Hong Kong’s students lead civic participation

by Justine Dodgen

Last week, thousands of Hong Kong students began protesting Beijing’s recent decision to place limitations on the selection of candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 Chief Executive election. On August 31, Beijing announced that it will only allow politicians who have been approved by a pro-Beijing nominating committee to run as candidates. Discontent with this announcement is especially strong among the city’s youth, and over the past month many have been incited into civic participation and started a debate about Hong Kong’s democratic future.

Some critics argue that while China has limited the selection process for the 2017 election, it has allowed universal suffrage, giving Hong Kong citizens the right to vote and select a candidate directly for the first time (the current chief executive, Leung Chun-Ying, was elected in 2012 by a 1200-member Election Committee.) Many international observers, notably Britain, have stated that this move represents a good step toward Hong Kong’s democratic goals.

September 29, 2014 – Protesters hold up cell phones in solidarity outside of the Legislative Council headquarters in Hong Kong. photo credit: Jordi Bernabeu via photopin cc
September 29, 2014 – Protesters hold up cell phones in solidarity outside of the Legislative Council headquarters in Hong Kong.
photo credit: Jordi Bernabeu via photopin cc

Few locals seem to share this opinion. Over the weekend, protests intensified as thousands of students staged a sit-in in front of Hong Kong’s city government buildings and were met by riot police using tear gas and pepper spray to break up the protestors. The police’s response, sanctioned by China, instigated “widespread anger” across the city on Sunday and appeared to “galvanize the public” into supporting the protests, as protestors are now occupying major streets in multiple areas of the city. (New York Times) The Occupy Central movement, a group spearheading pro-democracy efforts, plans to continue peaceful protests throughout Hong Kong.

Since Hong Kong was returned to China after British governance under the “one country, two systems” form of government, it has endeavored to maintain an autonomous nature and establish democratic principles. The importance of this system to Hong Kong citizens is clear: in the wake of Beijing’s August 31 announcement, a survey by the Chinese University found that 21% of respondents said they would consider emigrating over concerns about Hong Kong’s political future. The significance to students of political freedoms, particularly the right to protest, is especially poignant as this year marks the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests, in which hundreds of Chinese students were killed during protests demanding democratic rights.

Next year, Hong Kong’s Legislative Council will vote in a decision to approve these election changes. Chinese officials have threatened that Beijing’s ruling is all or nothing, and a veto would cause Beijing to cancel election of the Chief Executive by popular vote entirely. However, Hong Kong’s passionate response to the police’s actions has raised the political cost of Beijing’s unyielding stance; if the protests continue to gain momentum, the relationship between Hong Kong’s one country, two systems may be redefined.

October 1 is a national holiday in China, celebrating the anniversary of the Communist Party’s foundation of China’s current political state in 1949, and some expect that the events that transpire on this day will be the defining moments of the current movement. While the decision over how- and if- the elections will take place remains to be seen, the sight of thousands of students exercising their right to protest sends a powerful image to Beijing that Hong Kong’s youth desire a more democratic future. The outcome of these events may also set an important precedent for future decisions about Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms.

Hong Kong’s youth have made it clear that they desire a government that listens to the will of the people, and who truly represents them- important aspects of effective governance. This growing movement of civil disobedience also serves as a meaningful reminder of the power of peaceful expression and assembly to affect political change.