Riot police in Hong Kong are deploying tear gas and rubber bullets against at least 13,000 protesters demanding greater democratic reforms. The movement — dubbed the “Umbrella Revolution” for the demonstrators’ use of umbrellas to protect themselves from tear gas — is capturing the world’s attention and leading some analysts to wonder if the event could escalate into a broader push for greater democracy in the region.
A civil disobedience movement modeled on Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
In January of 2013, constitutional expert Benny Tai, frustrated with what he saw as the Chinese government’s reluctance to grant Hong Kong the political independence it had promised, called on residents to join a massive act of civil disobedience in Central, Hong Kong’s business and financial center. Joined by sociology professor Chan Kin-Man and the Rev. Chu Yiu-Ming, the trio sought to model the movement, they called Occupy Central, on Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.
The push for greater autonomy and independence began after the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty over Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997. Under British rule, Hong Kong became a wealthy manufacturing center, with limited democratic freedoms unseen in mainland China. As part of the transfer-of-power negotiations, China agreed to a “one country, two systems” deal. Under those terms, Hong Kong can develop its own democracy without interference from the central government and in 2017 Hong Kong citizens are permitted to democratically elect their top leader who is currently appointed by Beijing.
The Chinese government, however, has repeatedly reinterpreted this agreement. In July, it released a White Paper reaffirming its “complete jurisdiction” over Hong Kong, adding that “the high degree of autonomy of [Hong Kong] is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.” In August, Beijing announced that “while citizens would be allowed to vote for the chief executive, the candidates for the election would have to be approved by a special committee just like the pro-Beijing committee that currently appoints the chief executive.”
Many citizens took these steps as a sign that the central government was reneging on the 1997 agreement, and took to the streets in protest.
“After 10 years, I know so well that unless we generate enough pressure, Beijing won’t give us universal suffrage,” Chan told the Washington Post last year, adding that “civil disobedience would be a last resort if negotiations fail.”
Goggles, surgical masks and umbrellas.
Student protesters led a peaceful demonstration against Beijing’s election plan on Wednesday and were joined by Occupy Central on Friday. The university students penned a manifesto demanding an “apology to the Hong Kong people” for Beijing’s restrictive election rules and the resignation of top Hong Kong government officials, calling Beijing’s actions “colonial.” Hong Kong leaders can reject Beijing’s election plan with a one-third vote and “the number of lawmakers who have pledged to vote against the proposed arrangements is sufficient” to kill the new rules. Under such a scenario, Hong Kong would “not have another chance to hold a popular election for the post of chief executive until 2022. ”
As Vox’s Max Fisher explains, Occupy Central had “planned to launch a ‘civil disobedience’ campaign on October 1, a national holiday celebrating communist China’s founding,” but decided to build off the momentum of the student protest, peacefully occupying “Hong Kong’s city government headquarters along with other downtown areas.”
To everyone’s surprise, the police responded to the protests with disproportionate force, relying on riot police to disperse protesters and shooting tear gas and rubber bullets into the crowd. Thousands of Hong Kong residents responded by joining the demonstrators. They covered themselves in plastic wrap and adorned goggles and surgical masks to ward off the chemicals. “But umbrellas, used to deflect pepper spray, have become the movement’s most visible symbol,” the Associated Press reports. “They were the main line of defense Sunday for a huge crowd demonstrators trying to push past barricades manned by police dousing the crowd with pepper spray from backpack sprayers.” Police used 87 rounds of tear gas on Sunday.
So far, 26 people were sent to the hospital and at least 78 were arrested.
Protesters specifically asked Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to “demand a genuine choice for the territory’s voters.” “Do something good for Hong Kong. We want real democracy!” one protester shouted.
An unlawful assembly of radical opposition forces.
Beijing is calling the protests illegal and has endorsed the police’s response. “The unlawful assembly being held outside the Central Government Offices on Tim Mei Avenue in Central is affecting public safety, public order and traffic nearby,” authorities said in a press release. “It also affects the rights and freedom of other members of the public.” The authorities explained that “implementation of crowd management and traffic control measures which might cause inconvenience” and “thanked the majority of the public for their understanding.”
Meanwhile, China has blocked Instagram on the mainland, though the service still appears to be accessible in Hong Kong. Chinese newspapers have not published photographs of the unrest, “and blame the protests on ‘radical opposition forces’ which are ‘ruining Hong Kong’s image.'”
Hong Kong citizens are divided over whether to demand greater democracy from Beijing. The business community in Hong Kong benefits financially from the status quo and has formed a rival group called the Silent Majority. A recent poll found that while 48 percent of citizens oppose Beijing’s plan for Hong Kong’s elections, 39 percent are urging their government to accept it.
“I strongly disagree with the protesters,” one older woman named Chan told the Associated Press. “Those of us who came to the city 60 or 70 years ago had nothing and we worked and suffered so much to make Hong Kong the rich city it is today. And now the protesters have made our society unstable. For me, being able to eat and sleep is already a luxury. I don’t need democracy. What does it mean?”
Continued unrest will likely undermine stability in Hong Kong and hurt business interests, potentially leading some business leaders to join the movement. The Hong Kong economy contacted last quarter and “may be slipping into recession.”