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.