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Anger and disappointment

Interview: Gabriel Domínguez
September 22, 2014

Braving stifling heat, thousands of students took to the streets of Hong Kong to push for democratic reforms in a move which analyst Joseph Cheng views as reflecting the sentiment of many of the city's residents.

Students and teachers shout at a rally during the class boycott at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, in Hong Kong September 22, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)
Image: Reuters/Tyrone Siu

Hong Kong students skipped class on September 22 and staged a sit-in at the Chinese University of Hong Kong campus in Sha Tin to protest Beijing's decision to restrict electoral reforms in the special administrative region of China. The demonstrations are seen as the start of a week-long boycott of classes to demand "genuine" democracy in the city and rally support for a larger protest - set to begin around October 1 - by Occupy Central, an alliance of pro-democracy activists.

The protests follow the August 31 announcement by Chinese authorities that they will tightly control the nomination of candidates for the election of the former British colony's Chief Executive in 2017. The National People's Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) - China's top legislative committee - decided that the city's next leader will be elected by popular vote, but only after each candidate is approved by a majority of a 1,200-member election committee.

For years, political and electoral reforms have been sources of friction between Beijing and Hong Kongers, but tensions have mounted over the past months as the financial hub has become the setting for a series of protests by pro-Beijing and pro-democracy groups. Joseph Cheng, Chair Professor of Political Science at the City University of Hong Kong, says in a DW interview that the NPCSC's announcement has angered and disappointed many city residents, and that the students' actions are merely representing the sentiment of the community.

DW: Why are so many students joining the protests?

Joseph Cheng: The NPCSC's announcement at the end of last month left no room for a genuine democratic electoral system in Hong Kong. Therefore, the pro-democracy movement, the students, and the common people feel angry and disappointed. At the same time, they want to engage in peaceful political struggles to demonstrate that they have not given up, and that they will continue to fight for a cause.

Joseph Cheng Politikwissenschaftler City University of Hong Kong
'The students' actions represent the sentiment of the community,' says ChengImage: City University of Hong Kong

What is at stake is more than just a democratic system. This has to do with the upholding of community values and lifestyles and the people's dignity. The Hong Kong people do not want to see the region reduced to just another big city in mainland China.

The pro-democracy protests have been going on for months. Why did the students decide to take to the streets now?

I believe that the students' actions represent the sentiment of the community. They are young, idealistic, and have less pressure from having to hold on to their jobs, so they are able to articulate their demands in a better way.

The timing is linked to the NPCSC's announcement. Given that the university resumes in early September after the break, the second or third week of the month was considered an appropriate time to launch the boycott of classes. The students also wanted to act ahead of the Occupy Central campaign, which will probably take place very soon.

What makes these protests different from the ones Beijing is used to dealing with in other parts of the country?

The Chinese authorities see the Occupy Central campaign as a challenge to existing laws and as an attempt to damage the operations of Hong Kong as an international financial center. Therefore, they want to take a very tough line against this campaign. But I think that deep down Beijing is concerned about the demonstrations' impact on the rest of China. As a result, many expect the Hong Kong police to crack down on the protesters.

To which extent are Hong Kongers divided over the NPCSC's decision?

Public opinion surveys have demonstrated that the Occupy Central campaign may be supported by up to 30 percent of the population - a very high percentage for a "civil disobedience" campaign. At the same, recent public opinion surveys have shown that half of the people are opposed to the NPCSC's decision to deny Hong Kongers their basic political right to a democratic electoral system.

It is important to point out, though, that most city residents are quite pragmatic, and unwilling to challenge China's authority directly. They do not want to engage in activities which may lead to arrests or which may be regarded as illegal. But again, deep down, Hong Kong residents resent the fact that their demand for democracy has been rejected.

Why do the authorities seem so keen to prevent full democracy?

Hong Kong's denizens find it difficult to understand this given that anyone elected as Chief Executive has to cooperate with the Chinese authorities anyway; otherwise the Hong Kong government will be in trouble. On the other hand, it seems that the Chinese leadership is very much influenced by the mindset that as a Marxist-Leninist regime it has to be in control, and that it cannot entertain a scenario in which a candidate favored by Beijing loses an election and a candidate opposed by China wins the vote.

Pro-Beijing activists (C and below) scuffle with Hong Kong democracy protesters during a head-shaving ceremony to call for people to join them for an upcoming "Occupy Central" movement rally in Hong Kong September 9, 2014 (Photo: REUTERS/Tyrone Siu)
Cheng: 'Polarization of society may push the Hong Kong government to start cracking down'Image: Reuters/T. Siu

Why is then the election of Hong Kong's Chief Executive so important?

The Chinese authorities have made it very clear that unless the Hong Kongers accept the system of electing the Chief Executive, which is going to be decided by the legislature, there will be no significant reforms with regard to the electoral system of the legislative council. There is also a concern that the polarization of society may push the Hong Kong government to start cracking down and that there will be less tolerance of the pro democracy movement thus affecting the core values and tolerance of the society.

Joseph Cheng is Chair Professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong. He has been the founding editor of the Hong Kong Journal of Social Sciences and The Journal of Comparative Asian Development, as well as the founding president of the Asian Studies Association of Hong Kong.

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