The Nature of the Protests in Hong Kong

Raffaele Marchetti, Professor of International Relations, LUISS University, Italy, specially for wpfdc.org

Once again street protests and harsh confrontation with the government. Once more the acronym already used many times in the movement “Occupy.” Again governments who fear destabilization from outsiders.

The protests going on in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong have a triple face. On the one hand they are the result of political dynamics internal to the People’s Republic of China, although arising from the legacy of the long period under the British Crown. On the other are linked in many ways to the demonstrations occurred in recent years in many parts of the world. A third dimension, which remains underexplored so far, relates to the wider policies of international democracy promotion.

The first dimension of the protests in Hong Kong is of course local and national. It is local because it has to do with the question of the ongoing transition from the regime of the British government lasted for more than a century and a half to that of China's “one state, two systems”. The progressive “chinesisation” in Hong Kong in demographic and institutional terms has certainly helped to mobilize many citizens who feel increasingly at risk.

The protests defined by the activists as peaceful and pro-democracy erupted following the decision taken by the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress of China to propose what is according to many a real universal suffrage “in Chinese sauce”, that is the last word remaining in the hands of Beijing for what concerns the choice of the candidates running for the 2017 elections, choice that will make inelegible those deemed “unworthy” or “little lover of China”.

It is unimaginable for the moment that Beijing accepts to scale back and ensures free elections: this would amount to counter a legislative decision already taken. The defense of “the rule of law” is precisely one of the main arguments used by Beijing against the “anarchist and procedurally illeggitime” claims voiced by the street.

It is clear, however, that the protests of Occupy Central, taking advantage of the sui generis socio-economic position of Hong Kong within the Chinese system, are putting a strain on one of the most important national interests for Beijing, the stability of the system. Hong Kong is in fact a first level center in the Chinese system and is therefore inconceivable a hard confrontation that would antagonize even more the local population against the central government in Beijing. On this, the protest has a leverage. If it is true that the internal stability is a fundamental requirement for Beijing, it is also true that Hong Kong can not be “conquered” by force.

The students and the various civil society organizations, much freer here than in the rest of China (think of the presence within the University of Hong Kong's of the Pillar of Shame monument in memory of the Tiananmen riots) have decided to go down in the square on the eve of what for many Chinese is considered the most important commemorative holiday of the year: the celebration of the anniversary of the People's Republic of China.

In fact, much of China's recent history is marked by its large street protests, often led by students: the mobilization in the name of Mao at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966, the million in Tiananmen Square against the “gang of four” at the end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976, and finally again in Tiananmen the well-known mobilization of 1989.

Nonetheless the protest in Hong Kong is not simply yet another Chinese protest in a long series of disputes more or less known. Twenty-five years ago, China was still on the margins of international politics and the opportunities (and risks) of globalization still poorly perceived. Today the situation is very different. In this sense, the “umbrellas revolution” also demonstrates the need to contextualize the protests in Hong Kong, at least in part, away from China itself, setting them within the global trend arrived here also thanks to the opening up to the world of this small territory.

Over the past four years we have witnessed a widespread return of street politics. The results were extraordinary: presidents, prime ministers, heads of state all forced to resign by popular pressure from below. From the first protests in Syntagma Square in Athens (2010) to the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia (2010), there were protests in Tahrir Square in Cairo (2011), in Santiago, Chile (2011), at the Zuccotti Park in New York (2011 ), and at the Puerta del Sol in Madrid and Plaça de Catalunya in Barcelona (2011). Later, just to mention the most discussed, protests in Paris (2013), Brazil (2013), in Taksim Square (Gezi park) to Istanbul (2013), Thailand (2013), and finally to Maidan Square in Kiev (2013).

Although each of these protests is deeply rooted in specific national political contexts, a transnational component is undeniable. It is clear that in the era of global communication, information travels easily and the spirit of emulation of successes in other countries can galvanize local mobilizations. In addition, the easy sharing of organizational strategies, interpretive paradigms, and forms of action, in addition to direct support, should not be underestimated.

Besides this type of transnational social support, namely bottom up, then the question remains of how much there is also an outside influence of a governmental nature on this specific mobilization. The warning of Beijing a few days ago to foreign governments to stay out of the internal affairs of China should be read also in this direction. The policies for democracy and human rights promotion implemented through the support to local civil society organizations are now under the lens of observation, if not directly under attack, in many countries. In China, strong monitoring and enforcement actions are put in place against NGOs working on issues of democracy and human rights, especially if directly financed from abroad. The wave of recent revolutions has done nothing but accentuate the alert among all those governments who feel threatened by this type of policy of democracy promotion / regime change. The Washington Post reported just few days ago (September 30) of a telephone conversation between Putin and Xi in which they discussed exactly this type of indirect threat.

In the specific case of the Occupy Central protests we do not have precise information about the indirect involvement of foreign actors. While the long-term support on the part of Western countries of some local NGOs working on issues of democracy (think for example to the Hong Kong Transition Project funded by the National Endowment for Democracy, United States) is well-known, a closer relationship with the current protests is not verified yet. What is known is instead that China feels threatened by this type of infiltration. Moreover, that this kind of internal instability in China can eventually be exploited by the rivals of Beijing is certainly plausible.