Comment: Hong Kong's youth are standing up to China

A Pro-democracy demonstrator flashes a thumbs up smile at the entrance office of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying on the fifth day of the mass civil disobedience campaign Occupy Hong Kong. (AAP)

Hong Kong’s youth are standing up to Beijing and China’s political plans for the territory, ANU's Belinda Cranston reports.

As pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong enter a fifth day, it’s difficult to predict how things will pan out over the next week or so.

Will the tens of thousands of mostly student protesters eventually grow tired of hanging out at key locations Admiralty, Mong Kok and Causeway Bay and go home? Or will the Hong Kong government grow tired of their umbrellas and force an end to their protests?

Sparked by the group Occupy Central with Love and Peace, the protests follow Beijing’s announcement on 31 August that it would select the two or three candidates locals could vote for in the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive.

That goes against the Basic Law governing the relationship between Beijing and Hong Kong, with China’s leaders having previously promised universal suffrage for the election of Hong Kong’s chief executive by 2017.

Comparisons between the current protests and the crushing of a Chinese political movement in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that culminated in a massacre in 1989 are naturally being drawn.

Professor Geremie Barme, the director of the ANU Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW), is of the view that “something unpleasant is going to happen".

“Anything like this does touch on the big issues of freedom in China itself; it’s very serious indeed,” he says.

Professor Michael Wesley, director of the School of International, Political and Strategic Studies at the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific, is surprised by the scale and duration of the Hong Kong protests.

“We have seen protest activity in Hong Kong before, but it has been relatively short lived,” Wesley, a former resident of Hong Kong, says.

In China it is not possible to access news of the protests on the Internet, thanks to the government censorship. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post (SCMP) is regularly posting updates of the protester’s activities on its website.

To shut down news of the protests would be damaging for the government of Hong Kong, Wesley says.
“Hong Kong is remarkable because it is still a lot freer than a lot of other parts of Asia.

“Hong Kong media is a lot freer than the Singaporean media, for example. So it would be very hard for the Hong Kong government to try and crack down on free reporting of this.

“The students that are out protesting are avid Facebook users and Twitter users.”

On the other hand, Dr Olivier Krischer, post-doctoral fellow at CIW, believes media commentary in Hong Kong is somewhat stymied. The former resident was managing editor of Hong Kong’s ArtAsiaPacific magazine from 2011 to 2012.

He describes the print version of the SCMP, also Hong Kong’s first English language newspaper, as “seemingly objective” but over the last few years, believes editorial content has shifted in a way that subtly favours the Hong Kong government.

That said, he noted the extensive coverage of the protests, particularly online, which have led to the SCMP site being blocked in mainland China.

In an online posting, the SCMP describes the Occupy Central movement as a civil disobedience movement which began in Hong Kong on 28 September that calls on thousands of protesters to block roads and paralyse Hong Kong’s financial district if the Beijing and Hong Kong governments do not agree to implement universal suffrage for the chief executive election in 2017.

In contrast, the pro-democracy group describes itself on its Twitter account as a nonviolent direct action movement that demands a fully democratic government in Hong Kong.

One of the few publications that are undeniably supportive of the protests is the independently-minded Apple Daily, also the victim of cyber-attacks earlier this year.

Jimmy Lai, president of Next Media, which owns the news organisation, blamed the attacks on the Beijing government.

Outside forces and Beijing’s discomfort, protests in Hong Kong this week have not come out of the blue.

In June, China’s State Council released an unprecedented white paper that said Hong Kong was just “one of the local administrative regions”.

It also warned against “outside forces” using the city to interfere in China’s domestic affairs.

Discomfort with democracy is part of the Chinese government’s psyche, Wesley says.

“There is something in the Chinese mindset that is deeply uncomfortable with risks and unknowables.
“They like to really constrain the unknowables to smaller possibilities.”

For now, many protesters in Hong Kong are focusing their ire at Hong Kong government leader Leung Chun-ying, who maintains the central government will not change its mind over electoral rules.

Calls for him to step down have so far been ignored. Even if he were ousted, Beijing would almost certainly replace him with someone equally beholden to the party, and equally illegitimate in the eyes of many in Hong Kong, commentators in The New York Times say.

One thing is for certain.

The young minds of the protesters camping out in Hong Kong this week will forever be formed by the experience.

And if a skinny 17-year-old student called Joshua Wong can lead them, chances are, Hong Kong’s youth will remain politically active for decades to come.

This article is from the Australian National University's College of Asia and the Pacific.

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