Iron Fist

Is Hong Kong Tiananmen 2.0?

‘The Umbrella Revolution’ is taking place in an environment very different from Beijing 25 years ago, and the government knows the movement could spread much farther and faster.

09.29.14 2:00 PM ET

A friend once joked that Chinese democracy is simple: people collectively ignore the laws they don't agree with. When it comes to the sticky issue of democratic reforms in Hong Kong, or lack thereof, the central government in Beijing is doing exactly that.

Hongkongers are angry. Secondary school and university students are on strike. Teachers have joined them. On Sunday, thousands, possibly tens of thousands, occupied public space in Central, the city's financial district, and Admiralty, where the government headquarters is located. Cellphone service was cut. Police have deployed tear gas. One of the student leaders, Joshua Wong, was accused of being a puppet of the American government. He was arrested by the Hong Kong police but has been released.

Police officers stand in a cloud of tear gas during a demonstration in Hong Kong 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 on September 28, in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days. It marked a dramatic escalation of protests in the city, which rarely sees such violence, after a tense week of largely contained student-led demonstrations exploded into mass angry street protests.  AFP PHOTO / XAUME OLLEROS        (Photo credit should read XAUME OLLEROS/AFP/Getty Images)

Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty

Some are calling it the Umbrella Revolution, because the protestors are armed with nothing other than umbrellas and swimming goggles against the pepper spray that police are using against them.

Even some police officers appear sympathetic to the protestors' cause. One officer spoke through a bullhorn, “We are Hongkongers too! We have families too!” Those in riot gear have disobeyed orders by removing their gas masks. “We hope that both sides can be empathetic, and that we can respect each other. We thank all those who are here in peace!”

On Monday morning, the protestors were still going strong. They took the chance to clear up all the trash that was left behind. Donations kept coming in, mostly in plastic grocery bags filled with food, water, and milk. Eight-lane avenues normally buzzing with traffic during rush hour were empty. Some subway exits in Causeway Bay, a major shopping district, were barricaded.

For years, the former fishing village turned British colony turned financial hub has been on a quest to assert its right to choose its own political leader. Before the sovereignty of Hong Kong was returned by Great Britain to the People's Republic of China, the two sides drafted Hong Kong's new constitutional document, called the Basic law, in which universal suffrage is stated as an ultimate aim.

The principle was rooted in the concept that China is one country, but there could be two systems—Hong Kong would operate under its existing capitalist economic and political system, while the rest of China would continue on its path of socialism with Chinese characteristics, with a few exceptions. However, no timeline was specified and the legal language was hazy, so when the Union Jack was replaced by five gold stars on a field of red, Hong Kong became a geopolitical chess piece. The murkiness of the Basic Law left room for Beijing to dodge the subject, whereas Great Britain was fine with a hands-off approach, but still made the occasional jab. The New Yorker, The Economist, and many other media outlets have joined in to jump on Beijing as well.

Beijing's massive bureaucracy sees the developments in Hong Kong as metastasis, with shades of what Iran's ayatollahs call westoxification. Hackers who were probably working for the Chinese government attacked Hong Kong pro-democracy websites. At an anti-democracy demonstration organized in August, participants were paid up to $60 a head for a few hours of marching, creating the confusing scene of South Asian migrants attending as representatives of Chinese community organizations. Whereas the Hong Kong police reported that there were only 98,000 attendees of this year's pro-democracy march on July 1, they said 250,000 attended the anti-democracy protest, though photos taken on the two days suggest otherwise. To top if off, Reuters reported that Zhang Xiaoming, director of China's Liaison Office in Hong Kong, attended a meeting with pro-democracy lawmakers in August and allegedly said, "The fact that you are still alive already shows the country's inclusiveness."

Translating quick quips can be a fuzzy matter. Some saw it as a threat, but those tea leaves are hard to read. In any case, things seemed dire.

When Beijing finally put its foot down and ruled out the possibility of open elections in Hong Kong, the Occupy Movement declared an “era of civil disobedience.” Tensions have been steadily rising for years, but recent developments have been different from the annual protests of past. This year, Hongkongers participated in PopVote, a mock referendum that gathered nearly 800,000 votes via smartphone ballots. Despite the lack of an immediate impact, the mock vote infused the practice of democracy into the lives of Hongkongers. Think of PopVote as a dry run for free and fair elections in the future.

It should be noted that Hong Kong has 5 million eligible voters, of which about 3.2 million are registered and only 1 million actually participate in regular elections for their legislators. The majority of Hongkongers see the elections as meaningless as they are unable to choose the city's top leader, who was previously picked by a panel of 1,200 pro-Beijing individuals, most of whom have major business interests in Mainland China. In 2017, those reins will be loosened, and Hongkongers will be able to vote for their Chief Executive. However, only candidates who are screened by the 1,200-piece panel and deemed “patriotic” will appear on the ballot.

Semi-rigged elections, and blurred lines between business and government—Beijing's wrangling would make Boss Tweed proud.

But hope can still be found in unexpected places. Beijing's moves in Hong Kong have reignited political interest. Young people, in particular students, are now actively engaging the establishment, a phenomenon that has been uncommon for decades.

Scholarism is a student activist group formed in 2011 at a time when China was making moves to revamp Hong Kong's education curriculum, attempting to make the curriculum more “patriotic.” Parents and students alike were in uproar. Scholarism launched protests that culminated in a hunger strike, and Beijing backed off. The post-90s generation used to be called lethargic, spoiled, and cynical, but the acute political awareness of Scholarism proved those stereotypes wrong, and their members were taken seriously enough by some of Hong Kong's legislators to be invited for talks with government officials.

But is this Tianmen 2.0? The tanks of the People's Liberation Army probably won't be rolling in to clear any landmarks, though six armored vehicles were spotted moving across the border from Mainland China into Hong Kong as they their way through the dense territory of Kowloon.

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State media said crowds are gathering in the streets of Hong Kong to celebrate the upcoming National Day on October 1. Weibo, China's equivalent to Twitter, has censored posts from Hong Kong. Instagram has reportedly been blocked in some parts of China. Many Mainlanders spend their holidays in Hong Kong so they can go shopping. Central and Admiralty have some of the most expensive retail outlets in the world, and they are popular with the Mainland crowd. Those who are making their way south may soon have first row seats for a display of civil disobedience at a scale that is unthinkable in the Mainland.

Beijing doesn't believe that the people of Hong Kong are intelligent enough to find their own way. Hong Kong may have been ruled by the British for a century, but the city grew into what it is today largely because the city is made up of savvy, diligent people who are willing to put in the effort to improve their future. Hong Kong is the only Chinese city that commemorates the tragedy of Tiananmen by holding a candlelight vigil every year, not to embarrass Beijing but to remember that the struggle for a better future can come with a heavy human cost.

A common accusation hurled at Hongkongers is that many of them are from other parts of China, that they only managed to prosper because they were in an environment that offers opportunities that didn't exist in Mainland China, and somehow lost their Chineseness in the process. Yet the influx of migrants from Mainland China into Hong Kong suggests that even if the Chinese are not vocally criticizing their government, they yearn for the freedoms that are guaranteed across the permeable border.

Beijing is reacting strongly to the idea of open elections out of fear. It is scared of the uncertainty of opening up the political playing field to those who didn't attend a party cadre school, so it is responding with a brand of nationalism that is a over a century old, forged in an era when China was physically divided by western nations and the threat of Balkanization extreme—a time when the current ruling party wasn't even in power. Hongkongers aren't asking to secede from China, but Beijing's faulty calculus is only alienating the city.

China might be polishing its image as a benevolent ally to developing nations, but at home, the velvet glove still hides an iron fist.