Hong Kong's 1997 transition of power from British to Chinese rule was peaceful and expected. It resulted in Hong Kong's recognition as a Special Administrative region, free to continue operating under its own capitalist economic system and political structure.
An increasing number of Hong Kong citizens feel that their democracy is being threatened by the Chinese government, joining the students that started protests against the central authority of Beijing. The protests concern the 2017 elections for Hong Kong's Chief Executive, the head of government in the region. Protesters are calling for universal suffrage — the right to democratically elect their own leader. The Chinese government has declared that the candidates in the election will be nominated and approved by a panel in Beijing, which protestors view as a threat to the democracy that was promised in Hong Kong. Pre-1997, the region's leader was chosen by British authorities in London.
The protests currently taking place in Hong Kong are reminiscent — at least by name — of those that occurred in the United States’ own financial hub a few years ago. Dubbed “Occupy Central,” the movement has led to students and others publicly expressing their issues with the Chinese government in busy business and tourist districts.
Thus far, the protests have been peaceful. Still, they have resulted in a harsh response from both the local government and the authority on the mainland. In China, the government reportedly blocked access to Instagram, which has served as a popular image-sharing medium for dissenters in Hong Kong. Mentions of Hong Kong have also largely been censored on other social media platforms. On the ground in Hong Kong, students have faced tear gas, pepper spray and other more violent forms of crowd control.
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The protests also coincide with China’s National Day, which falls on this Wednesday and marks the 65th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party’s ascent to power. According to USA Today, Hong Kong officials have already canceled the annual fireworks display, stating “It is anticipated that main access roads leading to hot spots for viewing the fireworks display may continue to be seriously affected."
Although the next vote for Chief Executive is two years away, the fact that students are voicing their disapproval of Beijing’s authority now demonstrates the youth’s desire for continued democracy in Hong Kong. The method in which the situation is handled — and the ultimate decision by the Chinese government — is being viewed as a significant test for Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is highly unlikely that events will escalate to the point seen in Middle Eastern nations or countries like Ukraine, but the demonstrations still emphasize solidarity in the increasing global trend of calls for more open, democratic government. Like any call for change, the response is always the most interesting part. The complex political and economic makeup of Hong Kong and its relationship to Beijing make for an uncertain future, but pro-democracy nations and individuals will be watching to see how things ultimately unfold.