This week the long running anti-government protests in Hong Kong flared up again, with student protesters trying to get into government headquarters and being repelled with tear gas and pepper spray. The students are angry at what they see as Beijing’s broken promises on democracy in Hong Kong. After being forced away by riot police, they are now gathering again in a park near the government building. So what exactly are they protesting? And what does it say about China today?
The trouble started recently when Beijing announced that the Hong Kong elections in 2017 for the Chief Executive (like a Prime Minister) would not be fully free as had been suggested. Instead, candidates who wanted to run would first have to be approved by a committee – in effect meaning that Hong Kong would only be able to choose one of Bejiing’s men.
This has caused great anger in a city that only returned to China 17 years ago. While there was no real democracy under the British, there was no oppression either, and Hong Kong was able to become one of the most wealthy and developed cities in Asia. Due to its unique nature, China has allowed the city to keep many of its policies. Hong Kong has a multi-party parliament, its own education system, economic policies and even control over immigration. This control extends to the border with China, where there is friction between Hong Kong residents and mainlanders trying to gain access to the prosperous city.
While these rights are guaranteed under Hong Kong law, many fear that Beijing is looking for a chance to reassert its authority, and the city is sensitive to any overstep by the government. The last time there was a large scale confrontation like this was in 2012 when the government tried to introduce educational reforms that were seen as ‘brainwashing‘. Beijing ended up backing down then, but they don’t look like giving up this time.
It seems to me that the unrest in Hong Kong is a sign of things to come in China itself. It’s hard to overstate how immense and diverse China is. With over a billion people, a wildly varying economic situation and constant low level unrest in the Muslim areas in the West, the Chinese government has to keep a whole lot of people either happy or cowed – their police force has to deal with over 100 000 incidents of protest a year. For the moment the government is still committed to the one party state that has made China an economic superpower. But as cities like Hong Kong, Shanghai and Guangzhou become richer and richer, their people will start to question their lack of any political voice. If the Communist party wants to hold on to power throughout the 21st century, they will have some tricky work ahead of them.