▲ Flag of China. Provided by commons.wikipedia.org.Flag of Hong Kong SAR. Provided by en.wikipedia.org.
Recently, a Youtube video of an official apology from a Taiwanese member of a K-Pop idol group has stirred a heated controversy all across Asia. Brushing all the details aside, at the very core of this issue was the firm grip that the Chinese government held on Taiwan. However, there is another region within China's sphere of influence that is even more politically sensitive, trying to tiptoe around confronting its own Goliath: Hong Kong.
Despite its reputation as a shopping paradise and a financial hub of Asia, the streets of Hong Kong have been smeared with a series of brutal violence lately. The latest incident involved a clash between street vendors and the police during the Lunar New Year holiday. Not long ago, a mysterious disappearance of several booksellers in Hong Kong who were critical of the Chinese government sparked a widespread uproar. So, what is behind all of these commotions in this otherwise prosperous city?
Is Hong Kong a Country?
Before delving further into the dynamics of Hong Kong’s struggle, let us take a closer look at Hong Kong itself. An island city off the southern coast of China, Hong Kong was officially handed over to the Chinese government by the British in 1997, after centuries of colonization. Ever since then, it has grown to assert its dominance in the financial realm, along with a fascinating mix of Eastern and Western cultures.
To clarify Hong Kong’s status, it is officially under the jurisdiction of the Chinese government and is not acknowledged as a sovereign state, in accordance with the principle of “one country, two systems.” In essence, the city retains a capitalist economy as well as a certain degree of political autonomy in the form of its own legislature, while being a part of China.
Yet, its government is structured in a way that it cannot wrestle free from Beijing’s thumb. The most telling evidence of this is the fact that the Chief Executive, the head of Hong Kong’s government, is implicitly screened by the Chinese Communist Party. This is facilitated by limiting the voting rights to a 1200-member Election Committee instead of a direct election in which every citizen would cast a vote for a candidate of their choosing. Moreover, Hong Kong’s police force has become synonymous with puppets doing the biddings of Mainland China.
▲ A cartoon satirizing the Chinese government’s abduction of Hong Kong booksellers. Provided by washingtonpost.com.
The Battle of David and Goliath?
Nevertheless, Hong Kong’s yearning for a legitimate democracy has always existed in the back of its people’s minds, intensifying with the ever-tightening chokehold China has imposed on its autonomy. Such longing turned into an outright frustration and rage in 2014, evidenced by the most publicized and significant pro-democracy movement that the city has ever witnessed.
Dubbed the Umbrella Movement, this large-scale demonstration centered on college students who were fed up with the status quo and demanded a full-blown democracy. Coupled with another civil disobedience movement titled “Occupy Central”, the movement lasted for several months, paralyzing the city’s business flow and turning the eyes of the world towards Hong Kong.
Despite such efforts and media attention, the Umbrella Movement eventually fizzled out in the face of China’s hardline stance, without any major consequences. Perhaps Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom might appear as simple as an underdog defying the giant. Deep down, however, the story is much more complicated with farreaching consequences.
A Generational Divide
For one, although there is a growing sense of discontent among the public, one should not automatically assume that the entire population of Hong Kong is on the same side. In fact, a large segment of the population, mostly older generations, favors the status quo. In contrast, younger generations, with their independence leaning liberal mindset, are the ones calling for a complete democracy.
Simply looking at the numbers, those who are opposed to radical prodemocracy movements far outnumber the vocal group of student activists. For instance, 1.5 million Hong Kong citizens of the so-called “silent majority” petitioned against the Umbrella Movement when it was at its full swing.
▲ A protester denouncing the Chinese government for its crackdown on Hong Kong. Photographed by Jerome Favre. Provided by theguardian.com.
The All-Powerful Big Brother: China
China’s remarkable ascendance on the global stage is no longer a surprise, but the juggernaut’s political pressure across its borders seems to have no limit as well. Regarding the recent abduction of Hong Kong booksellers, both the United States (U.S.) and the United Kingdom (UK) have strongly condemned the Chinese government. In response, Beijing simply told them to “mind their own business.”
In an interview with The Irish Times, Kerry Brown, a professor of Chinese studies at King’s College in London, shed some light on the power dynamics among major players involved in the issue. “The abduction of the booksellers and the strong language in the six monthly reports produced by the UK show in effect that the joint agreement between the UK and China on Hong Kong is dying, perhaps even dead,” he explained.
From Beijing’s perspective, the mere gesture of giving Hong Kong some room to breathe sets a dangerous precedent as China’s other satellite states that are also on the lookout for independence, namely Taiwan and Tibet, would want to follow suit. This, in turn, will severely undermine China’s authority and territorial claims in the surrounding geopolitical arena.
Thus, Beijing finds Hong Kong’s desire for a greater degree of independence unacceptable, whose view is mirrored by its people. According to Wang Hui (12’, Media and Communications), most Chinese feel “betrayed and hurt that Hong Kong wants to break away from its motherland.”
Unfortunately for Hong Kong, experts are not optimistic about its future. “Things will get bleaker for Hong Kong,” Alvin Cheung, a local politician, warned. What complicates this issue even further is the economic implication stemming from the city’s dependence on China for its economy. It remains to be seen whether China will loosen or tighten its grip on Hong Kong in the foreseeable future. One thing seems certain enough, though. Their fight will not be as simple and swift as the battle of David and Goliath.