Hong Kong, previously a British colony, was transferred to the control of China in 1997 under the conditions that Hong Kong be allowed to maintain its free market economy and its autonomy. Since then, the Chinese government, a politically communist body, has made several attempts to change legislation in Hong Kong to increase their influence over the city. One such example was the attempt to pass an act in 2002 that allowed police the right to force entry onto private property without a court warrant, which was followed by a successful, non-violent civil protest resulting in the resignation of three officials.

Mainland China has a history of stringent control and censorship over its citizens. In 1989, student protests escalated as a result of a visit to mainland China by the Russian Premier – something which had not happened in thirty years. The Chinese population saw this visit as a gesture of reform on the part of the Chinese government, and the movement gained momentum. The reaction of the government was less than befitting, involving military intervention and the infamous video of a man staring down a line of Chinese tanks, preventing them from passing to Tiananmen Square, the heart of the protests. The violent crackdown has come to be known as the Tiananmen Incident or the Tiananmen Massacre. Any mention of Tiananmen since then has been outlawed by the Chinese government and any references on the internet censored.

The current protests are a demonstration against an announcement from Beijing that the next group of candidates for Hong Kong’s 2017 elections must be vetted by a committee consisting largely of pro-Beijing officials, which could potentially allow the Chinese government to continue their policy of universal suffrage in Hong Kong while simultaneously ensuring that any chosen chief executive would be loyal to Beijing before Hong Kong.

The population of Hong Kong has enjoyed a great deal of financial and social freedom in the years since 1997, especially in comparison to the mainland. Their right to protest has perhaps been further reinforced by the fact that the world is watching the unfolding events in Hong Kong with scepticism, waiting for Beijing to respond in the same manner as they did at Tiananmen in 1989. After their failed attempt to disperse early demonstrations with tear gas, which ironically galvanised the movement further and gave the protestors the moral high ground, authorities backed off into the shadows as international media shifted its gaze towards Hong Kong. Two weeks followed without major incident, until a crowd of anti-protestors, allegedly hired by the Chinese government to disrupt the movement, confronted the protest crowd in a violent skirmish, an unusual occurrence for the usually peaceful movement. Several days later, after an uncharacteristic silence, police cracked down violently on a crowd of protestors. Video footage has since been released of the scuffle, with one video depicting a police officer kicking a handcuffed protestor on the ground and another showing a protestor being dragged into an alley and beaten by several officers. Amnesty International, an international whistle-blowing organisation, has denounced the actions of the Beijing police and has demanded that the 45 protestors who were arrested be “immediately and unconditionally released”.

This reaction by the police followed the storming of a tunnel located next to the office of the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying. One of the leaders of the protest movement, Alex Chow, later said that his group had nothing to do with the storming of these tunnels. However, the startling reaction by police may have catalysed the movement back to its previous strength, as numbers have dwindled on the streets as the movement lost momentum. Following a last-minute cancellation of talks by the government, the movement was left without much direction and may have petered out, had it not been for this recent crackdown.

The government in Beijing has since announced a criminal investigation into the alleged actions of its police officers and has called for a new date to recommence discussions with the student leaders. However, Leung added that Beijing was not prepared to scrap the concept of their nomination committee and that the talks will focus on how that committee is formed, meaning that citizens in Hong Kong will only have the right to vote for three pre-selected candidates – hand-picked by the committee – should the outcome of the talks go according to plan for the Beijing government.

One unique aspect to the Hong Kong protests, nicknamed the Umbrella Revolution by international media, is the civilised manner in which the protests take place. The students regularly organise mass cleanups, ensuring their demonstrations leave no mess behind. A public war mural with a small “Keep off the grass” sign has been left untouched, despite its location in the middle of one of Hong Kong’s demonstration sites.

To continue communication and to ensure the coverage of their movement in mainland China, the nicknames and hashtags of the movement continuously change in order to remain one step ahead of the Chinese government’s sophisticated censorship programme. The Chinese controlled social network Weibo (the equivalent of Twitter) has been the primary medium for the spread of the movement in Hong Kong and China, while the international community has followed the movement primarily on Twitter. Most hashtags are soon blocked by the Chinese government as they heavily filter news of the event, but new references continue to pop up as old ones fall out of use. The international community following the events has struggled to keep up with the amorphous form of the movement on the internet. Some of the first references were #OccupyCentral and #OccupyHK, but Western news outlets, including Time magazine, have dubbed the movement the #UmbrellaRevolution as a result of the symbolic use of upturned umbrellas in the movement, first to shade themselves from the sun, but later to defend themselves against the pepper spray used by police. According to the young leaders of the demonstrations, Hong Kong citizens prefer not to encourage terms such as “revolution” because of the radical connotations of the word, when in fact the key ideals of the protests are to maintain autonomy from Beijing, despite a loss of control over the movement at times.

The situation continues to develop every day. Students will once again begin talks with authorities to list their grievances and discuss their options. Protests are less likely to fade following the latest crackdown as more citizens take the side of the movement.

While the student leaders have not yet achieved all of their aims, such as their call for the resignation of Leung, they have succeeded in garnering the attention of their government and the world, compelling the globe to watch intently as the greatest protest movement in modern China’s history grows stronger every day.


Image: ibitimes.co.uk

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