As protests rage in Egypt and simmer in Brazil, protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets in a peaceful march, numbering in the tens of thousands, to demand increased democratic reforms. This protest came on Hong Kong’s 16th year anniversary for joining China. Protesters are demanding that Hong Kong recommit to Democratic reforms and are calling for mainland China’s government to stop encroaching on the city’s relative sovereignty.
For those unfamiliar with Hong Kong and its relationship with mother China, it’s important to understand that while it is considered a part of China, it is a special administrative region (SAR). Hong Kong was originally a British colony leased from China. In 1997 the United Kingdom’s lease ended and the colony was ceded back to China.
When Hong Kong was returned to China, agreements were put in place to ensure that the city would remain largely self-governing. Hong Kong even maintains its own “mini-Constitution” with the aim of eventual universal suffrage. Immigration to and from mainland China is tightly control, many economic rules are determined locally, and most local politics is kept local, at least on paper.
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While Hong Kong retains a great deal of freedom from motherland China, it is not a Democratic state like the United Kingdom. Instead, high-level leaders in the city are elected by a 1,200 person electorate consisting primary of business leaders and other elites. The government has previously pledged universal suffrage by 2017 but recent comments have suggested that it may renege on this promise.
Hong Kong Citizens Enraged
Now, middle class Hong Kong citizens have become enraged and are beginning to take to the streets to demand reform. Many are now demanding the resignation of the city’s leader, Leung Chun-ying, who is widely viewed as pro-Beijing. Many protesters feel that Beijing is meddling too much in what Hong Kong citizens regard as local affairs.
Protesters have been braving rough weather conditions in the face of a Typhoon to make their voice heard. Protesters did march well prepared with ponchos and umbrellas, determined to mark the anniversary with increased demands for reform and to maintain Hong Kong’s independence from mainland China.
Many protesters believe that Beijing will try to rig elections, even if universal suffrage is granted by 2017. Among other things, the government could try to screen candidates to ensure that no matter who comes to power, they will be pro-Beijing. There have also been reports of masked men torching anti-Beijing newspapers.
These activities demonstrate the tough tight rope facing leaders trying to balance the wishes of Beijing and the needs of Hong Kong. The government of Hong Kong must work to ensure that the city is able to continue to push forward its liberal economic system that calls for minimal government interference, a far cry from the heavy handed mainland Chinese government. This liberal government has helped propel Hong Kong into one of the richest and most powerful cities in the world. Still, the Chinese government has been trying slowly to exert more control over the city and to bring it politically in line with the rest of the country.
Hong Kong Reform Movement
If reform moves too quickly, leaders in Beijing may decide to exert more direct control over the city. While the current Chinese government has proven to be comparatively open-minded in relaxing state control over China and focusing on social issues, strong demonstrations and upheaval in Hong Kong could get the administration to reconsider its position with the city. If Hong Kong’s freedom comes to be viewed as a threat to the rest of the country, the mainland government could move forward with drastic and oppressive acts to ensure its own safety.
This isn’t to say that protesters shouldn’t take to the streets, but instead to urge caution and open-mindedness on all sides of the continuing issues. Hong Kong and China have both benefited from their relationship with each other. Hong Kong is a major port for Chinese exports and provides much of the financial capital and investment funding needed to fuel China’s development. At the same time, direct access to mainland China has allowed Hong Kong to become a hub for international companies looking to do business in the mainland.