Did the Hong Kong protests overshadow China’s 70th birthday celebrations?
Foreign Correspondent in Seoul, Milana Nikolova, discusses the Hong Kong protests and their impact in tandem with the 70th anniversary of the Chinese Communist state.
Every year on first day of October, China marks its National Day with a week of grand celebrations that are meant to showcase the accomplishments of the Communist Party. However, this year’s commemorations seem to have been a little different than usual – and that is for two very distinct reasons.
One, is that this time around, celebrations were even more magnificent than usual, considering this year is the 70th Anniversary of Mao’s declaration of the establishment of a People’s Republic at Tiananmen Square in 1949. The other is that the world’s eyes are already turned to one particular autonomous region of China – Hong Kong. A wave of protests have hit Hong Kong this June as a response to a proposed bill that would allow criminals convicted in the city to be extradited to mainland China. Many locals saw this as an infringement of autonomy and hundreds of thousands took to the streets. Almost three months later, the situation does not appear to be getting resolved. It seems to me the protests may have eclipsed Xi Jinping’s plans for the long-awaited anniversary; this is encapsulated by the Hong Kong Chief of Police’s description of the protests as ‘one of Hong Kong’s most violent and chaotic days’.
It seems to me the protests may have eclipsed Xi Jinping’s plans for the long-awaited anniversary; this is encapsulated by the Hong Kong Chief of Police’s description of the protests as ‘one of Hong Kong’s most violent and chaotic days’.
What exactly was China celebrating?
The world’s second biggest economy (first in terms of spending power); the third biggest military (first in terms of active military personnel); and a potential rival to the current, seemingly US-driven world order. That is how we are used to hearing China being described today. However, less than a lifetime ago, China’s situation looked completely different. Ravaged by war, hunger and political divisions, the China that Mao Zedong took control over in 1949 would be unrecognisable to contemporary urban middle-class Chinese. It is indisputable that modern Chinese history is one of unprecedented economic success. Moreover, an astonishing number of people have been lifted from poverty in an unbelievably short period of time. According to World Bank estimates, in 1990 the number of Chinese living in extreme poverty reached almost 760 million; in 2013 the number was 25 million. However, this is not to say that the country’s development has been smooth. The early decades of the Republic are infamous for their poor living conditions; a fact the current Chinese ruling class frequently uses to boost morale. It then had to face the Sino-Soviet split of the 1950s and 1960s, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, until finally achieving the “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” of today, through the economic reform that took place in the 1980s.
A Short Story of Hong Kong
In contrast, Hong Kong was the first of the “Four Asian Tigers” to develop and urbanise in early as the 1950s. It soon managed to establish itself as one of the main international business hubs. This difference in experiences has created a gap that the 20-minute, high-speed train ride between Shenzhen and Hong Kong cannot bridge. Since Great Britain returned the city to China in 1997, its citizens have made clear their desire to maintain the democratic model of governance, while Beijing has been growing increasingly anxious about the state of its authority over the island. The “one country, two systems” model was significantly challenged in the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution”, but even the protests of five years ago are not a match for the magnitude of those we are seeing today. From peaceful boycotts on Chinese businesses and transport strikes to hunger strikes, arson and vandalism – the 2019 Hong Kong protests have really become increasingly hard to ignore. The 1st October epitomised this; as the BBC reported, there were the highest number of arrests and live rounds fired since the 2019 protests began.
From peaceful boycotts on Chinese businesses and transport strikes to hunger strikes, arson and vandalism – the 2019 Hong Kong protests have really become increasingly hard to ignore.
But what does all of this mean for the People’s Republic?
On one hand, China has recently begun to make efforts to present itself as a power capable of being progressive. Just this August, its Ministry of Public Security significantly relaxed rules on immigration. In addition, in September, the country promised it had “the highest possible ambition” in fighting global warming at the United Nations Climate Summit; at least superficially, taking more serious steps to address climate change than the United States.
On the other hand, it cannot be forgotten that one of the most famous aspects of national celebrations in China are military parades, which are meant to boast the state’s ever-growing capabilities. This year, it featured 15,000 troops, 580 vehicles and missiles, and 160 aircraft. Beijing has also taken a hard-line approach towards the Hong Kong crisis; with rumours Chinese police and military have been mobilising in Shenzhen. Meanwhile, government police in Hong Kong have been accused of excessive violence against the protesters and the 1st October saw over 100 people taken to hospital and 30 of Hong Kong’s police force injured.
How Much of a Difference did the Hong Kong Protests Make to this Year’s Celebrations?
Traditionally, Hong Kong has taken an active role in celebrating the holiday and, considering the significance of this year’s anniversary, it was initially meant to take part in many festivities once again. However, according to the Hong Kong-based South China Sea Post, the major annual firework display was cancelled due to fears of public unrest. According to the same article, China would normally never allow such cancellation to occur, but decided the danger of retaliation was currently unavoidable. This is not to mention the high security in Beijing and additional media censorship that was put in place. These efforts highlight what China was willing to do to avoid distractions from its national day… and how their precautions failed to prevent these distractions.
Relations between Hong Kong and China remain an immensely complex and divisive topic. However, there are two certainties about the current situation. One, that China wanted to show its citizens and the world its best self on this National Day. The other is that the circumstances in Hong Kong were able to interfere with these plans. It cannot be denied that China has reason to celebrate on this day, but the reluctance of some autonomous regions to join in is also becoming harder to ignore. The future of Hong Kong and Chinese relations seem uncertain; but what is certain is that Beijing is certainly not happy about the stain that Hong Kong protests have put on its long-planned anniversary celebrations.