By Yasmine Kherfi
In September, Beijing announced its decision to nominate future chief executive candidates of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR). Subsequently, citizens of Hong Kong have taken to the streets, demanding their freedom to elect their own leaders without mainland China’s intervention. The protests began through the civil disobedience campaign known as Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which was initiated by a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Eventually, the SAR government made the decision to confront the protesters and clashes erupted between them and the police.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law, A Source of Controversy
Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which serves as a constitution, is the essential issue of contention in the current situation. Protesters believe that Beijing violated its promise to grant the former British colony universal suffrage, a goal stipulated in Article 45 of the Basic Law.
The Hong Kong protests are yet another example that reflects how history shapes present day politics. When the British handed Hong Kong over to China in 1997, both sovereign countries had formerly signed a binding international agreement that defined the relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China. The agreement largely shaped Hong Kong’s Basic Law and what came to be known as the “one country, two systems” model. It specified China’s agreement to maintain SAR’s capitalist system, as well as the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legislative, executive and judicial powers. It also ensured the protection of rights and civil liberties such as the freedom of speech and assembly.
Nevertheless, as in many constitutional documents, some statements of the Basic Law are ambiguous and leave space for different interpretations. On one side, Occupy Central protesters believe that Beijing’s selection of candidates is a breach of article 45 of the Basic Law. According to them, the autonomy of Hong Kong SAR is being undermined. On the other side, Beijing has chosen an interpretation that permits restraints on autonomy, particularly in the electoral process. By nominating the candidates, it ensures that Hong Kong’s chief executive is loyal to the country and to the central government.
Police’s Excessive Use of Force
According to protesters, even the less controversial statements of the Sino-British agreement have been violated. Timothy Tse, a Hong Kong Chinese student at the University of Toronto, says that the citizens of Hong Kong are known for their peaceful conduct during protest and that many people did not expect such excessive use of force by the police. Protesters complain about the police’s use of batons and firing of pepper spray to dismantle the movement. In a place such as Hong Kong, where civil rights and liberties are guaranteed free practice, this quickly galvanized international support.
Motivated by Economic Demands
Beneath the calls for electoral reform is a deep frustration at the economic effects of Beijing’s integration policies. The Hong Kong residents regard the influx of mainlanders in recent years as a threat to the locals’ economic opportunities. They have witnessed an increasing number of mainlanders benefiting from their education system and competing for employment opportunities with Hong Kong’s educated youth. The inward migration has driven food and real estate prices up and places pressure on Hong Kong’s social services and infrastructure. For example, it congests Hong Kong’s transit system and has also resulted in the overcrowding of local maternity wards by pregnant mainlanders.
Yet, for Beijing, the movement threatens the stability of Hong Kong and its economic well-being. For an international financial hub like Hong Kong, and the third largest stock exchange in the world, social unrest is particularly worrisome. The pro-democracy protests continue to congest major roads and paralyse parts of the financial city. Such instability decreases foreign investors’ confidence and Hong Kong’s international economic competitiveness. The high cost associated with interrupting Hong Kong’s business signals how important the issues at stake are to the protesters, especially in light of Hong Kong’s strong work ethics. Many protesters continue to skip school and working days to express their frustration. However, some Toronto-based activists claim that it is worth the short term risks and costs.
The Mainland’s Domestic Struggle
Government-controlled Chinese media often portrays the pro-democracy movement as one engineered by foreign powers and western ideologies, committed to undermining the rising global power of China and its confidence as a united nation. The controlled media has clearly adopted a strong nationalist tone in response to the events in Hong Kong.
However, the global conspiracy theories might serve to deflect attention from Beijing’s ineptitude in confronting its domestic struggles. The government has been unsuccessful in its efforts to address the rising income inequalities and intensifying class tensions in China. The benefits of strong economic growth over the past decades have been unevenly distributed. While the economic pie is growing, the rate at which the rich accumulate wealth is rising rapidly. As a result, income inequality is increasing and this limits the economic benefits for the poor.
Nonetheless, China has become an important player in the global economy. Recently, the International Monetary Fund announced that China has overtaken the U.S as the world’s largest economy. This rise in power is likely to further embolden Beijing to maintain its assertive stance regarding Hong Kong affairs.
Foreign Policy Implications?
Professor Lynette Ong, from the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, suggests that the social unrest in Hong Kong is not likely to alter foreign governments’ relations with China, due to the large economic and geopolitical interests involved. She added that Beijing is unlikely to respond to external pressure because it is reluctant to make concessions with Hong Kong protesters, fearing it could encourage protests in other regions of China. The central government in Beijing has maintained distance from the Hong Kong protests and has entrusted the SAR government with handling the situation. Professor Ong also stated that China’s current stance towards Hong Kong is typical and not radical, in light of the history of Chinese foreign policy.
While the protests in Hong Kong have hardly registered on official international relations, the Occupy Central movement has demonstrated the transnational character of emerging pro-democracy movements at the global grassroots level, as many protests took place around the world to express solidarity with Hong Kong activists.
Yasmine Kherfi is a third year student at the University of Toronto studying Political Science.