Hong Kong Protests: Lessons Learned

By Asa Zuberman-Leibman

The protests that recently rocked Victoria Park in Hong Kong have finally calmed down, but that has not stopped the democracy fervor that has taken the SAR (Special Administrative Region) by storm. Since the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997, the nation of 7 million has enjoyed greater autonomy relative to their counterparts on the Mainland. With this comes freedom of speech, press, and presumably assembly. However, after the recent demonstrations, the latter freedom is being called into question. Over 500 peaceful protesters were arrested after the marches through Victoria Park and the surrounding areas, calling into question the validity of Hong Kong’s alleged freedoms.

The protests deal largely with Hong Kong’s lack of a directly elected Chief Executive, who in essence serves as the go-between for the PRC and the semi-autonomous nation. This de facto head-of-state is in charge of everything from enacting laws to directing policy, much like any other country’s leader. The only difference here is that Hong Kongers do not have access to choose candidates for election and subsequently vote for them; instead, since the handover, China elects Hong Kong’s leader. The PRC has its cake and eats it too.

But since this form of pseudo-democracy has existed harmoniously between Hong Kong and Beijing for 17 years thus far, the lack of a direct election in and of itself has not enlivened the annual protests that occur on “Independence Day.” Instead, an infamous “white paper” recently published by Beijing has infuriated many in the former British colony. In it, the PRC outlandishly claims that Hong Kong has no true autonomy, and that in fact, Beijing is in complete control of the SAR, disregarding the internationally agreed concession made between the UK and the PRC in 1997.

Between the protests, the misunderstood level of freedom enjoyed in Hong Kong, and the white paper, what have we learned about the relationship between Hong Kong and the PRC?

First, China still holds a large share of power over Hong Kong, even if that power is consolidated in only choosing the Chief Executive. While the “one country, two systems” mantra rings true, the two systems are not as different as people think. China’s basis for choosing the head-of-state rests on the official’s allegiance to the PRC. Even as China has said that Hong Kong will choose its own leader as early as 2017, most Hong Kongers want that autonomy now, in the wake of China’s increasing show of force in southeast Asia.

Second, the freedoms inside Hong Kong regardless of the PRC’s influence have come into question in the aftermath of the protests. With over 500 peaceful protesters being arrested by authorities, Hong Kong’s government has made it clear that it will not tolerate peaceful, albeit raucous demonstrations lashing out against Beijing. While China is not selecting Communist Party leaders to head the government for the Region, they are placing CCP sympathizers in power, a la Tibet or Xinjiang. Such sympathizers are cracking down on the large anti-China passion taking hold of the former British territory, and in cases like this, are even arresting demonstrators after peaceful sit-ins.

If we have learned anything from the past weeks’ protests in Hong Kong, it is that no matter how many rights and individual freedoms a government provides, voting for one’s leader is the paramount form of liberty in a true democracy. The presence of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly—a right we have been led to believe exists—remain necessary to the survival of a democracy, but the true measure of a thriving, liberalized country is an election. Sure, Hong Kong may have greater “First Amendment”-type rights than the Mainlanders, but the idea that its citizens do not have the simple freedom to vote for their nation’s leader is troubling, and only plays into the hands of increasingly-imposing Beijing.

Image Source: The Guardian

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