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Analysis II
Last Updated: 01/15/2015
Hong Kong: Between Democracy and Autocracy
Raluca Batanoiu

Raluca Batanoiu reviews the issues and events around Hong Kong's "umbrella revolution", as last years student-led pro-democracy demonstrations have been called, and considers their implications for Beijing.


In March last year, The Economist published a special report on democracy, the greatest political aspiration of the previous century, which lately seems to have reached a deadlock. The British weekly publication discussed, among others, the case of China, as a global economic power, whose autocratic regime, against all expectations, has turned out to be successful, while various democratic countries have faced significant setbacks in the past fifteen years, particularly with the great failure in Iraq, and the shattered illusions of the Arab Spring.

According to the Pew Survey of Global Attitudes for 2013[1], 85% of the Chinese population expressed a favourable view of their country, unlike 31% of the Americans. The Economist also reported that in the past 30 years, China, in spite of censorship and tight control over her citizens, has managed to double the living standard of the population. Yet the aspiration for democracy, embodied by the desire for freedom of speech and governmental transparency, remains strong in China.[2] The most recent example is the case of Hong Kong, whose citizens took to the streets in 2014 to express their dissatisfaction with the incumbent government and to reject Beijing’s preapproval of Hong Kong’s election candidates.

Occupy Central Protests

Thousands of demonstrators on the streets of Hong Kong at the end of August signalled, in a peaceful manner, their willingness to resist and oppose the government, reacting en masse to coverage in the South China Morning Post about the decision of the National People's Congress (NPC) regarding the elections in 2017 for the Hong Kong leadership. The protesters rallied in favour of open and democratic nominations whereby the government in Beijing no longer controls the electoral process and the citizens can freely choose their own candidates.

According to the Hong Kong Constitution, the Basic Law stipulates one country, two systems, where the Chief Executive is elected on the basis of a universal voting that follows a democratic procedure. The NPC proposals announced instead that the nomination of the Hong Kong leader must be first approved by at least half of the members of the central committee in Beijing. This would deny the Hong Kong people the ability to take part in the decision-making process and to cast their vote for candidates that have not been pre-selected by the authorities in Beijing. Furthermore, the NPC proposals also implicitly mean that those who are critical of the government stand no chance to be part of the political arena.

In September, the protests escalated. The members of the Student Federation in Hong Kong joined the demonstrators, led mainly by Benny Tai, one of founders of the Occupy Central movement. The student activists, supported by academics and non-teaching staff, organized a series of rallies and public lectures in the park near the government offices. They demanded the resignation of the current leader of Hong Kong, Leun Chun-ying. While the local police were using tear gas and pepper spray to disperse the increasing number of protesters, the government in Beijing was praising the way the Hong Kong leader was handling the so-called illegal rebellious movements on the street, where Western forces were blamed for standing behind.

Called “The Umbrella Revolution” from the umbrellas initially used against the rains or the scorching sun, these became the symbol of a pacifist shield against the police that were aggressively trying to get rid of the protesters. The Umbrella Revolution triggered an online campaign with a worldwide support in the fight for democracy in Hong Kong. But the Occupy Central protests are about much more than municipal politics.

Since China took over the Hong Kong region, the seven million population is marked by one of the highest income disparities.[3] Many university graduates cannot afford to move out of their parental home, while the regional entrepreneurs, in cooperation with the Beijing government, maximize the prices on the real estate market to the detriment of the local population. According to Leun Chun-ying in an interview for New York Times, the problems of the Occupy Protests demonstrators could be solved by extending the real estate market, as well as by accelerating the economic growth where the corporate elite is a key factor. The Hong Kong leader also opined that the elections cannot be free because they would give voice to the working class and the poor majority in the region, that, when granted political influence, would choose populist candidates. The authorities in Beijing have not changed their position: the Hong Kong residents can vote, only after NPC will have chosen its candidates, and Leun Chun-ying stays in power.

In the beginning of December, the leaders of the Occupy Central announced they would turn themselves in to put an end to the violence that had escalated over the past months. Benny Tai and the other founders of the movement asked their supporters to withdraw after the intensified acts of violence over the demonstrators in the Admiralty district in Hong Kong. These had sought to besiege the government offices responsible for disrupting the peaceful movement, leading to further cycles of escalation. After turning themselves in, the leaders of Occupy Central were released in less than an hour without any charges. The young supporters claim that public opinion is still on their side, although the protests have weakened and the Hong Kong residents have become ever more worried about the public disorder and the confrontations between the police and the local authorities.

In his first annual policy address in January, Leun Chun-ying said that the need for economic growth outweighs the calls for greater democracy, stating that universal suffrage would give leeway to anarchy. According to the Hong Kong leader the reforms to take place in 2017, when people will be able to vote directly for a chief executive from a list of candidates approved by Beijing, represent a big step forward for the democratic development of the region.

Even though the Occupy Central protests failed to meet their immediate goals, their success can be seen through the influence they may have over the role of China in the whole region. At the moment, the Hong Kong case has reminded the Taiwanese of the tight control of Beijing and the NPC autocracy over the Chinese provinces. The recent elections in Taiwan brought the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to power on the East Asian Island whose sovereignty is not universally recognized. At both local and regional elections in November, Ma Ying-jeou, the president of the Kuomintang Party, who strengthened the relations between Taipei and Beijing, lost against the DPP, which is critical of the Chinese union. After the Hong Kong protests, the Taiwanese supporters of the democratic camp have refused the regime of one country, two systems that China wants to also apply to this island too.

Hong Kong in, yet against China

In 1842, when the British Empire conquered the region on the Southern coast of China, Hong Kong is said to have been a barren, desolated area. Yet in the middle of the twentieth century, it had already become a wealthy business centre and the Chinese on the mainland were able to take advantage of it. In spite of the 1967 revolts against the British and in support of the Cultural Revolution of Mao, Hong Kong - China relations remained very close, at least from an economic point of view: business in the South was based on the continental, Chinese labour, while the Chinese government used Hong Kong for commerce and trading with the rest of the world. It was exactly this economic interdependence that made the United Kingdom in 1984 decide to cede Hong Kong back to China in 1997. Based on the agreement, even though the region was to become a Chinese province, it had to keep its capitalist regime. The 1989 tensions caught the residents of Hong Kong in the midst of an identity conflict between the Chinese spirit and the desire for liberty and democracy. In fact the Tiananmen Square protests from over 25 years ago against the Communist Party represent a lesson for Hong Kong and what China stands for, reminding the political, social, and cultural differences between the two regimes.[4]

The decision one country, two systems led Hong Kong on two different (opposing) directions: either as a state with its own regime, independent from the one in Beijing, or as an integral part of two different systems, but one in accord with the other.[5] Even though the Basic Law grants freedom of speech that should be upheld by the territory's independent court, according to Freedom House[6] the freedom of press in Hong Kong is greatly undermined: first by the NPC that makes final interpretations of the local laws; secondly by the Chinese surveillance in the territory; and thirdly by the mainland economic interests of the local media owners. The same situation is mentioned also by Reporters without Borders[7] that notes the constant decline in the press freedom in Hong Kong. The situation thus oscillates between media that are controlled by the Beijing authorities, and other alternative means of communication that have an important role within the civil society[8], where the growth of new online networks, given the technological progress, helps to support various social movements.[9]

Although Hong Kong took the top position on the 2014 Index of Economic Freedom[10], the regime cannot be called democratic and is in no way independent from the control of Beijing. In essence, Hong Kong is an administrative region that considers itself liberal and that does not subscribe to the communist values, although it does lie under the Chinese authorities. At the same time, the region is marked by serious shortcomings when it comes to democracy, because even internally there are different ideologies[11] that have subsisted throughout time. In this sense, Hong Kong is a hybrid regime that, besides the fact that is not a transition regime, cannot be defined either as democratic, or authoritarian[12], because it contains elements from both categories that co-exist simultaneously.[13] As an autonomous region, but under the Chinese sovereignty, the hybrid and semi-democratic regime of Hong Kong becomes ever more vulnerable[14] vis-a-vis the Beijing government on whose support it has become dependent, given its political (tight) control.[15]

At the same time, Hong Kong is known as the “City of Protests”, because the residents have traditionally exercised their right to take to streets openly against the Communist Party and the union with China, organizing non-violent protests to support democracy.[16] These movements, which have taken place more frequently in the past decade, could be seen as a way of expressing identity, because the Hong Kong citizens are Chinese, yet behold democratic, Western values, a combination that has made them ever more aware of the political climate in Beijing, and helped them form a common conscience when taking part in street protests.[17]

Democracy, in the hands of the people

Recent civil protests, be they in Hong Kong, Ukraine, or Turkey, do not take to streets as a strike or a picket, but instead occupy public spaces, most often in a non-violent manner. They are mainly facilitated by technology and social media that help them expand beyond the local level where they take place. And although they do not typically have a clear ideology and a leader promoting a concrete program that would give the strengths and ability to take over, these protests are the proof that nowadays citizens have the power to express their wishes, to create a common political identity and to intervene and challenge the authority of a ruling government.[18]

Street demonstrations now operate on the online level as well as the local area, allowing them not only to expand, but to bring about new opinions that anyone can freely express.[19] Thus, political activity is longer limited to the elite houses or the organisations and parties they belong to, as was once the case. Thanks to the Internet and various means of communication, activists can now become participants in the decision-making process and turn into actors in the so-called politics of protests[20], reinventing political activism and the way social movements are being shaped.

Western ideas of modernity revolving around the democratic liberalism paved their way also in Asia[21], confirming the progress of the human development, measured not just through the emancipative values[22], but also through the Human Development Index. Although, according to the Freedom House, political liberty at the global level is decreasing[23], the level of human liberty worldwide, seen through emancipation, modernity, and democratization, proves to be increasing. The difference comes from the fact that the Freedom House methodology[24] takes into account mainly the civil and political rights, whilst the emancipative analysis is based on the level of democracy of a society centred on human values, measured through the World Value Survey indicators.[25]

Referring to Hong Kong, the British values brought prosperity in the Southern part of China, because they had been preserved and nourished for more than a century; studies show that the liberal and democratic type of patriotism (in contrast to the absolutist, hegemonic type, imposed by the Chinese authorities on mainland China) defines the course of education in Hong Kong. The protests that started at the end of the summer represents a call for freedom vis-a-vis China and the hope for direct democracy, because citizens want to be part of the political decision-making process.

In spite of the economic and military progress in China, the country lags greatly behind in several respects, given the irresponsible behaviour of state-owned businesses in Africa and elsewhere, the government covering for autocrats in UN votes, and the poor environmental record. The important position that the Chinese state has today is exclusively given by economic growth, and not by an intelligentsia with a humanistic ideology. The long gone Chinese leaders whose Oriental vision was once exemplary to the whole world, cannot be compared with today's Chinese president whose supremacy is based on an autocratic regime and a powerful position challenged not just internally, but also worldwide. Even though democracy may be a 'universal aspiration' as Western leaders have insisted on, democracy is a culturally rooted practice. Nearly every Western country extended the right to vote long after the establishment of elaborate political systems with powerful civil services and strong institutions that cherished notions of individual rights and independent judiciaries. The deep political aspirations of the Hong Kong people cannot be dismissed as futile, when in fact they symbolise the longing for democracy and autonomy from the Chinese government.

Although the Occupy Central protests seem to have failed at the moment, their effect will surely long resonate in Beijing and around the world, because they prove the existence of a new political generation that has the possibility to make history and help establishing a new regime: a regime called for and by the people.



[1] http://www.pewglobal.org/database/indicator/24/country/45/

[2] Chen, Jie 2014 The Overseas Chinese Democratic Movement After Thirty Years Asian Survey 54 (3) 445-470

[3] see Income Inequality in Hong Kong: http://www.hkss.org.hk/SPC/2011-12/AwardPDF/S11-12-DP4.pdf

[4] Lee, Francis L.F., Chan, Joseph Man 2013 Generational Transmission of Collective Memory and about Tiananmen in Hong Kong: How Young Rally Participants Learn about and Understand 4 June Journal of Contemporary China 22 (84) 963-983

[5] So, Alvin Y. 2011 One Country, Two Systems and Hong-Kong-China National Integration: A Crisis Transformative Perspective Journal of Contemporary Asia14 (1)

[6] https://freedomhouse.org/

[7] http://en.rsf.org/

[8] Yung, Betty, Ming, Leung 2014 Diverse roles of alternative media in Hong Kong civil society: from public discourse initiation to social activism Journal of Asian Public Policy 7 (1) 83-101

[9] So, Alvin Y. 2011 The Development of Post-Modernist Social Movements in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region East Asian Social Movements eds. J. Broadbent, V. Brockman 365-378

[10] http://www.heritage.org/index/

[11] Ngok, Ma 2011 Hong Kong's Democrats Divide Journal of Democracy 22 (1) 54-67

[12] Bogaards, Matthijs 2009 How to clasify hybrid regimes? Defective democracy and electoral authoritarianism Democratization 16 (2) 399-423

[13] see the definition in the International Encyclopedia of Political Science 2011: http://knowledge.sagepub.com/view/intlpoliticalscience/n258.xml?rskey=bad8ty&row=1

[14] Overholt, William H. 2001 Hong Kong: The perils of semidemocracy Journal of Democracy 12 (4) 5-18

[15] Forg, Brian C. 2013 State Society Conflicts under Hong Kong's Hybrid Regime Asia Survey 53 (5) 854-882

[16] Garrett, Daniel 2013 Visualizing Protest Culture in China's Hong Kong: Recent Tensions over Integration Visual Communication 12 (1) 55-70

[17] Lee, Francis 2010 The Perceptual Bases of Collective Efficacy and Protest Participation: The Case of Pro-Democracy Protests in Hong Kong International Journal of Public Opinion Research 22 (3) 392-411

[18] Krastev, Ivan 2014 From Politics to Protest Journal of Democracy 25 (4) 5-19

[19] vezi studiul OpenPolitics despre polarizarea opiniilor "n mediul online, realizat pe utilizatorii Facebook: http://www.openpolitics.ro/noutati/homepage/cazul-voiculescu-pe-facebook.html

[20] Norris, Pippa 2002 Democratic Pheonix: Reinventing Political Activism Cambridge University Press

[21] Welzel, Christian 2011 The Asian Values Thesis Revisited: Evidence from the World Value Survey Japanese Journal of Political Science 12 (1) 1-31

[22] Inglehart, Ronald, Welzel, Christian 2006 Emancipative Values and Democracy Studies Comparative International Development 41 (3) 74-94

[23] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/freedom-world-2014#.VI7o-CdDbPC

[24] https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world-2014/methodology#.VI7pPCdDbPA

[25] http://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/wvs.jsp


A 2008 alumna, Raluca Batanoiu holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Bucharest (Romania), one MA in Integrated Social Sciences from Jacobs University Bremen (Germany) and a second in Media, Peace and Conflict Studies from the United Nations-mandated University for Peace (Costa Rica). She worked for Transparency International (Berlin, Germany), UNESCO (Hamburg, Germany), Radio Free Europe/ Radio Liberty (Prague, Czech Republic), and CoWell Research Center (Bremen, Germany). She is currently based in Budapest, Hungary.
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