October 9, 2014
Host: The Foreign Policy Initiative
David Feith, The Wall Street Journal Asia
Ellen Bork, Foreign Policy Initiative, Hong Kong
Now in their second week of protest, demonstrators in Honk Kong are doing more than standing up for open elections; they are testing Beijing’s resolve while also ushering in a new wave of political activists and leaders. Although the protesters cannot be said to speak for Hong Kong as a whole, the diverse crowds that demonstrations are attracting, both in terms of age and occupation, suggest that there is a broad, shared sentiment throughout the city’s inhabitants. Led by the Hong Kong Federation of Students, Occupy Central, Scholarism, and other young and emerging political groups, the protests have been, in the words of Ms. Bork, “transformative (for) the democracy movement” in Hong Kong. Demonstrations have so far succeeded in uniting multiple generations of activists and politicians under a single cause and even succeeded in pushing Beijing into talks (although the offer was later revoked).
However, now that demonstrations have been carried out, and demands have been voiced, people in Hong Kong and around the world are waiting to see what will come next. How will the central government react to these protests? Will Beijing recognize and negotiate this new generation of civil activists? How will these protests impacts politics on the Mainland?
In Hong Kong, a new scandal has emerged. The city’s chief executive, CY Leung, supposedly received $7 million dollars from an Australian engineering company shortly after he left the firm. Although there is no evidence that Mr. Leung gave any unfair advantages to the company, the fact that these funds were previously undeclared has led many to believe they are linked to corruption. However, calling in from Hong Kong, Mr. Feith suggested that the “well timed scandal” could also signal that Beijing is attempting to appease protesters by building a case to remove Mr. Leung from office.
Although the focus of the protests is on preserving Hong Kong’s democratic system, Ms. Bork explained that many of the protesters are also focused on issues, “related to democracy,” such as economic equality and social justice, which they see as being threatened by the removal of free elections. If it is building a corruption case against Mr. Leung in order to remove him from office, Beijing may be simply trying to placate protestors and quash any chances of dissent from spreading.
The spread of dissent is after all what Beijing is most threatened by. Despite an uptick in Internet censorship, which Mr. Feith claimed is being carried out at twice the rate it was during the anniversary of Tiananmen Square in June, news is spreading out to the mainland. Another signal that people in the Mainland are staying informed is an increase in the number of civil arrests.
Although Mr. Feith said that the Hong Kong protests were not having a direct impact in China’s most restive regions, Xinjiang and Tibet, he had “no doubt” that the protests will shape perceptions in Taiwan– which Chinese President Xi Jinping also describes in terms of “One China, two systems.” Already, a majority of people in Taiwan identify as “Taiwanese” rather than “Chinese,” and they are accustomed to democratic values and rights that are present in their own society. Having seen events unfold in Hong Kong, Mr. Feith is now more convinced that reunification between the two countries wouldn’t happen voluntarily.
Up until now, protesters have not had much success in pushing their demands. From the beginning, the government has refused to overturn the August 31st declaration and continues to insist that Beijing have a say in nominating Hong Kong’s future leaders. However, the protests have succeeded in sending a message to Beijing. By spending days and nights on the streets and enduring violence, the students of Hong Kong garnered greater support and, in the words of Ms. Bork, awoken the city’s “civil spirit.” Whether that spirit can force Beijing to give-in remains to be seen.