A Critical Look At Occupy Central Featured

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A Critical Look At Occupy Central Photo by Matthew Paine

A Critical Look At Occupy Central

Why Beijing Is Quiet And Will Remain So

It isn’t often that Hong Kong is center stage in world news. The harbor city is known to be a place where contrasts intermingle peacefully – the East with the West, the old with the new, the cityscape and the undulating terrain. However, the city’s reputation of being steady and orderly has been drastically unraveled. Mass demonstrations have overrun the central hubs of the city, with instances of tear gas usage, police violence, triads and even rumors of potential military intervention, the city’s usual chaotic charm of everyday life has been replaced with the chaos of civil unrest.

So why have the people of Hong Kong decided to take to the streets? The story thus far goes as follows:

Since the 1997 handover of the once-British colony of Hong Kong back to the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong has been governed with the guarantee that the people of Hong Kong would be awarded autonomy and the right to eventual universal suffrage for the 50 years following. There have been numerous attempts by chief executives of Hong Kong in the past to pass pro-Beijing and pro-communism reforms but these have always been met by public opposition and have always been put on hold indefinitely. A White Paper (a government report giving information or proposals on an issue) released in early 2014 reinforced Beijing’s control over Hong Kong and, despite allowing universal suffrage in 2017, strongly suggested that only pro-Beijing candidates would ever be allowed to run. In the last week of September, Scholarism (a Hong Kong student activist group) and the Hong Kong federation of students organized class boycotts culminating in the Occupation Central movement where students accumulated around government offices while officials refused to even recognize protesters. When students did not leave the government complex and other areas, riot police were called out in force, employing tear gas, pepper spray and rubber ammunition. Demonstrators defended themselves with face masks, safety goggles and most notably, umbrellas – giving the protest its iconic ‘Umbrella Revolution’ name. Scheduled talks between both sides have now fallen through on numerous occasions and protestors are still occupying the sites both on Hong Kong Island and on the Kowloon peninsula - with rentable tents, Wifi and art installations now seemingly a permanent part of the city’s streets.

It is extremely important to note that the demonstrations have been peaceful and without violent force for the majority of the time. During the first weeks, even when students took to the streets of Central Hong Kong en mass, there was no hate, no anger and no fury. There was a genuine sense of camaraderie and compassion amongst all. Streets were being tidied, water and supplies distributed – these were young people coming together to make a stand for their future. But, as is the case with most mass movements, the longer the demonstrations stretch on for, the more hunger, physical exhaustion and emotional turmoil take their toll. This is true for both sides of the coin and inevitably, someone breaks, someone throws the first punch. Regardless of slowly heating frictions, the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been relatively quiet and dismissive of the movement; the reasoning of which lies with Beijing’s view of risk vs. reward.

If the CCP were to give the demonstrators the independence they desire, they would in turn be losing any grip they had on the city forever. On top of this, Beijing’s refusal to lose face adds more to the equation. If Beijing backs down now and accommodates demonstrator requests, the move would be regarded as the ultimate humiliation on the world stage. It is entirely probable that some other tinderbox cities within China will use the precedent to challenge the CCP in the future, leading to unrest, an unwelcome situation for China at a time where the country is already facing economic slowdown. Some argue that Beijing will back down because of this new-found spotlight but the opposing argument holds just as much weight; it’s pressured now, more than ever, not to step back and look weak.

The city is a bastion of international trade, civility and law but the harsh reality is that Hong Kong today is not as important to China as it was in the past – its importance to China’s economic health has dropped dramatically. According to IMF data, Hong Kong’s GDP share in China has dropped from 16% in 1997 to a measly 3.5% today. Although Hong Kong has utility other than just pure GDP input, such as liquidity, even if the city faces a liquidity crisis due to it suffering a strong enough productivity hit as a result of the Occupy Central movement, such a crisis is still a favourable option than the alternative for China. Indeed, the protest has now passed the one month mark and its effects are actually being seen translated into genuine damage to the economy. A private survey showed that activity in the private sector of Hong Kong fell by its largest margin in three years in October, which offered all who are watching the city a glimpse of the impact the protests actually have. Nonetheless, even if the Hang Seng Index drops further than it already has, the resulting financial cost is small compared to the potential political domino effect of giving in to demonstrator demands. Doing so could set China ablaze with civil unrest and cause even greater financial damage than just letting Hong Kong sink while protests last. As such, its best strategy and one that is seen to be employed at present is simply to wait out the protest.

The world has seen many events in recent years that make predicting outcomes of social revolutions and protests nearly impossible. They fight for ideals and if they are clear in their demands then anything can be achieved. However, there is a general lack of cohesive leadership among the protestors and the pro-democracy cause has been somewhat diluted by a rage towards authorities – the police and other forces. This, combined with their ambitious demands – C. Y. Leung’s resignation and fully open elections for his successor – the Occupy Central movement has, in part, blown to a proportion where meeting in the middle is no longer a viable option for either party. Protestors have made that they have intention in bringing the demonstrations to the streets of Beijing. Such news sends chills down spines as it sounds disconcertingly reminiscent to the events leading up to the Tiananmen Square protest and massacre of 1989. The tactics protestors are currently implementing may fail against the silent CCP without actual bloodshed and this is a terrifying thought. This isn’t to be taken lightly - some may boldly say that sacrifices have to be made for the greater good but make no mistake, the loss of life should not, in any instance, be a used as a means to ‘get the upperhand’ on the opposition so to speak.

Another underlying instigator of the protests and its determination is the deep and growing resentment between Hong Kong Chinese and mainland Chinese. It’s no secret that Hong Kong people and mainland Chinese struggle to get along and that Hong Kongers often disassociate themselves from the latter. Public perception of mainland Chinese culture in Hong Kong is and has always been negative, to put it lightly. Many Hong Kongers accuse the mainland Chinese of pushing out small family-run businesses to make way for luxury stores and for pushing up property prices – another enormous point of concern for the youth of Hong Kong who have no viable way of paying such sky-high rental fees. This widening culture clash, however, is a discussion for another time.

If Hong Kong is as pragmatic as many believe, then they will chart a course that benefits them without sacrificing their relationship with mainland China. Experts around the world and throughout history have failed to predict major shifts in power, government, etc. So we can only observe and hope that whatever comes from these protests is what benefits the majority and the future of Hong Kong.

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