Hong Kong’s ‘Umbrella Revolution’ Reflects Broader Issues in China

Professor Bruce Dickson says Chinese government’s reaction to demonstrations could indicate tolerance for democracy at home.

October 6, 2014

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Crowd of pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong on Sept. 30. Photo by Flickr user Pasu Au Yeung.

Thousands of protestors are taking to the streets in Hong Kong, showing China their commitment to democracy through what’s being called the “Umbrella Revolution”—a moniker that refers to umbrellas used to protect protestors from inclement weather and tear gas.
Hong Kong is a largely autonomous special administrative region under Chinese sovereignty. Although China’s government in Beijing appoints the island’s top officials, China had agreed to allow Hong Kong to have direct elections for legislative and executive positions by 2017.
China ignited protests last week when it announced that its government must screen and approve all candidates before Hong Kong voters cast their ballots. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy supporters saw the decision as China reneging its earlier commitment to free elections and mobilized by the thousands.
Bruce Dickson, professor of political science in the Elliott School of International Affairs and director of George Washington’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies, explained that the demonstrations reflect broader anti-Chinese sentiments that have been brewing in Hong Kong as more Chinese tourists enter the region. Dr. Dickson spoke to George Washington Today about Hong Kong’s history of protests and why the Umbrella Revolution is capturing international attention. 
Q: Pro-democracy protests are common in Hong Kong—why is this the case?
A: Every year, there is a large march on the anniversary of martial law imposed in Tiananmen Square back in 1989. It’s usually a small candle-lit protest and the numbers have varied, but the 25th anniversary this year drew huge crowds addressing many interwoven issues, including the pro-democracy movement and the memory of people who died in 1989. Usually demonstrations in Hong Kong are tied to an event, anniversary or holiday, but the Umbrella Revolution has been rather spontaneous. 
Q: Have police responded strongly to the most recent protests?
A: There has been a lot of police presence, but it’s been a relatively restrained response. Police have only used tear gas, but not lethal force. What little violence that has occurred has been blamed on people reportedly hired by local criminal gangs or sent from China.
Q: Why are protestors calling for the resignation of Hong Kong’s current executive chief Leung Chun-ying?
A: He was appointed by Beijing, so he’s a symbol of China’s influence over Hong Kong. The demand is one of the few protestors that can make that would be plausible, but it’s unlikely he would resign because that could make things snowball. 
Q: How is the Chinese government reacting to the demonstrations domestically? How are they reporting the events to Chinese citizens in their own media?
A: So far, the Chinese response has been largely rhetorical. There’s been censorship and blocking Internet sites and social media to prevent information about the protests from spreading, and to keep anyone in China from getting ideas about doing something similar.
Chinese media have called the protestors unpatriotic, saying they’re causing instability and engaging in illegal activity. They have also warned that foreign governments are fomenting the rebellion, which is a fairly standard reaction of the Chinese government—they will often allege foreign involvement or foreign support of protests. The tactic plays well for Chinese citizens who often see Western countries having a history of meddling in Chinese affairs. Because the United States and President Obama are in favor of promoting democracy, it’s not too far of a stretch to say the U.S. has been supportive of the protests, although it hasn’t been directly involved.
Q: Are the demonstrations likely to escalate? How will the protests be resolved?
A: The number of protestors really grew on the previous weekend and in the middle of last week when there was a two-day holiday. Once people went back to work and school, the numbers dropped dramatically. 
If there were negotiations, it’s not clear who has the authority to negotiate on behalf of the protestors. When you have large groups like this, it’s often unpredictable what direction it could go—neither the government nor the people in the protests have control, and something unintentional could really trigger rapid escalation.
Q: Will the protests lead to a deterioration of the relationship between Hong Kong and China?
A: That’s really the question. The Chinese government has become more open to public opinion within China on a variety of issues, but it’s by no means democratic. They may be more willing to consider public opinion in Hong Kong, but the issue of political control is the bottom line. They do not want to allow a situation in which Hong Kong’s elected government would not be hospitable toward China. If that means limiting who can run for office and who can be elected, they’ll do that indefinitely. There is the potential for some very difficult times ahead with constant protests like this over issues of elections, but it could also fizzle out if people are unhappy about things but not fully willing to hit the streets. 
Q: Why have the protests garnered so much attention?
A: Hong Kong has always had oversized influence because of its relatively small population but huge economic impact. The protests are a symbol of what direction China may go, and how China treats Hong Kong might be an indication of what it’s willing to tolerate in terms of its own domestic politics. Once you start getting tens of thousands people in the street calling for democracy, especially against the Chinese government, you have factors that are undoubtedly going to get media attention.