The Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong
Hong Kong was ceded to Britain after the Opium War in the 19th Century and was returned to China in the year 1997. Since then there has been integration between China and Hong Kong in various aspects. The speed of integration was accelerated after 2003. In 2003, Hong Kong was hit by an epidemic (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS) that caused a serious economic downturn. After the epidemic, there were more than five hundred thousand people who participated in a peaceful strike (the population at the time was about 6 million). The Beijing government then launched a so-called “free travelers’ scheme” that reduced visa barriers for Chinese residents to come to Hong Kong, hoping that consumerism would help Hong Kong to recover.
Since the scheme was implemented, there has been a large inflow of Chinese tourismto Hong Kong. For certain, this tourism has promoted economic growth in Hong Kong. However, it has also caused much trouble to Hong Kongers. On one hand, the large inflow of Chinese tourists occupied all the streets near large shopping malls. The large purchasing power of those shoppers not only caused the cost of living to skyrocket in Hong Kong, but we also saw a boom of luxury stores in every shopping mall that often replaced smaller family-owned shops that sold necessities. On the other hand, Hong Kong residents have long blamed Chinese tourists who are competing for resources with the locals. One example is the “anchor babies” problem. From 2003 to 2010, the number of babies that were born in Hong Kong whose parents were not Hong Kong residents increased from 2,070 cases to 32,653 cases (around a 15 times increase). Some of the Hong Kong pregnant women could not even find a bed in public hospitals and had to pay the high cost of private hospitals (this would be comparable to the cost in the U.S. without medical insurance).
For these reasons, Hong Kongers have blamed the Chinese tourists. Chinese tourists, however, think they are the ones who saved Hong Kong from economic hardship and deserved a better attitude from Hong Kong people. This divergence of opinions created tension between China and Hong Kong.
The Problem of Universal Suffrage
The Hong Kong Basic Law (the constitutional document of Hong Kong) gives Hong Kong the constitutional right to refine the method of electing its own chief (now the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is elected by 800 committee members, most of whom were appointed by the Beijing government directly or indirectly). During the eve of the law making process, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress decreed a framework (known as the “831 Framework” as it was announced on August 31, 2014). This framework restricted the choice of Hong Kongers by running a pre-election before the “universal” suffrage. Hong Kong people were only able to choose from those 2 or 3 pre-elected candidates.
Hong Kongers, especially university and high school students, were not happy with the 831 Framework. This is understandable, as this contradicts everything that we have learned for a just society. So, there have been a lot of students who came out and protested. On September 28, 2014, protesters began a sit-in protest in the central business district of Hong Kong. The government reacted quickly and shot tear gas into the crowd of then peaceful protesters. This misjudgment of the government escalated the anger of the protesters and resulted in an immediate riot followed by 3 months of upheaval.
In the following years the Umbrella Movement brought about a couple of changes to society in Hong Kong. On the individual level, Hong Kongers, especially the younger generation, started to pay more attention to government activities. For example, they read the audit reports of different government departments and monitor how their tax money is used. On the governmental level, the local government and the Beijing government had to reconsider Hong Kong’s capacity to accommodate the visitors and have come to an agreement to restrict the number of visitors coming to Hong Kong.
Not all of the changes are good ones. The Umbrella Movement provided a focal point for further smaller scale riots in Hong Kong. However, these riots have been less peaceful and less organized. For example, there had been a local party protested in front of a primary school which had provided education to mainland Chinese children. This protest targeted the primary school students and “successfully” frightened some in the school.
It seems to me that the society of Hong Kong has been severely polarized. You can either be pro-Beijing or pro-democracy, but not both; you can either be mainland Chinese or Hong Konger, but not both. There is a missing grey area.
We can no longer see center parties. It is harder for different groups to engage in a rational discussion without much ideology. Hatred towards the mainland Chinese has increased recently. The refinement of the universal suffrage is unlikely to pass the Legislative Council given the 831 framework. All these problems are now haunting Hong Kong, tearing our society apart, but none of us has a simple solution.
In early September 2016, we concluded our 6th Legislative Council Election. This is the first event after the Umbrella Movement that allows Hong Kongers to express their view. The number of voters and the turnout in this election were the highest since 1997. People were very enthusiastic to vote. For example, one of the community centers was visited by a few hundred citizens towards the closing hour and the center needed to stay open for four more hours (until 2:30 am) to allow all citizens in queue to vote.
We have more pan-democratic candidates winning the election when compared to the election 4 years ago. There are three winners (out of thirty five seats) who were organizers of or directly related to the Umbrella Movement. There are six members from various localism groups, who support broadly defined independence from China, and who won the election while some traditional prodemocracy figures lost. This indicates that Hong Kong’s politics has gone through a transformation towards a more radical approach. Despite the fact that I do not support the Independence of Hong Kong, I think the inclusion of such parties will encourage more discussions on the future of Hong Kong inside the Council.
Having said that, I still think the polarization of Hong Kong is a problem. The election revealed the fragmentation of Hong Kong’s democratic parties. The quarrels from prodemocracy parties were not always directed towards the pro-Beijing candidates, but rather some of the quarrels were between localism groups and traditional pan-democratic parties. The localism groups blamed the pan-democratic parties for not doing much for Hong Kong’s democracy since the 1989 Tiananmen Incident while the traditional parties accused the localists of being too immature in some of the radical social movements.
This election is just a starting point. I hope after the election, at least some of the lawmakers reach a consensus about Hong Kong’s future and be persistent about their plan. Unless people are willing to talk to each other truthfully, I do not see any way out.