scale of this emerging cold war has become apparent as the Hong Kong protests have dragged on. China has fought to keep Western-style democratic ideas from taking root domestically. In the chaos following the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Chinese Communist Party moved decisively to shore up its authority, relying on brute force to quell the student uprising in Tiananmen Square.

Even with China now the world’s second largest economy, party leaders remain mindful of the  threat that democratic movements—such the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia and “color revolutions” in the former Soviet bloc—pose to their authority. There is no possibility that Beijing will reverse its decision on the Hong Kong elections, since doing so would bolster the pro-democracy movement.

Chinese leaders are confident that by remaining stalwart, Beijing’s overwhelming power advantage will eventually cow Hong Kong, which makes up a mere 0.5% of China’s population and accounts for less than 3% of its GDP.

It is true that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement lacks enough economic influence or military force to stand up to that of China. Nonetheless, protestors are standing up to Beijing’s authority by highlighting their own position as underdogs. It calls to mind the analogy made by novelist Murakami Haruki to the compassion felt for a fragile egg confronting the indomitable strength of a wall. It would be incorrect, then, to assume that demonstrators feel isolated. The protesters’ appeal for justice has struck a chord worldwide, emboldening them to stand up against the Beijing authorities, who lack satisfactory options for ending the protests. This dynamic has brought the situation to an impasse.

Resolute but Hesitant

The protracted demonstrations also reflect the halfhearted nature of the newly emerging cold war. US President Barack Obama expressed concern over the situation in Hong Kong to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his visit to Washington. But since the US governent is seeking China’s help in the fight against Daesh (the so-called Islamic State) in Syria and Iraq, President Obama did not press the subject for fear of angering Beijing.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has also expressed deep interest in events in Hong Kong. But he had initially reacted positively to the Standing Committee’s August announcement, welcoming it as a strong step toward open elections. The international community’s lack of leverage to pressure Beijing has meant limited support for the pro-democracy demonstrators.

The People’s Daily, the Chinese government’s mouthpiece, has strictly avoided referring to the protests in Hong Kong as a “revolt” and strongly downplayed any comparison with the color revolutions. In the Communist Party’s view, the only way to handle the protests is to adopt a firm stance. But the world has changed since Tiananmen. As the biggest benefactor of the global economy, China cannot risk isolating itself by conducting a similar crackdown. The price would be too steep for the nation to pay.

In the end, China’s strategy toward the protests will be resolute, without resorting to bloodshed. The Chinese authorities cannot compromise with the protestors, but they also want to avoid strong-arm tactics that could result in casualties. This dichotomy between a firm ideology and passive enforcement of it epitomizes the new cold war. And what is happening in Hong Kong is a microcosm of the overall global political scene.

(Banner photo: A sign hung from a barricade in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok District on October 16, 2014. © Reuters/Aflo.)

China Hong Kong demonstration pro-democracy chief executive elections Joshua Wong Benny Tai Yiu-ting Occupy Central peaceful protests