For nearly a month, the streets of Hong Kong have been clogged by masses of die-hard protestors. These activists, mostly students, have refused to leave their protest sites even when threatened by police violence and a small typhoon.
Their goal is simple; they are demanding that a decision made in August by the communist party, which gives Beijing (the government of Mainland China) the ability to choose the candidates in Hong Kong elections, be repealed.
China is not known for being tolerant of pro-democracy protests. The famous Tiananmen Square massacre of June 4, 1989 established a doctrine of immediate and violent reprisal to internal democratic protests.
So why, then, are the Hong Kong protests still occurring weeks after beginning? Why has China not responded with similar violence? While the protestors have faced aggressive and determined police, they have not faced Chinese soldiers or tanks like the protesters at Tiananmen Square.
The answer, according to Professor of Asian History Timothy Lao has to do with Hong Kong’s unique relationship with the mainland.
“Hong Kong was not actually a part of China for most of its modern history, it was a British colony” Lao said. Hong Kong only became part of modern China in 1997, when the British, who had controlled it since the first Opium War’s end in 1841, handed it over to Beijing.
Under British rule, which relaxed over time, the citizens of Hong Kong became accustomed to the right to democratically elect their own leaders and run their small nation as a democracy. Many Hong Kong citizens were deeply worried that re-joining China would force them to accept the complete control of Beijing, like every other part of the nation, and give up their democratic system.
Hong Kong re-joined China with certain key benefits, such as the ability to elect their local leaders and teach their students the curriculum they chose (instead of the pro-Beijing, pro-communist party curriculum of the rest of the country). Now, however, Beijing appears to be intent on wearing down those limited freedoms and gaining better control of the city-state.
Last year, it enforced a new, state-approved curriculum for schools, and recently it decided that only candidates approved by the Communist Party could stand for election in Hong Kong. The authorities in Beijing have voiced concerns that Democratic ideas and lifestyles could spread from Hong Kong to elsewhere in China, making a free Hong Kong a threat to the nation’s future.
Hong Kong, however, is not defenseless. As one of the centers of global banking, finance, shipping and development, many countries and companies are interested in maintaining Hong Kong’s freedom. Although no one wants to tangle with the formidable power of Beijing, some of these groups (which include the U.S, a long-time sympathizer with Hong Kong) could give the Chinese second thoughts about using outright violence to seize control. Beyond its global allies, Hong Kong also has a determined citizenry and a proud history of independence to mobilize these protests and more like it.
While the future of Hong Kong is uncertain, especially to those of us looking on from the West, one thing can be said for certain; neither side is going to have an easy time resolving these protests, and they are sure to haunt the fringes of the daily news for months if not years to come.