by Marijse van den Berg
Over the past few weeks, protesters have taken to the streets in Hong Kong to fight for political freedom. One might ask if, being part of The People’s Republic of China (PCR), Hong Kong can achieve any form of freedom at all. In order to be able to understand the difficulty in answering this question, it is important to understand the colonial past of Hong Kong.
From 1842 to 1997 Hong Kong was a British colony and as such independent of China. Being a British colony has allowed Hong Kong economy to develop and prosper, especially in the second half of the twentieth century. In 1984 the PCR and Britain signed an agreement for handover of Hong Kong to the PCR with the understanding that the handover would take place in 1997. The terms of the agreement specified Hong Kong would become a Special Administrative Region (SAR) that would be guaranteed autonomy for 50 years, so up until 2047. In addition, Basic Law was installed in Hong Kong of which the purpose was to protect civil rights in Hong Kong. The implication of these terms and the Basic Law is that basically very little would change in Hong Kong after handover as compared to before the handover, thus essentially they were meant to limit mainland influences in Hong Kong.
Right before the handover, the British governor of Hong Kong announced democratic reforms in Hong Kong without consultation of the Chinese government. This outraged the Chinese government, which in return promised to undo reforms after the handover. In 2004, the Chinese government ruled that approval of any changes in Hong Kong election laws must be sought and obtained before they can be made, giving the Beijing government more power to move against democracy in Hong Kong. After three years of protests and talks, in 2007, the Chinese government promised that they would allow the people of Hong Kong to directly elect their leader in 2017 and their legislators in 2020.
So what is currently happening? In 2017, democratic elections for a new Hong Kong leader will be held. However, last August the Chinese government decided against fully democratic elections for a Hong Kong leader. It was decided that the Chinese government will nominate candidates who can run for election, limiting the promised human suffrage. Protesters feel that this so-called pre-election is in conflict with Basic Law, that it defeats the purpose of the elections and stands in the way of democracy. But most of all, the people of Hong Kong feel they have been cheated by the Chinese government.
As a reaction to these decisions, students started protesting in the streets on September 22th. These protests, which started quite organized, spiraled out of control as Hong Kong police started fighting protesters with tear gas. Instead of dispersing the crowds, numbers increased and protesters protect themselves with umbrellas, which has given the protests the nickname ‘the Umbrella Revolution’. Protesters refuse to disperse until the recent decisions are reversed. As of October 6th, the government and pro-democratic leaders started discussing terms on which discussions on political reform in Hong Kong could be held. This is proving to be quite the challenge. As time progresses, protesters are still occupying three of the most important districts of Hong Kong. And even though their numbers are falling, protesters are encouraged to remain where they are to put pressure on the government to make concessions.
The largest demographic represented amongst the protesters in China are students age 15 to 25. They are a group of people who have learned about the ’89 Democracy Movement which was forcefully brought down by the Chinese government and became known as the ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’, an event that has been largely hushed up in the rest of China. This is the group of people who have been raised in the post-colonial era and who have benefited from post-colonial reforms. Most of all, they are a group of people who have grown up in a free and international environment in which they have developed into free-spirited world citizens. They are also the people who will live and work in Hong Kong for the coming decades. Their success will be largely dependent on the economic success of Hong Kong, which in turn depends on the perception that Hong Kong institutions are independent and have a high degree of autonomy. Because this generation is the new face of Hong Kong, the Chinese government looks poised to turn Hong Kong into an enemy unless it reverses its decisions concerning this same autonomy. And the PCR does not have an umbrella big enough to shield itself from the economic consequences of vilifying Hong Kong.
Marijse van den Berg, class of 2014 is from Achterveld, the Netherlands.