Pro-democracy protesters take over Hong Kong

Voices heard: Thousands of protesters gather below Hong Kong’s towering skyscrapers © PA

China plans to curb the free and democratic elections of the former British colony and many citizens have decided to make a stand. Will their protest make a difference?

It is the sort of scene that makes China's ruling Communist Party very nervous. This week, thousands of irate pro-democracy protesters swarmed in the streets of Hong Kong’s business district, carrying signs denouncing the Beijing government and calling for free elections.

Luckily for the Communist Party, such a direct challenge to its authority is still unthinkable on the mainland. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when the city was handed to China. Just before leaving, however, the British introduced democracy. While China is a one-party state, the Communist Party guaranteed that Hong Kong could keep its new democratic system with a high degree of independence for at least 50 years.

Hong Kong’s protesters say this promise has been broken. The city will hold elections in 2017 in which every adult can vote. The catch, however, is that China has ruled that the only candidates allowed to stand for election must first be picked by a pro-Beijing committee. For the protesters, this means it will be a democratic vote in name only.

Journalists say the Communist Party is also increasingly censoring Hong Kong’s once free and vibrant press. A pro-democracy newspaper editor was attacked and stabbed earlier this year, and many believe it was a deliberate act of intimidation. Another editor even found a bizarre and terrifying obituary for a man almost identical to himself printed in a pro-Beijing newspaper.

From Beijing’s perspective, governing the former colony is a huge challenge. The Communist Party worries that if it allows Hong Kong too much freedom, citizens on the mainland might start to demand greater freedom for themselves. The Party, and even many Chinese, worry that if the government lost its grip on power, the whole country might slide into lawless chaos.

This is why China is highly unlikely to back down in the face of these protests and many of their organisers acknowledge this. Are they right to make a stand?

High noon in Kowloon

Some say the protests will only undermine Hong Kong’s reputation for order. Some democracy advocates begrudgingly accept that even with the limitations imposed from Beijing, their ‘imperfect’ elections are the best they can hope for. Many in China think that Hong Kong will gain greater freedom if it wins Beijing’s trust, and public protests will not achieve this.

Yet others agree with the protesters that they must make their voices heard, even if it is only symbolic. It is terrible that a free and democratic city of seven million is being slowly suffocated by a despotic regime based thousands of miles away. At the very least, the protests will embarrass China internationally and let the world know of this injustice.

You Decide

  1. Are Hong Kong’s protesters right to protest or should they accept imperfect elections?
  2. Is democracy always the best kind of government?

Activities

  1. Hong Kong’s protest movement says it prepared its protest plans months in advance. In groups, imagine you were planning a protest in your town. Make a plan of how you would organise and publicise it. Compare with the class.
  2. Using this article and the links in ‘Become an expert’, make a list of the key points about Hong Kong and its protests in an information sheet.

Some People Say...

“If voting made any difference they wouldn’t let us do it.’Mark Twain”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should I care about Hong Kong?
Many people think it’s a shame that the freedom that Hong Kong citizens once enjoyed is being eroded. The colony only became a democracy during the final years of British rule and previously was run by governors appointed by London. But its citizens still had much more liberty than Chinese citizens.
Why doesn’t Britain call out China for interfering in Hong Kong?
Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister, met with representatives of the Hong Kong protesters in May and said he was ‘dismayed’ that Britain had not been more vocal in support of them. China’s government complained that the meeting was ‘highly inappropriate’. Given China’s huge economic importance in the world, the UK is wary of damaging relations with Beijing.

Word Watch

Communist party
The Communist Party has ruled China since it won the civil war in 1949.
Colony
Britain was given what is now Hong Kong island after the First Opium War ended in 1842. Britain then leased what are called the ‘New Territories’ for a 99-year period in 1898. When this ran out, however, Britain gave Hong Kong island to China as well.
Newspaper
The fake obituary was for a man with a name that sounds identical to Fatty Lai, the newspaper editor, and the supposedly dead man worked for a company with a very similar name.
Themselves
Many Chinese actually feel democracy would be bad for China. Jackie Chan, the famous martial artist and actor from Hong Kong, says he is ‘not sure’ freedom is a good thing: ‘If you’re too free, you’re like the way Hong Kong is now. It’s very chaotic’.
Chaos
China is deeply apprehensive about political chaos due to its bloody history. During the Taiping Rebellion in the 19th century, at least 20 million people died. The death toll from the country’s civil war is thought to be around 7.5m. There are many other examples in the last century alone.

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