As the protest camps have been dismantled, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement enters a new phase. At stake are not only the procedures that will govern the election of the island’s next Chief Executive in 2017, but also the social character of Hong Kong and its long-term relationship with mainland China.
The protests arose after the National People’s Congress (NPC) passed rules that will restrict voter choice to two or three candidates nominated by an unrepresentative body consisting mostly of delegates handpicked by Beijing. This formula falls short of the universal suffrage sought by Hong Kong’s pan-Democratic parties and much of the public.
The initial opposition to the NPC electoral rules was led by pan-Democratic politicians and intellectuals organized under the Occupy Central banner. Yet the protests were launched not by this older cadre of political leaders, but by two student groups: the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism. The students brought tens, and at times hundreds, of thousands of supporters into the streets to block key thoroughfares and capture the attention of the world’s media.
The Umbrella Movement – so-named because demonstrators carried umbrellas as shields against the pepper spray used by police – was not the first to organize resistance to Beijing’s intrusion into Hong Kong affairs after the 1997 handover from the United Kingdom. In 2003, a half million Hong Kongers turned out to protest an anti-subversion bill that would have curtailed political rights and free expression. Nor is this the first time that efforts to ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy have been led by students, in May, 2011, secondary students formed Scholarism to protest Beijing’s efforts to insert “Moral and National Education” in the curriculum of Hong Kong schools. The students, who feared the new curriculum would offer a skewed perspective on Chinese history designed to favor the Communist Party, organized the occupation of government headquarters. In both cases, the protests succeeded in forcing the retraction of the offending legislation.
These precedents offered some grounds for hoping that mass protests might prompt a reconsideration of the electoral procedures approved by the NPC. However, the demonstrations concerned more than issues of democratic process. For many Hong Kongers, the protests provided an outlet for rage about rapidly growing inequality. As Hong Kong has shed its manufacturing industries to become a regional financial and commercial hub over the past three decades, the gap between rich and poor has expanded. As measured by the gini index, inequality in Hong Kong is among the highest in the world, exceeding even levels in the rest of China. Bankers and property developers sit atop the pecking order. Their political clout is ensured by Hong Kong’s odd electoral system, which reserves half of the seats of the Legislative Council for “functional constituencies” that are dominated by business and professional associations.
Meanwhile, rapidly rising property values price many people – especially the young – out of the housing market. Small local shops have been displaced by luxury establishments catering to tourists from China and the rest of Southeast Asia. Hong Kong’s social safety net is minimal, allowing many to slip through. Over 200,000 people are on the waiting list for public housing. Tens of thousands of people live in rented wire cages barely large enough for a grown man to lie down in. Despite its’ overall wealth, therefore, growing doubts about the basic fairness of the existing socio-economic system are fueling political unrest.
Another even more basic source of political disaffection concerns the fundamental terms of Hong Kong’s relationship to the rest of China. Under the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong was to enjoy autonomy and control over its’ own affairs – the famous “one country, two systems” formulation. This bargain is breaking down. Freedom of the press has eroded. Even apart from the overt pressures that Beijing occasionally takes to suppress certain kinds of news reporting in Hong Kong, local media organizations depend upon advertising by mainland firms or are themselves owned by conglomerates that do business elsewhere in China. These commercial ties can be endangered by reporting that challenges Beijing’s preferences.
In other ways, Hong Kong relationship to mainland China generates tensions and conflict. Hong Kong cannot control its’ own air quality due to the pollution that drifts across the border from factories in nearby Shenzhen. The rapidly growing numbers of mainland tourists have led to cultural clashes with locals, who especially resent that close to half of births in the city’s hospitals are attributable to mainlanders who wish their children to gain residency rights by being born in Hong Kong. Locals also resent that the Cantonese language is being challenged in many spheres by the intrusion of Mandarin. Displeasure with the ways that Hong Kong is being transformed by its absorption into mainland China sometimes takes ugly forms, such as when Hong Kongers refer to mainlanders as “locusts.”
In general, the expectation that differences of culture and identity between Hong Kong and the mainland would diminish over time has thus far proven false. To the contrary, a substantial number of participants in the Umbrella Movement consider themselves “localists.” Their critique of existing political arrangements extends to the very notion that Hong Kong is or should be a part of China. For localists, it is not just the influence of China’s Communist Party that must be resisted, but also the appeal of Chinese nationalism.
While localism in some formulations can lead to the kind of narrow chauvinism that is so familiar in other contexts, there are localists who, in rejecting a Chinese national identity, also resist an equally exclusive Hong Kong identity. Or, rather, in some versions of localism, a Hong Kong identity is pitted not against “outsiders” but instead defines Hong Kong’s distinctiveness in the city’s history and present as a global crossroads. To be a Hong Konger is to embrace a sense of cosmopolitanism or global citizenship.
To be sure, the Umbrella Movement poses a political challenge to Chinese authoritarianism by virtue of its’ embrace of liberal democracy. But the challenge is much deeper than the debate over electoral rules would suggest. The movement is also targeting the deep inequities that have become a source of resentment in Hong Kong and on the mainland. The movement also poses a challenge to Chinese nationalism in favor of a strengthened local Hong Kong identity that has been conceived in diverse ways. The Umbrella Movement itself may fade in the coming months and years. But the tensions and issues that gave rise to the recent protests will persist until seriously addressed. And the drive to bring reform will continue to be led by the young, a fact that should give pause to Beijing and its’ representatives in Hong Kong.