As many as 80,000 students and activists in Hong Kong took to the streets over the weekend to demand more political autonomy from the Chinese government in the longest series of political protests since the 1997 handover. The peaceful movement, known as Occupy Central and the Umbrella Revolution, follows years of popular dissatisfaction over Hong Kong's limited autonomy. The anti-Beijing protesters hope to pressure China into giving the former British colony full universal suffrage.
Mass civil disobedience is highly unusual in Hong Kong, but reports indicate the protest is expected to gain more followers this week after police used tear gas, pepper spray and batons to break up the weekend sit-in. "The Hong Kong government isn't going to stand for us occupying this area," Nicola Cheung, an 18-year-old student from Baptist University, told Reuters. "We are fighting for our core values of democracy and freedom, and that is not something violence can scare us away from."
A commentary on the website of the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party’s main newspaper, claimed that the demonstrations were instigated by a “gang of people whose hearts belong to colonial rule and who are besotted with Western democracy. ” "Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said during a news briefing in Beijing.
The city of 7 million people is one of the most prosperous in Asia and the protests have already hit the financial markets, with Hong Kong's benchmark stock index falling around 2 percent. Banks in Hong Kong, including HSBC, Citigroup, Bank of China, Standard Chartered and DBS, closed branches Monday and advised staff to work from home.
Below is what you need to know about what is happening in Hong Kong:
What Do Protesters Want?
The demonstrators want to democratically elect Hong Kong’s leader, or chief executive, in 2017. Last month, the central government announced that all candidates in Hong Kong must be loyal to the Chinese government. Protesters have also called for the resignation of current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, a symbol of unwanted Chinese government rule for many in Hong Kong. Leung was never very popular and was appointed with low opinion poll ratings.
Activists also complain that while the Chinese government is supposed to be releasing its grip on Hong Kong, it’s actually tightening it. Grievances against “patriotic education” in schools, alleged corruption and media control have all been brought up by the opposition.
What's The 1997 Handover And What Does It Have To Do With The Protests?
Hong Kong has been a Special Administrative Region of China since 1997, when the British government handed over Hong Kong and its surrounding territory to the Chinese government at the end of a 99-year lease signed between the British and the pre-Communist Chinese government. Because Hong Kong was built on capitalism and foreign investments, investors worried about a takeover by the Chinese government. After years of politicking and negotiations, the Chinese government agreed to essentially leave Hong Kong unchanged. Hong Kong’s constitution, Hong Kong Basic Law, declares: “The socialist system and policies [in effect across China] shall not be practiced in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.”
But the anti-Beijing protesters are worried the central government won't hold up the agreement and instead wants Hong Kong to become more like mainland China.
Who Are The Major Players?
There are two main groups. Occupy Central with Love and Peace organized a mass protest on Wednesday, the National Day of the People’s Republic of China. Occupy Central hopes to convince the Chinese government to allow for democratic elections in 2017. It’s largely led by educators.
Meanwhile, a handful of student protest leaders have received international attention, especially after some were arrested after a group stormed a square at the government headquarters Friday. Some names to know include Joshua Wong, Alex Chow and Lester Shum. Wong is a member of Scholarism, a student activism group, while Chow and Shum are both members of the Hong Kong Federation of Students.
What Does The International Community Think?
The central government formally declared its opposition to the protests Sunday. A handful of Chinese government-run news outlets have run scathing op-eds to discredit the opposition and China blocked Instagram on its mainland Sunday to keep the protests out of public discourse.
The British government called on China to recognize's Hong Kong's right to assembly. “Britain's longstanding position, as a co-signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, is that Hong Kong's prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to demonstrate,” the U.K. Foreign Office said in a statement. “It is important for Hong Kong to preserve these rights and for Hong Kong people to exercise them within the law.”
The United States Consulate in Hong Kong urged all sides to “refrain from actions that would further escalate tensions,” adding, “We do not take sides in the discussion of Hong Kong’s political development.”
Most of the international community will likely wait to see what the Chinese government does about the protests before lending any support for the opposition against one of the most powerful governments in the world.
Wednesday was supposed to be the official kick off of Occupy Central before demonstrators mobilized over the weekend. It’s unclear how much bigger the protests will become this week, but expect major crowds. The Hong Kong Federation of Students, one of the organizations leading the protests, called Sunday night for an indefinite student strike and the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union has called for a general strike by teachers in the city.
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