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Student-led protests: Hong Kong is in trouble


After last week’s Exeter Solidarity with Hong Kong occupation, Sam Davies shares his concerns over the recent peaceful protests in Hong Kong.

The Chinese central government faces perhaps its most difficult challenge since similar protests were held in Tiananmen Square. The violent response to those protests in 1989 casts a heavy shadow over the current political stand-off in Hong Kong, and has left many wondering whether the present situation will end the same way.

The student-led ‘Umbrella Revolution’ seems to have significant support within Hong Kong and some sympathy from the democratic world outside, but there is as yet little prospect of a solution to their grievances. If the protests do not simply fizzle out, as Chinese President Xi Jinping seems to be hoping they will, then the authorities will be forced to act.

The likelihood of a satisfactory conclusion for the protestors seems slim; the Chinese government will not allow the fully democratic election process the demonstrators believe they are owed.

But what if this were to happen? Should the protests result in a fully democratic political system in Hong Kong? This would present to the Chinese people a serious alternative to Communist Party rule, within China’s own territory. This would surely provoke democracy activists on the mainland to come forward and perhaps start their own demonstrations. Depending on how much support such groups received protests could throw the country into turmoil as the Party would seek to maintain its control.

The Communist authorities know this, hence their censoring of the goings on in Hong Kong, their efforts to halt holiday trips from the mainland to Hong Kong and the recent blocking of Instagram across China. The Western world also seems to realise this danger if the lack of support for the protestors from the likes of the USA and Britain is anything to go by. A China in flux would not be profitable to the region or the rest of the world.

Student protestors outside the INTO building - Source: Edwin Yeung
Student protestors outside the INTO building – Source: Edwin Yeung

If this is one extreme of where the protests in Hong Kong might lead, the other end of the spectrum is perhaps more immediately dangerous. If the stalemate continues and the ‘Occupy Central’ movement does not simply dissipate, the authorities may feel that they have no other alternative but to use force to restore order. Such actions would be tragic for the peaceful protestors, but would also be a disaster for the Chinese government.

Though perhaps more likely than Beijing giving in to the protestor’s demands, the option of sending in the troops appears remote at present. The events of 1989 shocked the world and continue to colour China’s diplomatic relations with other nations, a similar response in a prosperous, developed, and relatively open place like Hong Kong would be a complete disaster for the Communist Party. And whilst the Hong Kong police initially attempted to disperse the crowds with tear gas, they have since exercised restraint.

It is hard to see how a resolution could be found. Beijing has so far resolutely backed Hong Kong’s current chief executive Leung Chunying, who the students are demanding to resign. If President Xi were to withdraw his backing of Leung, it could convince many protestors to return home in the short term. But losing face in such a manner would be a last resort. There seems little room for negotiation between the two sides.

If other nations were to state their support for the demonstrators, they might have more sway. The British government, having signed the original agreement to return Hong Kong to China on the basis of ‘one country, two systems’ and with the guarantee of universal suffrage elections by 2017, has remained noncommittal and evasive on the issue. This is understandable given the importance of China not just economically, but also as a key player, and an increasingly powerful one, in world politics. In any case, China has warned others to stay out of its internal affairs.

It seems the stalemate may well continue. President Xi and the Communist Party hope they can wait it out and that the protestors will eventually tire or see that their efforts are futile and simply return home. Otherwise China may be forced to offer the minor concession of removing Leung Chunying in return for a short term end to the disruption.

One thing seems clear, the controversy surrounding the political system is not going to go away for a while yet. Pray there’s no rerun of 1989.

Sam Davies

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