Hong Kong’s battle with China over democracy begins in earnest this weekend

August 29, 2014
August 29, 2014

Hong Kong is girding for protests this weekend and throughout the next month, after a decision from Beijing on Sunday is likely to bar the public from freely electing its own leaders—a demand activists and pro-democracy politicians in Hong Kong have been rallying behind.

Beijing and the semi-autonomous Chinese territory have been locked in a political battle over how to implement the concept of universal suffrage, promised to Hong Kong after it was handed over to China from British control in the late 1990s. China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) is expected to hand down a decision that requires all candidates be approved by at least half of a Beijing-friendly nominating committee—a process that critics say allows China to continue choosing who governs Hong Kong.

A pro-democracy group called Occupy Central plans to demonstrate on Sunday after Beijing’s announcement. The group says it expects only a couple hundred this weekend but will continue the protests on a weekly basis, a “full-scale, wave after wave,” campaign, Occupy organizer Benny Tai said. Another demonstration is planned for the day after on Sept. 1, when the head of China’s Basic Law Committee, Li Fei, who oversees relations Beijing’s relations with Hong Kong, visits Hong Kong to explain the decision. Student groups at Hong Kong’s main universities are planning to begin boycotting classes next month—even some middle-school students are considering joining the protests. A large-scale occupation of Hong Kong’s central business district, what Occupy has been threatening for months still depends on the NPC’s decision, organizers told Quartz.

Anxiety over whether the protests may turn violent is high. Local media have observed People’s Liberation Army tanks were seen rolling through downtown Hong Kong at midnight earlier this week, where the Chinese army already has a garrison. Hong Kong’s police force has been running riot and crowd control drills for the past several months.

Ahead of these protests, residents, schools, businesses, and officials in Hong Kong appear to be taking sides. A group of lawyers has pledged to represent pro-bono any activists that get arrested. While some universities have told their students they won’t be punished for attending the boycott others, like Baptist University won’t allow students to sit their final exams if they miss more than 15% of their classes. Hong Kong’s top school, Hong Kong University, says it supports the students participating in the democracy protests but warns “there may be consequences” to cutting class.

A less confrontational path is still possible. On Sunday, the NPC could just acknowledge having received Hong Kong’s consultation report on election reform, allowing Hong Kong to decide its own reform process. (Even in this scenario, Hong Kong and Beijing officials would likely not allow the public to nominate candidates.)

Judging from increasingly recalcitrant voices from China, that seems unlikely. “We are convinced that Hong Kong’s opposition groups can in no way win this conflict,” a Global Times editorial today said. Speaking in Hong Kong yesterday, a prominent Chinese academic—Wang Zhenmin, dean of the law school at Tsinghua University in Beijing—called on Hong Kong to accept a less than-perfect form of popular election for the sake of business interests and the economy. Wang said, “Less perfect universal suffrage is better than no universal suffrage.”

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