By Sam Plesser
On September 27, 2014, China affirmed that it would forbid Hong Kong from holding democratic elections for its chief executive. Immediately, civilian protestors took to the streets. Organized by Benny Tai, the leader of the nonviolent movement Occupy Central and an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, the protestors criticized the Chinese ruling. More specifically, they rebuked China for reneging on its promise to allow for free and open elections in 2017.
When questioned about why universal suffrage was so important to the Hong Kong people, Tai responded, “Hong Kong citizens have shown their determination for democracy and universal suffrage, and [the leadership] cannot see it. They only avoid addressing such demands, and find excuses for using unreasonable force, and even violence. It is unacceptable.”
On day two of the protests, a popular Chinese website, The People’s Daily, had chastised the participants: “[t]hese democratic radicals [sought] support from ‘anti-China forces’ in Britain and the United States, and had sought lessons from independence activists in Taiwan.” The website then referred to the protestors as a “gang of people whose hearts belong to colonial rule.”
Meanwhile, the international community was in awe that Hong Kong had risen against powerful China when it had remained idle for so many years. Yet, in today’s world, should the world be shocked that Hong Kong simply had had enough of China’s totalitarian rule? It seems that all over the world, David is rising up against Goliath, raising his tiny slingshot, and taking aim against his oppressor, and even in failure, asserting a powerful nationalism that has not been seen on the global stage in ages. No longer will passive and weaker countries, continue to remain under the control of the strong.
A shift in power first began in November 2013 when Ukraine revolted against the Russian regime, marching on Independence Square in Kiev after the Ukrainian President made an executive decision to halt trade talks with the EU without consulting his people. Timur Vasilijev, a Ukrainian student protestor, believes that this decision, made solely to placate Russia but with total disregard for Ukraine, gave Ukrainians a simple choice—revolt against Russia or accept that they were simply a puppet state. Since that time, Ukraine has been a war zone, marked by police brutality and continual street violence.
When asked about the current protests in Hong Kong, Vasilijev stated without any hesitation, “I wholeheartedly support the desire of Hong Kong residents to hold democratic elections.”
Scotland’s recent attempt to gain independence from England is yet another example of a country trying to change the status quo. Although the referendum on Scottish independence failed, the vote was so close that no one knew if Scotland was an independent nation for two days after the votes were cast. Notably, many important business people, politicians, and istatesmen supported the fight for Scottish independence, making what was at first a ludicrous idea suddenly seem somewhat reasonable. The Scots, though they lost the vote, won a victory—proving to England and to the world that they were not simply another British colony.
Hong Kong is more similar to Scotland than Ukraine because it has always respected China as its soverign under the “one country, two systems” doctrine, whereby Hong Kong had limited autonomy from China. However, in recent months, this system has revealed its limitations. To placate Hong Kongers, China had promised Hong Kong the first democratic election for chief executive, and notably with candidates that were Hong Kong citizens.
Soon, China reneged on its promise. First, China silenced two popular Hong Kong candidates by preventing Hong Kong businesses from publishing any of their electoral ads in the media. Then, China released a “White Paper” stating “the two systems” approach is “subordinate to and derived from one country” (China), “loving [China] is the basic political requirement for Hong Kong administrators,” and that the chief executive will be “accountable to the central government [of China], and “be subject to oversight by the central government.” Finally, in August 2013, China declared that any nominees for chief executive must receive the approval of Chinese government loyalists so that the Chinese government could affirm their allegiance to the Communist Party.
Once Tai and his fellow Hong Kongers realized that China was undoubtedly sending candidates from Beijing to run for the position of chief executive and denying them their democratic rights it was not if, but when, the protests were going to begin.
Although the protestors, under the leadership of Occupy Central, were strictly instructed to remain civil, the police had no such instructions. Almost immediately, the police force, five lines deep, used tear gas and pepper spray on the unarmed protestors, beat them with clubs and guns, and arrested over five hundred of them, most of them without any formal charges, detaining many more.
Yet the citizens of Hong Kong refused to surrender, as China (and most of the world) assuredly thought they would. When questioned about the methods that the police used to subdue the protestors, Tai responded “They [the protestors] have been fearless against pepper spray and tear gas; their commitment to the spirit of non-violence is beyond what I could have imagined. Hong Kong have [sic] made me very proud.” The people know the time has come for universal suffrage and are willing to take great risks to achieve it.
Many older Hong Kong citizens have criticized the protestors because of the violence that has descended on Hong Kong. To this, Tai responded, “…when a social movement provides a citywide political awakening, it can no longer be controlled by the organizers or initiators. People in power have the ability to fulfill democratic demands, and they are the people who can control the movement.”
Tai further expressed disappointment in both the Chinese government and in his own government, saying, “Hong Kong citizens have shown their determination for democracy and universal suffrage, and [the leadership] cannot see it. They only avoid addressing such demands, and find excuses for using unreasonable force, and even violence. It is unacceptable.”
The winds of change are blowing across the world, as timid and weak nations are no longer accepting the rule of those more powerful then they, no matter what the consequences might be. As history as shown, the old adage proves true; People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people.
Samantha Plesser is an editorial assistant at World Policy Journal.