When the Tenth Session of the Standing Committee of the Twelfth National People’s Congress in Beijing decided to effectively place an administrative filter on candidates for the Hong Kong 2016 Legislation Council elections and the subsequent 2017 Chief Executive elections, few expected the decision to trigger the biggest crisis in Hong Kong since the 1997 UK-China handover. While most of the coverage has been focused on the pro-democracy message of the student activists, the protests have as much to do with immediate electoral concerns as with two reoccurring themes in Hong Kong’s history: the uneasy relationship with Mainland China and uncertainty about the future.
Hong Kong is no stranger to protests and social movements. After enduring almost four years of occupation by the Japanese during World War II, the entrepôt on the Pearl Delta enjoyed rapid population growth from Mainland China due to the Chinese Civil War. The influx of new residents greatly strained already scarce water supplies and led to squalid housing conditions, triggering the first wave of protests in the 1950s. Before Hong Kong became East Asia’s financial services hub, with relatively low corruption and a hypermodern infrastructure that is the envy of the rest of China, the city struggled to provide adequate social services and witnessed major labor unrest throughout the 1960s, culminating in the 1967 leftist riots.Inspired by the Cultural Revolution in Mainland China and aided by Chinese agents, the 1967 clashes were so serious that some British officials began to question whether control of the Crown Colony could be maintained. But the 1970s became a prosperous decade for Hong Kong as living standards rose due to reforms, ushering in a transformation from low-value manufacturing to today’s service economy. Hong Kong’s boom would inspire Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in China; indeed, without Hong Kong’s financing, Shenzhen and other market experiments would not have succeeded. Yet the mending of ties between Hong Kong and the Mainland (they were never fully severed even during the height of the Cultural Revolution) simultaneously brought wealth and a sense of unease to Hong Kong residents. By the early 1980s Hong Kong was dependent on China for its water and food, was struggling to integrate Mainland migrant workers into Hong Kong society, and had to seriously address the looming expiration of Britain’s lease on the New Territories, which was affecting investor confidence and stoking fears among residents that they would soon be subject to communist rule.The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 split the difference between Hong Kong’s concerns and China’s desire to close the last chapter of the unequal treaties era, by creating the “one country, two systems” principle that was the basis for granting Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) status in 1997 during the handover. Even before the handover, the principle was seriously tested by the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre, which shattered the hopes of Hong Kong residents that Mainland China would follow economic liberalization with political reform. At the time, Hong Kong residents voiced their trepidation that a similar fate could befall them, and many helped those fleeing the Mainland settle in Hong Kong. Since then, the city’s residents hold annual remembrances; while an entire generation of Mainland Chinese have grown up with little to no knowledge of the incident, the memory of Tiananmen continues to resonate with the broader public in Hong Kong, and particularly with the democracy activists.
While the creeping state is seen as a potentially long-term, gradual menace to Hong Kong’s identity, economic realities provide a much more immediate cause for apprehension. Mainland Chinese have always come to Hong Kong to work and live; now many are coming with hitherto unattainable power and wealth. China’s booming economy has minted a class of nouveau riche who are eager to profit from Hong Kong’s free-flowing capital markets. Others are simply coming to benefit from the higher quality of life to be had in Hong Kong. As a result, local residents are increasingly finding themselves competing with Mainlanders for jobs, housing, and social services—and often coming out on the losing side, something the student protestors are all too keenly aware of. And as Mainlanders flock to Hong Kong, some of Hong Kong’s most ambitious are choosing to go north. This beishan phenomenon, as it’s called, has helped build even greater linkages between the Mainland and Hong Kong and highlights the contradictory set of allegiances at play.The fact that students have made up the bulk of the protestors should come as little surprise. They are the first to feel the growing competition for jobs, economic uncertainty, and lack of affordable housing, and they don’t have much confidence in the ability or willingness of Hong Kong officials to defend their interests. Their fears are backed up by economic data that show income inequality to be widening. The polite civil disobedience displayed by the students is reminiscent of earlier democracy movements seen in South Korea and Taiwan in the 1980s. Unlike those movements, which eventually succeeded in bringing about greater pluralism, the current student protest movement has not been broadly supported by other segments of society. In fact, polling suggests that many residents oppose the student protests, with the majority viewing economic growth as the paramount issue for Hong Kong. The divide is also largely along generational lines, with the youngest generation far less sanguine about Hong Kong’s prospects.While some students continue to defy orders to clear Causeway Bay, Mongkok, and other public spaces and to endure occasional beatings from anti-occupy activists linked to organized crime, many are beginning to return to classes. Tensions are easing for now, but they could easily come to the fore again during the upcoming Fourth CPC Plenum or the Beijing APEC summit in November. The outcome of this current protest movement remains to be seen, but if history is any guide this is likely only the beginning. Both the students and the government realize that Hong Kong is inextricably bound to China. The question is: on whose terms?