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.”
This betrayal of their hopes of eventual self-governance is what led the people of Hong Kong, umbrellas in hand, to take to the streets in protest.
A Flash Mob of Democracy Protesters
The demonstrations are the biggest challenge to Beijing since the Tiananmen demonstrations of 25 years ago, and they may be even harder to put down. In part this is because the umbrella revolution is digital. The young demonstrators communicate at the speed of light, texting instead of faxing, posting instead of typing, and instantly picture-sharing with their smartphones. Believe it or not, they even have drones flying overhead to monitor the situation from the air.
The authorities have fought back by slowing down the Internet and, rumor has it, preparing to shut down the city’s cell phone networks. But the demonstrators, more tech savvy than the authorities, are one step ahead. The smartphone users among them all downloaded a “Firechat” app that allows them, using Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, to talk to one another “off the grid.”
Beijing, acting through its tough-guy governor in Hong Kong, first tried to threaten the student demonstrators into surrendering the streets. This tactic failed. Then it tried to overwhelm the protesters with tear gas and pepper spray and only bolstered the ranks of the umbrella uprising. Given the broad public support enjoyed by the young people, it is hard to see how Beijing disperses the protesters without making major concessions to local democrats — or shedding blood.
The Chinese government has been more successful at stopping the umbrella revolution from spreading throughout China. Chinese Internet censors are working overtime, scrubbing photos and comments about what is happening in Hong Kong from sites like Instagram and Sina Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. The government-controlled media has ignored the protests, except for the occasional editorial blaming the unrest on devious foreigners.
Still, word of what is happening in Hong Kong is getting through to China’s own dissidents, some of whom have spoken out in support of the demonstrators. “The outcome of this battle for democracy,” says Beijing dissident Hu Jia, who is now under house arrest, “will also determine future battles for democracy for all of China.”
Beijing’s greatest fear is that the unrest will spread beyond Hong Kong to China’s other major cities in a kind of “democracy contagion.” So far that hasn’t happened on any scale. A few protesters have gathered in Shanghai’s People’s Square, in the center of that city, to show their support for Hong Kong’s students and to ask for the vote. But China’s other major cities remain calm, at least for the moment.
What Will Communist Party leader Xi Jinping do?
Chinese President Xi Jinping is said to have remarked that the reason the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 was that no one “had the balls to stand up for it." It is unlikely that he would stand idly by while China unraveled in the same way.
China’s state-run media has reported that, if the demonstrations continue, that Beijing may send in the People’s Armed Police into Hong Kong to restore order. Others fear that martial law may soon be declared.
President Xi may believe that such threats may convince the protesters to fold up their umbrellas and go home. I am afraid that it will only strengthen their resolve to continue to occupy the financial district.
It is hard for me to imagine a peaceful ending to this stand-off. Even if Xi is able to keep the lid on democracy protests in China, he still will not allow the people of Hong Kong to vote in real — rather than staged — elections. If he did, the contagion of democracy would still spread, albeit more slowly, across China. Chinese in other cities would surely demand the same privilege as their compatriots in Hong Kong.
My friend Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 82-year-old retired bishop of Hong Kong, is with the protesters every day. “I’m praying that the situation in Hong Kong won’t become another Tiananmen,” he says.
I am too.
Steven W. Mosher is the President of the Population Research Institute and the author of Population Control: Real Costs, Illusory Benefits.