As student protesters in Hong Kong dig in their heels, China watchers are trying to make sense of the events over the past few weeks. One thing is certain: the days when locals joked that Hong Kongers cared only for money are gone. A political protest tradition is now alive and well in Hong Kong, and both the local government and central government officials in Beijing are adjusting to this new reality.
To understand the current movement, we have to go back to 1989 when as many as 1.5 million of the then-British territory’s nearly six million residents took to the streets to protest the June 4th Tiananmen Square crackdown. Marchers were not only concerned about the violence against students and workers in the mainland but their own fates as July 1, 1997, the date of Hong Kong’s handover back to China, loomed closer.
Though the 1989 march did not prevent or even delay the handover, it put pressure on the British-led government to begin democratic reform. Under the leadership of Christopher Patten, outgoing officials hastily drew up the Hong Kong Basic Law in 1990 and the Bill of Rights Ordinance in 1991. These documents granted sweeping voting, individual, and collective rights to the people of Hong Kong that did not exist before.
Both sides agreed that Hong Kong would continue to manage its own affairs for the first 50 years, keeping its autonomy, laws, and currency. In 1984, Deng Xiaoping famously called this the “One Country Two Systems” structure of government that would be extended to Macau in 1999 and hopefully Taiwan. For the most part, Beijing has abided by this promise. But many in Hong Kong remain skeptical of Beijing’s encroaching influence.
Protests have continued to crop up since 1989. Marches and vigils take place every June 4th in memory of Tiananmen, and permanent memorials have been erected, such as the Pillar of Shame sculpture that is now permanently housed at the University of Hong Kong. In 2003, half a million people took to the streets to protest Article 23, an internal security law with a broad anti-sedition clause that many feared would limit free speech. Smaller protests led by students, journalists, and activists in Hong Kong are not out of the ordinary.
As this tradition of protest has grown, so has the protesters’ repertoire of contention. Drawing from movements elsewhere as well as Chinese and local traditions, protesters in Hong Kong tend to target government and economic centers, dress in black, create effigies of leaders, and print slogans on large white banners. The umbrella, a mainstay accessory of many Hong Kongers who use it to deflect both rain and sun, has recently assumed a prominent role, with many referring to the protests as the Umbrella Movement. Photos of police using tear gas against protesters protected by nothing but flimsy umbrellas quickly became one of the most widely circulated images of the protests, calling to mind the use of water hoses in Birmingham during America’s Civil Rights Movement.
The story in Hong Kong is not yet over as events on the ground continue to unfold. Talks between government leaders and protesters that were scheduled for Friday have been cancelled and some of the protesters who had once left the major protest centers in Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay are returning. Government leaders and police are no doubt recalibrating their response as the rest of us wonder what these protests will mean, if anything, for Hong Kong.