Article by Ole Scheuermann (UWC Atlantic College ’14-’16)
For three weeks now, Hong Kong has experienced immense protests, mostly by student protest groups. The reason for the protests is an electoral reform that grants Hong Kongers the right to elect their Chief Executive, the leader of the city. Nevertheless, all candidates have to be selected by Beijing, a restriction that has caused outrage in the former British colony.To understand the reasons for the protests, we have to take a look at the political system of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is nowadays part of the People’s Republic of China. Nevertheless, according to the motto ‘one country, two systems’, it has its own judiciary system and partial self-administration. Also, Hong Kong is granted special rights as the right to protest, freedom of speech and, finally, what it is now all about, gradual democratization for 50 years. The gradual democratization is meant to give Hong Kong democratic rights like universal suffrage. All those rights are part of agreements made between the United Kingdom and China in 1984, when it was finally decided that the then British Crown Colony would become part of the People’s Republic of China in 1997.
Now, as it was decided to grant the Hong Kongers the right to elect their own Chief Executive, they can’t elect him freely, since all candidates are selected by Beijing. The Hong Kong protest movements, above all the so-called ‘Occupy Central’, are justifying their protests with the call for more and proper democracy, a state they are complaining not to be fully granted. By looking at the problem from a Western point of view, the protests can be seen as a legitimate, pro-democracy movement. The people in Hong Kong are asking for one of the basic aspects of voting rights: to be in charge of who is on the ballot. In history, if we talk about freedom and pro-democracy movements, there is one big and fairly successful movement that managed to disrupt and change a whole country and have a profound impact on the world. In 1989, large protests occurred in Eastern Germany. East and West Germany were in those days two different countries. Eastern Germany was a socialistic dictatorship and part of the Eastern block whereas West Germany was a free-market democracy belonging to the NATO. After years of economical downturn and election frauds, protest movements in Eastern Germany occurred and developed into mass demonstrations of to 500,000 people. The events finally resulted in the opening of the East German border and, in 1990, to the reunification of East and West Germany. The movement was one that caught the vast majority of the population and completely disrupted a friable political system. It was a sign to the world that the impossible, a revolt against an authoritarian political elite, can be achieved.
Where are the similarities between the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and the East German uprising? Can the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong be equally successful? Pointing out the similarities, we can say that both movements were supported by large masses. In Hong Kong, at the height of the protests, over 100,000 occupied the central district in the ‘Occupy Central’ movement. This is not comparable to the sheer mass of protesters in East German cities in 1989, but it is a considerable crowd affecting media, economy, and politics in almost the same way. Moreover, the protests were linked to a dissatisfaction over the politics of the economic leaders. Recent polls show that most Hong Kongers are dissatisfied with current political developments and pessimistic about the situation in their city. Furthermore, many of them complain about rising prices due to the influx of rich mainlanders buying local businesses and apartments.
Last but not least, both protests did not appear out of nowhere. In East Germany, it was pent-up disapproving, dissatisfaction, and anger of over 40 years; in Hong Kong it is dissatisfaction towards the central government in Beijing, grown in 17 years. The protests are also not the first occurring. In East Germany, smaller protests tended to take place since 1982 and in Hong Kong, protests have a long tradition. Nonetheless, hoping for a positive outcome in the name of the protesters in case of the Hong Kong movement by referring to the East German coup may be an illusion. This is because the circumstances are hardly the same and despite all the similarities there are even more disparities. The biggest difference is probably the political environment. 1989 was a year of global change. It was the year that sealed the fate of the Eastern block. In 1989, backed by the idea of Glasnost, Perestroika and the open-minded Sowjet President Mikhail Gorbachev there was no joint intention to obtain socialism any more. After years of economical and political crisis, the Eastern block was at death’s door. East Germany was basically a shadow of it’s former self with reasonable parts of the political elite seeing the need for reform. It was just a question of time when the change would happen.
In China, on the other side, there is no such apparent weakness in the political system. Beijing and its policies enjoy popularity among Mainland Chinese and Hong Kong’s leaders are strongly backed by Chinese media and mainland politicians. Beijing doesn’t seem to be in the mood of granting Hong Kong more rights. And Hong Kong, home to 7 million, does not have the power to convince 1.3 billion Mainland Chinese of granting them their freedoms. Also, there are no foreign forces which would seriously push China in this stage to make compromises with the protesters. China is too important in economical terms to be annoyed. For this reason, Hong Kongers cannot rely on a serious external support. There are fighting alone against a superior power. Moreover, the protests are rather dividing Hong Kongers than uniting them as in East Germany. Hong Kongers want more democracy, but many disapprove with the protests, for different reasons. as it was created in East Germany. Thus, influence on Hong Kong’s leaders as well as the central Beijing government seems infeasible.Even more important is that the protests, even if reoccurring this weekend, seem to decrease. In East Germany, on the other side, it was a steady movement; the number of protesters grew larger and larger, finally completely outnumbered police and politicians. Hong Kong’s protests have started to disappear from global media.
To conclude, we can say that the Hong Kong protests are far from becoming a second peaceful revolution as the movements in East Germany 1989 have been. Too big is the power of Beijing; too little the will of Hong Kong and Beijing legislators to change the current status quo. There is little change for the protesters, as they haven’t got up so far. But, ultimately, these protests will have a profound impact on the Hong Kong society, whereas politics will remain unchanged.