Wow, what a week it’s been for Hong Kong. The protests here have been just about the only subject of conversation in the city, and have hit news headlines around the world (apart from – probably – China).
For those of you who don’t really know what has happened here, I’ll try and explain it as briefly and clearly as I can. In a nutshell, the people of Hong Kong are making their voices heard by protesting because they were promised free and fair elections by 2017 when Hong Kong was handed back to the Chinese by the British, and now it looks like that won’t happen.
But let me start from the beginning…
Hong Kong Island was initially a small unimportant part of China until it became part of the British Empire in 1842 after the first Opium War against China, and in 1860 the Kowloon Peninsular (where I now live) was added to the British colony after the second Opium War. In 1898, the New Territories was leased to the British for 99 years, completing the territory of Hong Kong as we know it today.
In 1984, the British entered into talks with China over the future of Hong Kong because it would be difficult for Hong Kong to function well if only the New Territories were returned to the Chinese in 1997. It was agreed that the British would return all of Hong Kong to the Chinese as long as Hong Kong could continue to run as an autonomous region for a minimum of 50 years in all areas other than defence and foreign policy, and could therefore continue to enjoy certain freedoms not allowed on the mainland, such as the right to protest.
Since the handover, Hong Kong has been run by the Legislative Council, which has to date been elected by a committee of 1200 people handpicked from different professions, such as doctors, lawyers etc. However, at some point (I’m not sure exactly when) the Chinese agreed that Hong Kongers could elect their Chief Executive by 2017 in a fair, democratic vote.
That is, until a few months ago, when they changed their mind on this and decided that the vote could still go ahead but the candidates would have to be approved by Beijing first. This essentially means that whoever became the Chief Executive would be pro-Beijing and the Hong Kongers would be voting between very similar candidates.
A Hong Kong group called Occupy Central were keeping a close eye on developments and had threatened to have a mass sit-in protest in the Central district (hence the name) if Beijing changed their minds. They initially proposed that Occupy Central would start on 1st October. However, Hong Kong University students also decided to strike in protest for one week, which culminated in a march to the government offices in Admiralty on 28th September. The Occupy Central group saw this and decided to bring their protest forward and join the students in Admiralty, and the mass protests began in earnest.
The Hong Kong police (or was it the army?) were initially pretty heavy handed and obviously wanted to break up the protests before they could get too established. They fired tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd, a move which shocked the Hong Kongers and had the opposite effect to what was hoped. Many more joined the protests in solidarity and over the next few days the protest swelled and additional protest sites in Causeway Bay, Mongkok and Tsim Sha Tsui started up. I think the cause was helped by the fact that there were two public holidays in the middle of the week so people could join the protests without having to worry about their jobs!
The protests have been noted as being amazingly peaceful, well-managed and tidy. Hong Kong is such a safe, clean city and it’s lovely to see the locals keeping it that way in such extraordinary circumstances. I like this article by the BBC on some surprising aspects of the protests.
However, unfortunately in the last day or so there has been some less peaceful aspects to the protests. Anti-Occupy Central or pro-Beijing Hong Kongers have been dismantling tents and barricades and starting to rouse things up a bit. The atmosphere in Hong Kong is very tense and no-one knows what will happen next.
It’s also very unclear what the conclusion to this will be. The protesters can’t continue forever. Most of them (I assume) have jobs and bills to pay. Businesses are being affected by the protests and I fear that may cause sentiment to turn more against the protesters. Meanwhile, the Hong Kong and Chinese government are unmoved. Calls for the current Chief Executive to resign have fallen on deaf ears and the only move they have made is to suggest that talks be opened with the student activists.
To be honest, I’d be incredibly surprised if the protesters get what they want. They are dealing with the Chinese government, who definitely aren’t interested in democracy! I’ve heard that they’ve been blocking coverage of the protests in China because they’re worried that other cities might decide to copy Hong Kong and demand democracy themselves. Even in Hong Kong, they’re very unlikely to allow elections where someone who isn’t aligned to their principles could be voted in.
In the meantime, anti-mainland sentiment has definitely been stirred up. People here are very worried about having the freedoms they enjoy taken away. I joked with Tom that the thing that might cause the most Hong Kongers to take to the streets would be the day when the mainland turned off access to Facebook! But more seriously, I think it would be very hard for the people here to live under the heavy censorship that the rest of China is under having had free access to the internet and world news previously.
I guess it’s just a waiting game now, to see what will happen.
The sources I used to write this article are wikipedia, this excellent (and more in-depth) summary of the background of the protests, BBC News, my own knowledge, and the Fragrant Harbour and Musings on Hong Kong blogs. The last two are providing great on-the-ground insights to the protests. Interesting stuff.
Thanks for reading!