Peaceful public demonstrations are ordinary occurrences in Hong Kong, but the events that have unfolded since Friday are the largest acts of civil disobedience since the 1997 handover from British colony governance to Chinese rule.
Protests will continue after Hong Kong police fired tear gas and deployed pepper spray Sunday on peaceful protesters that blockaded the roads in Central, the downtown district of the city, in an attempt to starve out the financial, business and government hub.
Smaller protests have also begun across the harbour in Kowloon’s Mong Kok neighbourhood.
Images and photos of the mass protests and violence have shocked Hong Kong citizens who normally pride themselves for being a stable and orderly economic powerhouse. Since then, the protest movement has exploded in growth and now spans the globe at major cities like Vancouver – where Hong Kong’s influence has been extraordinary.
Drone video filmed on Sept. 29 shows hundreds of thousands of filling the streets of Central in Hong Kong.
Approximately 100 indviduals have already been arrested, even though the demonstrations have yet to reach the tipping point. The events to date could merely be a prelude of the trouble yet to come as Wednesday, October 1 is a statutory holiday celebrating the National Day of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
However, the annual National Day fireworks show in Victoria Harbour has been canceled. With workers taking time off, there could be a significant increase in protesters and dissent.
The demonstrators view this as a fight for their city’s economic and political future. Their promised democratic rights from the handover agreement have yet to be realized and there is fear that the central Chinese government could bring the colony closer to the same norms experienced in Mainland China.
Hong Kong has arrived at a crossroads ahead of the 2017 election. Here are 17 things to know about the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong:
1. Hong Kong is no ordinary Chinese city
In 1984, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher agreed to Chinese leader Deng Xiaopeng’s proposal to run Hong Kong using a “One Country, Two Systems” principle of governance. The negotiations were necessary as the leases for the New Territories and Kowloon, regions that are integral to the economic and social vitality of Hong Kong, were to expire in 1997.
The principle grants Hong Kong a high degree of political autonomy from Beijing and numerous rights and freedoms in everyday life and business that are not enjoyed by the Mainland Chinese, including freedom of the press, speech, assembly, travel and movement.
The Special Administrative Region (SAR) was designed to ensure the same British colonial policies enjoyed by Hong Kongers, causing it to flourish into the world’s freest economy and Asia’s financial hub, would endure for at least 50 years after 1997. This includes the British common law system inherited by Hong Kong and a thirst for true democracy.
Western values and influences are entrenched into Hong Kong’s fabric after 156 years of British colonial rule, but Beijing has been making not-so-subtle attempts to erase this.
2. Cultural genocide
The Cantonese language – a variant of the Chinese language – was the de facto language of Hong Kong life and business.
However, since the handover, nearly 800,000 Mainland Chinese have moved into Hong Kong through special permits with the PRC – accounting for more than 10 per cent of the city’s seven million residents. In 2011 alone, more than 28 million Mainland Chinese visited Hong Kong.
Mainland Chinese primarily speak Mandarin and have caused the use of the Cantonese language to go into decline. Hong Kong youth are struggling to speak Cantonese; since 1997, nearly 200 primary schools have switched from Cantonese to Mandarin to teach their students.
Experts say if the Cantonese mother tongue dies, so will Hong Kong’s unique cultural heritage.
3. Skyrocketing cost of living
Hong Kong residents have often blamed Mainland Chinese visitors for driving up prices, using city taxpayer health services (which are higher in standard to Mainland Chinese medical facilities), and straining transportation infrastructure.
Hong Kong is the least affordable city in the world to the point that the Hong Kong SAR government has had to intervene: about one-third of the city’s population lives in government rental housing flats. Costs have grown far beyond the rate of inflation, which has led to renewed pressure to build more housing stock. Until then, availability will remain limited.
In Hong Kong, $1.5 million buys you just 500 square feet (a similar sized apartment within the City of Vancouver would cost approximately $250,000). It is the world’s most expensive place to buy a home.
4. The last straw
Hong Kong has had a highly active pro-democracy movement since the 1997 handover. One of the biggest conditions of the handover was that Hong Kong citizens would be able to democratically vote for the Chief Executive, their top local government leader.
The position replaces the Governor of Hong Kong during British colonial rule and is currently filled by a special Election Committee of 1,200 political and business elites. Most of the committee has close ties with the Chinese government.
However, elections have been repeatedly postponed by Chinese leaders in Beijing, with universal suffrage ruled out for 2007 and not until 2012.
What riled Hong Kong citizens was not when it was delayed again to 2017, but rather this summer’s series of decrees that put Hong Kong’s autonomy in doubt.
In July, Beijing issued a White Paper mandating that “the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership.”
The following month, in August, the Chinese government revealed its plans for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections for the Chief Executive. Universal suffrage will be granted, but all three candidates will be screened by Beijing through a special committee.
Public elections for all members of the Legislative Council are currently scheduled for 2020.
5. Chief Executive or Beijing puppet?
Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying has been deemed by the pro-democracy movement as an “puppet” of the PRC in Beijing. He is the first Chief Executive to be aligned with the ideology of the Chinese communist government, something that makes many Hong Kongers extremely uncomfortable.
Appointed in 2012, there has been significant backlash to a number of his policies that have caused Hong Kong’s economic, political and social order to regress.
Within months of Leung’s appointment, there were already calls for his resignation after a mandatory “Chinese National Patriotism Course” was introduced to primary schools. It sparked widespread outrage and demonstrations as the education course was seen as a form of pro-mainland propaganda to “brainwash” Hong Kong’s youth. In response to strong public opinion over the matter, the course was dropped.
There are renewed calls for Leung to resign as it is believed that he ordered the police to deploy tear gas and pepper spray on the protesters over the weekend.
6. A student-led movement
Like the deadly Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, students are responsible for the current movement. Over the past few days, they have been seen living, eating, sleeping and doing homework in the streets.
There were signs of brewing tensions when more than 500,000 people participated in a pro-democracy march on July 1, the 17th anniversary of the handover. Crowds exceeded the 2003 rally that protested the proposal of an anti-subversion law.
7. “Umbrella Revolution”
Umbrellas have become a symbol of Hong Kong’s protests to block pepper spray and provide shade from the hot sun, which explains the nickname “Umbrella Revolution.”
Protest organizers previously dubbed their movement as “Occupy Central With Peace and Love.”
8. Yellow Ribbons
Yellow ribbons are another symbol of the “Umbrella Revolution” and are being tied on trees, street signs, and locations on the MTR underground to symbolize pro-democracy solidarity.
Around the world, the yellow ribbon has gone viral on social media with users adopting it as their newest profile avatars.
On Wednesday, October 1, Hong Kong protesters and supporters around the world are encouraged to wear yellow in support of the pro-democracy cause.
9. No damage to property… yet
Apart from the adverse impact to Hong Kong’s economy, there has been no reports of looting or damage to public or private property, except for one incidence of minor vandalism on a police van. Over the weekend, crowd control barricades were used by protesters to quell advancing riot police.
10. Instagram blocked in Mainland China
Beijing is actively blocking Mainland Chinese reports of the Hong Kong protests. On Sunday, the PRC issued the following directive to state-controlled media: “All websites must immediately clear away information about Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government and about ‘Occupy Central.’ … Strictly manage interactive channels, and resolutely delete harmful information.”
Instagram was also blocked on Sunday to prevent stunning photos of tear gas blanketed Hong Kong streets from being shared in Mainland China. Facebook, Twitter and the websites of numerous Western media outlets continue to be blocked, while censorship on Chinese social media networks like Sina Weibo have increased with terms like “Occupy Central” banned from searches.
Media and online censorship is not practiced in Hong Kong due to laws that protect the freedom of the press and the “One Country, Two Systems” formula of governance.
11. Stock market dip and bank closures
Hong Kong’s Hang Sang Index (HSI) is the fifth largest stock exchange in the world. According to Bloomberg, the HSI fell 4.7 per cent on Monday and Tuesday – the largest decline since May. On the second day of protests, stock volatility also increased by 24 per cent, marking the highest climb in three years.
The unrest had ripple effects on other global stock exchanges, causing Wall Street, the TSX and FTSE to slip. Meanwhile, the Shanghai Composite Index rose to a 19-month high.
44 bank branches, offices and cash machines were closed in Central while the city’s currency dropped to a six-month low. In anticipation of possible long-term instability, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has vowed to “inject liquidity into the banking system as and when necessary.”
12. Hong Kong’s financial hub depends on political autonomy
Hong Kong’s financial regulation systems are held to a exceedingly high standard and its capital flows are the world’s freest. This is coupled by an independent judicial system, making Hong Kong a trustworthy investment climate and a global hub for business.
Removing any of its top-notch elements, such as institutions and regulatory systems, that have been a cornerstone to Hong Kong’s economic success would essentially turn the city into another Chinese city and cause investors to flee.
There are fears that aspects of “One Country, Two Systems” formula are being eroded so that it can eventually be abandoned.
13. Macau is closely watching
Portugal returned Macau to Chinese sovereignty in 1999 within the terms of a similar 50-year “One Country, Two Systems” agreement. Pro-democracy organizations in Macau are closely watching the events that are unfolding in Hong Kong, located just 64 kilometres away.
Officials in Beijing are concerned that Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement could set a new Chinese precedent and spillover to other regions of the country.
14. The use of further force
The question remains whether excessive force will be used to disband the protests, especially in the days to come when crowds in the street are expected to swell to new record heights. The consensus is that Beijing officials are not swayed by international public opinion and will do what is necessary to protect the state of its domestic affairs.
On July 1, during the handover anniversary pro-democracy protests, a Hong Kong politician closely allied with Beijing stated the following: “A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent… If worst comes to worst, the P.L.A. (People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese military force) will come out of its barracks.”
There are 7,000 People’s Liberation Army soldiers stationed in Hong Kong, but they have not been deployed to assist Hong Kong police.
It was 25 years ago that tanks rolled through Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, killing thousands of students who were protesting for additional democratic rights.
15. There is nothing the UK can do
While it has captured the attention of British Prime Minister David Cameron, there are few things the United Kingdom can do – and that is only if it is willing to take on the economic powerhouse.
“When we reached the agreement with China there were details of that agreement about the importance of giving the Hong Kong people a democratic future within this two systems approach that we were setting out with the Chinese so of course I am deeply concerned about what is happening and I hope this issue can be resolved,” Cameron told Sky News.
16. Vancouver’s connection with Hong Kong
There is no question that there are strong economic and social ties between Hong Kong and Vancouver.
Hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong citizens fled to Vancouver, Toronto and New York City in the years leading up to the 1997 handover for fears that China would enact the same communist policies seen in Mainland China. Exodus out of Hong Kong accelerated following the Tiananmen Square massacre.
Hong Kongers moved their capital to these cities, safe keeping their money within investments such as real estate, and changed the cultural fabric of these cities in the process.
17. There are 300,000 Canadians living in Hong Kong
According to a 2011 survey by the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, the 300,000 Canadians in Hong Kong would rank as the 16th largest Canadian city. And that’s just conservative estimate, with higher estimates reaching as many as 543,000 Canadians.
Feature Image: Instagram