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How Will the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong End?

AFP PHOTO / AARON TAM

CHINA, HONG KONG : Police fire tear gas upon pro-democracy demonstrators near the Hong Kong government headquarters on September 28, 2014. Police fired tear gas as tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators brought parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill Sunday, in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days. AFP PHOTO / AARON TAM

Steven W. Mosher - published on 10/03/14 - updated on 06/07/17

The citizens of Hong Kong want the local democracy they were promised, but will they get Chinese tanks Instead?

It’s called the “Umbrella Revolution” for a good reason. From the air the colorful umbrellas form an almost solid shield over the main thoroughfares of Hong Kong’s financial district. They are held up by tens of thousands of pro-democracy protesters, mostly students, who took to the streets after Beijing reneged on commitments made nearly 20 years ago to allow the direct election of Hong Kong’s leader in 2017.

The umbrellas help to shield the protesters from the tropical sun, which can drive afternoon temperatures up to over 90 degrees. Last Sunday, they also proved useful in warding off the tear gas and pepper spray that the Hong Kong police fired at them. The aggressive action shocked the seven million residents of this peaceful and prosperous city on China’s southern coast, and prompted thousands of them — upset at the way that the “children,” were being mistreated — to join the students in the streets.

But many fear the peaceful protesters will soon face something far more dangerous than gas-mask-clad riot police and noxious chemicals. Just a few miles away, thousands of heavily armed Chinese soldiers drill outside their barracks, awaiting the order to attack the peaceful protesters. Are we headed for a second Tiananmen massacre, this time not in Beijing but in Hong Kong?

That sobering thought keeps me up at night. Hong Kong was my home for several years. I studied Mandarin Chinese at the Chinese University of Hong Kong in the late 1970s. I speak fluent Cantonese, the first language of the majority of the city’s residents, and I have many friends who still reside there.

The Chinese residents of the city had thrived under the former rule of the benign British, who allowed their native entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. Then, on June 30, 1997, Hong Kong reverted to Chinese rule, and things began to change. Dashing the hopes of the city’s population for self-government, the Communist Chinese government, without consulting the people, appointed a new governor of Hong Kong, along with a number of other senior officials. And, in violation of earlier promises that the People’s Liberation Army would be kept out of Hong Kong, the PLA did indeed march in.

Then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping had also promised that Hong Kong would be allowed “a high degree of autonomy” and that its “capitalist system and lifestyle,” would continue. He came up with the then-novel idea of “one country, two systems,” a socialist system for China and a capitalist system for Hong Kong.

But in the years since then, Beijing-appointed governors have gradually assumed more and more control over a city once known for its laissez-faire ways. Hong Kong’s freewheeling press has been tamed. Freedom of the press still exists in theory, but the major dailies are now owned by tycoons friendly to Beijing. Journalists critical of CCP rule have been threatened, intimidated, and fired. The Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) reported in July 2014 that the preceding year had been the "darkest for press freedom" in several decades.

Perhaps the last hope of Hong Kong’s democrats was a promise by Beijing to eventually allow direct elections for the governor of Hong Kong. These were slated to begin in 2017, according to a timetable laid down by the last British Governor, Chris Patton, and agreed to by Beijing.

Now, as that deadline approaches, China’s leaders have reneged on even that promise. The National People’s Congress — China’s rubber-stamp parliament — declared on August 31, 2014, that the residents of Hong Kong will only be allowed to vote for candidates who declare their “love” for China and its Communist system and who have been pre-approved by Beijing. As if that wasn’t clear enough, the Chinese State Council added a further chilling note: the “power to run local affairs” granted to Hong Kong exists only insofar “as authorized by the central leadership.”

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