October 2, 2014

TSG IntelBrief: The Umbrella Revolution: Students Protest in Hong Kong

• The student-led, pro-democracy ‘Umbrella Revolution’ currently underway in Hong Kong is the most significant uprising within the sphere of the People’s Republic of China since the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989

• Angered by Beijing’s restrictions to candidate choices for the upcoming 2017 election, Hong Kong’s citizens are massing by the thousands to protest

• As the pro-democracy protests grow, the government’s reaction threatens to becomes more aggressive, possibly bringing the situation to a tipping point reminiscent of Tiananmen Square

• The Chinese government believes it can’t afford to back down—with a wariness influenced by events in Ukraine and the ‘Arab Spring’—but it also can’t afford another massacre; the world is watching and plays a much larger role in the Chinese economy than it did in 1989.

When the United Kingdom returned control of Hong Kong to China in 1997, the residents of the former British colony were both hopeful and wary. After 156 years of British colonial rule, much of the population celebrated the fact they were Chinese citizens living once again in China, and no longer subject to “imperialist rule,” while also fearful of an unknown future under the Communist government in Beijing.

As many suspected, the changes came immediately after the stroke of midnight, on July 1, 1997, when official sovereignty of the city passed from British to Chinese control and the population was still celebrating the historic event. First, Hong Kong’s elected legislature was abolished, and a body of lawmakers appointed by Beijing immediately took its place, with a Beijing favorite sworn into power as Hong Kong’s first chief executive. Citizens’ civil liberties were also eroded, including the right to protest.

At sunrise that same day, a convoy of Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) military vehicles, armored personnel carriers, and 4,000 troops advanced across the border and into the streets of Hong Kong. While those first soldiers were welcomed by thousands of Hong Kong’s residents, many of whom lined the streets waving Chinese flags, Beijing-backed security forces are facing a much different crowd today.

The crowd in question is comprised of thousands of angry pro-democracy demonstrators protesting the Chinese Legislature’s standing committee decision, made in August, to prohibit open nominations for candidates in Hong Kong’s upcoming 2017 election for chief executive. Led by a core group of students known as Occupy Central for Love and Peace, the demonstrations have been dubbed “the Umbrella Revolution” (due to the number of umbrellas carried by protestors, initially as protection from the rain, and most recently used as shields from tear gas canisters fired by riot police). The protests have evolved from a small group of students boycotting their classes to hordes of protestors of all demographics, who have brought the downtown Hong Kong area to a virtual standstill over the past week.

The 2017 election will be the first time residents will have the chance to vote for a chief executive, with current events indicating they take that opportunity seriously. However, the government’s recent decision to require a special nominating body in Beijing to approve all potential candidates before they are placed on the ballot has diluted the significance of the unprecedented opportunity, and is angering more of Hong Kong’s residents by the day. It also flies in the face of the “high degree of autonomy,” which was stipulated in the 1984 Sino-British treaty that transferred Hong Kong to China, and which is also part of the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s version of a constitution, which was drafted to govern the city after its return to Chinese sovereignty.

For the most part over the past 20 years, Hong Kong’s promised rule of law and human rights provisions have been protected. In turn, the freedom enjoyed by the city’s residents has allowed Hong Kong to make significant contributions to China’s economic development and modernization. The city has acted, in part, as a buffer zone between the rest of the world and mainland China. Despite the obvious—and fruitful—advantages of such a model, China has regularly been slow on the democracy component of its “one country, two systems” method of governing the city.

Under the Basic Law, Hong Kong is supposed to remain free of the rest of the country’s socialism, and is guaranteed that its capitalist system remains in place for 50 years, giving the city a semi-autonomy not enjoyed by the rest of the country. That includes allowing the position of chief executive to be filled “by universal suffrage,” according to the Basic Law. The protestors are demonstrating because they feel Beijing is now reneging on that promise, and are calling for the current chief executive’s resignation.

While the protests have been peaceful to date—there has been no rioting, looting, or destruction of government property (and there are reports that protestors are even taking time to sort the trash that is left on the street)—the government’s response has not. In addition to Hong Kong police’s abnormally extensive use of tear gas over the weekend, there have been reports of police shooting rubber bullets into the crowds of demonstrators as well.

Observers seem to think this show of force by the police is the government’s way of intimidating an already-passive crowd in the hopes of warning away more protestors who will only provide the movement more momentum—if not a broader expression of Beijing’s concern with the Ukraine ‘Euromaidan’ and ‘Arab Spring’ cum social media-inspired contagion. But if in the effort to save face and stand by its decision, the Chinese government overplays its hand, it may have the opposite effect and cause the protestors to push back at perceived over-enforcement. Should that come to pass, it will call to mind a repeat of the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, in which hundreds (and possibly thousands) of student pro-democracy protestors were killed by PLA forces while standing up to the government in Beijing.

Fortunately, the world is watching. Due, at least in part to Hong Kong’s economic success, major Western powers have not only a larger stake in China than they did in 1989, but they have more observers there as well. Beijing will have to tread lightly as it tries to enforce its decision to curtail democracy and keep the rest of the world from weighing in too heavily in the coming weeks.


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