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Hong Kong Protests: Why you should pay attention

China needs to pay attention to the demands of Hong Kong residents who feel they were promised democracy

By George Magnus  

Protestors are massing in the streets of Hong Kong, demanding a more democratic government. © Wally Santana/AP/Press Association Images

Whether or not he actually said it, Harold MacMillan is credited with answering a question about what he feared most about being Prime Minister with the phrase “Events, my dear boy, events.” Chinese President Xi Jinping may now be feeling much the same as civil disobedience in Hong Kong turns into something approximating a popular rebellion. It is impossible to foretell the course of events on the streets over the next few days, let alone weeks. But the trouble in Hong Kong represents the first serious and mass challenge to the authority of the President since he was installed at the end of 2012. It seems probable that the “one country, two systems” principle under which Hong Kong has existed as a special region of the Chinese mainland since British rule over the island ended is quickly morphing from a motif to an epitaph.

The Occupy Central movement, launched in Hong Kong last year, had already planned to use the Chinese national holiday on Wednesday 1st October as an opportunity to rally people to protest Beijing’s plans for universal suffrage for the election of the island’s ruling Chief Executive in 2017, and Legislative Council in 2020. Beijing wants to nominate the candidates for the former, for example, and regards Occupy’s demands for civic nomination of candidates as outside the Basic Law. But the catalyst for the current outbreak of unrest were Hong Kong students who began a strike a week or so ago in protest against Beijing’s political reform plans for Hong Kong. Occupy brought forward its own protest plans, and it all kicked off, so to speak, over the weekend just gone.

There are a few reasons why this protest in Hong Kong, which has one of the highest levels of income per head in the world, is important.

First, China’s President is waging a protracted and powerful campaign to “purify” the Communist Party, shaming or imprisoning those found guilty of corruption and purging political rivals or enemies. This is no ordinary clear-out, but one which is deemed essential to improve the Party’s compliance and authority in implementing reforms, and respect among citizens as China navigates a difficult economic transition to slower growth. President Xi has insisted that the  Communist Party must not go the way of its Soviet predecessor, lacking political or ideological bottle.

While professing the need for economic reforms, Xi has ruled out political reform and specifically spoken out against the type of freedoms and rights that HK protestors have, and want preserved. Xi’s government also has a serious terrorism problem in the western province of Xinjiang, which shares borders with both Afghanistan and Pakistan. Domestic unity and stability, therefore, comprise a top priority in Beijing, and there is a serious risk that the situation in Hong Kong will be seen as a test of wills, to which there can be no compromise. If the local police were unable to manage the situation away, the PLA garrison in Hong Kong would doubtless be deployed. It has, after all, happened before in response to another episode of student-led protest.

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Second, activists in Hong Kong are angry that the current head of the administration, CY Leung, failed to make their case for political reform, even in the knowledge that it would fail in Beijing. By towing the Party line, so to speak, from the outset, they feel let down and are in no mood to compromise now.

Third, away from the immediacy of the political fray, there is an undercurrent of economic unrest too. Hong Kong is renowned for wealth, finance and high living, but the gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality between 0-1, was one of the highest in the world at 0.537 in 2013. This was the highest since records began in 1971. Typically in richer economies, this measure while elevated compared with the last 20 years, ranges between 0.3-0.4. For a long time, Hong Kong residents have had “issues” with housing affordability and availability, many think their infrastructure is being stretched to the limit by mainlanders, and there is weariness about the effectiveness of civil administration. None of these alone would have triggered unrest on anything like the scale seen in the last day or two, but it’s helpful to understand them as background factors to the less tangible but more emotional issue of democratic rights.

Some people argue that Beijing has every right to demand that candidates for the Chief Executive role in Hong Kong should be Party supporters or nominees, since the territory is an integral part of China. And China is not and doesn’t want to be a democracy as we understand it. But that is not in the spirit of “one country, two systems”—certainly as far as Hong Kongers are concerned. And so it is that this chorus of protest seems destined, one way or another, to end up as simply “one country”, as Hong Kong is transformed from Asia’s premier financial centre and urban location to just another Chinese city. Beijing simply cannot risk a climb down, let alone copy-cat protests on the mainland

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