30 Sep 2014

Explaining Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution

5:36 pm on 30 September 2014

Tens of thousands of demonstrators have ignored appeals to leave central Hong Kong, blocking streets and shutting down the city’s business district. Schools and colleges are also closed.

Protesters hold up mobile phones in a display of solidarity - but communications are disrupted.

Protesters hold up mobile phones in a display of solidarity - but communications are disrupted. Photo: AFP

The protest has been dubbed the “umbrella revolution” because people have used umbrellas to block the sun, and to protect themselves from pepper spray. Riot police withdrew on Monday after overnight clashes in which they used batons and fired volleys of tear gas to try to disperse the crowds.

The mostly student protesters are demanding full democracy and have called on the city's leader Leung Chun-ying to step down. Hong Kong’s voters were supposed to gain the right to elect their own chief executive (the leader of Hong Kong) in 2017. But last month, the Chinese government announced that all candidates would need to be pre-approved by a committee friendly to the Chinese Communist Party. “Pro-democracy groups saw this pre-approval as a way to limit the will of voters,” the Boston Globe reports. “They came together under the name of “Occupy Central” to plan protests and try to reverse Beijing’s decision.”

But Reuters reports that Communist Party leaders worry that calls for democracy could spread to the mainland, and have been aggressively censoring news and social media comments about the Hong Kong demonstrations. (The South China Morning Post has an infographic on how Occupy Central became a global topic on Twitter.)

China Real Time has a live blog of the protests, saying the mood on Tuesday was calm, and supplies – mineral water and cereal bars – have been delivered. “Tonight will be critical because people are expecting the police to make a greater effort to clear the stretch before Wednesday, which is China’s National Day, said Joanne Chung, a 24-year-old management trainee at a bank.” It also has a brief explanation of the issues at play.

Protesters in Hong Kong have set a Wednesday deadline for a response from the government to meet their demands for reforms, The Blaze reports. “People are feeling a kind of guilt that they were allowing the young kids in their late teens and early 20’s to take all the risks, so people are coming out to support them,” it reports Steve Tsang, a senior fellow at the University of Nottingham’s China Policy Institute as saying.

No one really knows who is leading the protests, but Hong Kong journalist Isabel Wong, tells Radio New Zealand’s Nine to Noon, there are two major groups behind it, Occupy Central and student-led group Scholarism.

She says the protests feel like they could be the calm before the storm, but the atmosphere at the moment is pretty chilled.

Foreign Policy reports on the Chinese government appearing to shut down Instagram in response to the protests. “Most mainland Chinese still likely know nothing of the Hong Kong protests, now continuing into the early hours of the morning. But online chatter about the Instagram blackout could backfire on Beijing, leading otherwise indifferent Chinese web users to feel the personal impact from events transpiring far away.”

READ Behind the Great Firewall, Joe Connell’s experience of travelling in censored China.

Discussion of the protest has also been scrubbed from the Chinese microblogging sire Weibo, reports Quartz. “Chinese news organizations have been instructed to delete any information on the “Hong Kong students violently assaulting the government” from their websites.”

But the Washington Post suggests in an editorial that crushing the protests would do harm to Hong Kong’s international reputation, undermining its future prosperity. “China’s leaders could have avoided this dilemma. They had promised Hong Kong’s residents that they could elect their chief executive by 2017. Instead of sticking to the spirit of that pledge, they announced this summer that a pro-Beijing committee would vet every candidate. Beijing’s allies in Hong Kong argue that this is progress. But if only carefully approved pro-Beijing candidates can run, universal suffrage will have limited significance.”

The view that the protests are bad for business (because its stability has made it one of the world’s most important financial centres) was echoed in the Chinese state-run Global Times. “US media is linking the Occupy Central movement with the Tiananmen Incident in 1989,” it said. “By hyping such a groundless comparison, they attempt to mislead and stir up Hong Kong society.” But Time argues that Hong Kong’s economic success is intertwined with its people’s civil liberties. “If Beijing knocks one of those pillars away ­if it suppresses people’s freedoms, or tampers with its judiciary, ­Hong Kong would become just another Chinese city, unable to fend off the challenge from Shanghai. Foreign financial institutions would be forced to decamp for a more trustworthy investment climate.”

Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying, has called on Occupy Central movement to stop the action, saying it is affecting people’s daily lives and safety, as well as the economy and the image of Hong Kong. “Speaking ahead of the weekly Executive Council meeting on Tuesday, he said Occupy Central organisers had promised to halt their protest if the situation got out of control. He urged them to keep their promise,” RTHK reports.