29 Sep 2014

Hong Kong: how much unrest will China tolerate?

The Chinese government’s instinct is to crush not to compromise, but Hong Kong is different. Under “one country, two systems” people in Hong Kong have the right to protest, whereas on the mainland even small demonstrations are illegal.

Across China every week local leaders protesting about environmental issues, land grabs and official corruption are arrested, demonstrators threatened, communities bought off or divided – there are dozens of ways of stopping protest before it starts. In Hong Kong they can’t do that, so now they have a problem – this protest is growing.

The demonstrators are demanding that the authorities in Beijing withdraw their ruling that only approved candidates – ie: those who support the Chinese Communist Party – may stand for the Hong Kong legislature in 2017. The mostly young protestors say they were promised real democracy, and they’re prepared to fight for it.

“Grown-ups like to talk about political realities and the broader context. But the broader context is that Beijing won’t give you what you want,” said Joshua Wong, a 17 year old student leader who was arrested over the weekend but released this morning. “If you don’t persist, then it’s only more likely that they won’t listen to you.”

Not only would such a protest never be allowed in Beijing or Shanghai, but the Chinese Communist Party doesn’t even want Chinese citizens to know it’s happening. Instagram was blocked in mainland China over the weekend so no-one could see online pictures of the protests.

Most TV broadcasts on the mainland have ignored Hong Kong, and one even depicted the demonstrations as, “ten thousand Hong Kong people rallying to celebrate National Day and supporting the lawful implementation of the election process”.


Blissful in their ignorance, Chinese tourists heading to Hong Kong for a National Day shopping trip on Wednesday may be shocked at what they find.

How much unrest will the authorities in Beijing tolerate? The demonstrators are a new generation, but they all know what happened in Tiananmen Square on 4 June 1989, when the Communist Party crushed a student protest in Beijing with tanks. The Chinese President, Xi Jinping, will be reluctant to send in the People’s Armed Police or any mainland force, preferring to leave it to the Hong Kong authorities, but he holds that option in reserve.

At the moment this is a Hong Kong protest about a Hong Kong issue, not a broader movement against the power of the party, but the greatest fear of Xi and his comrades is that it might morph into something bigger and spread across the de facto border to Shenzhen, Guangzhou and beyond.

The party is paranoid about an “Asian Spring” or a “colour revolution” like those that brought down governments in the former Soviet bloc. After all, they know their history. It was Mao Zedong who said “Every long journey starts with a first step.”

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