You’ve probably heard of what happened in Hong Kong last year, when Occupy protestors took over some of the city-state’s busiest streets, calling for the right to vote freely and fairly. The protests were shut down by police in early 2015, but, last week, activists took to the streets again to send both the Hong Kong Government and the mighty Chinese Government that they were in it for the long haul.
Occupy’s goal is for Hong Kong to gain its long-promised Democracy, on par with other developed economic around the world. Behind the protests are concerns about living costs, limited infrastructure, and rising inequality in the tiny nation-state.
This article also appeared in The News Hub
Thus far, Occupy Hong Kong, also known as the Umbrella Movement, has remained in the city. The protests have not spread to mainland China – but Hong Kong is not the only place in China where discontent is leading to action. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, which has been under de-facto martial law for years, and remains a no-man’s land for foreign journalists and NGOs, there has a been a spurt of horrific self-immolations, which experts cite as a reaction to massive public anger at Chinese oppression combined with nearly no space for safe civic discourse.
Nearby, in occupied East Turkestan (in Chinese Xinjiang) the shift has, sadly, turned violent with the deadly knife attack by Uighur militants in Kunming, Yunnan the most noteworthy example, an attack that was followed by mass public convictions in Urumqi, the latest in what is becoming an even more vicious cycle of violence and repression.
China’s shadow looms large not just within its borders, but abroad as well. The authoritarian superpower, who has been accused of propping up dictatorial regimes across the world, has been a focal point for protests not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in South Korea, where activists have cited the recently announced free trade deal with China as an example of President Park Park Geun-hye’s incessant, possibly corrupt collusion with business and disregard for regular Korean peoples interests, especially those of farmers who stand to lose greatly.
In Thailand, where the recent coup created a new, Military-led, Constitution-less Government which subsequently took steps to curb public debate, media freedom, and citizen power, Thailand new military leaders met with officials from China, one of the few countries to not denounce the blatantly anti-Democratic steps taken by the Thai elite.
This demonstrates a key point – the protests in Hong Kong do not exist in a bubble. They are intimately connected to what is happening throughout the region.
What does this mean for the future of not only Occupy, but China and Asia has a whole? Being the world’s most populous continent, Asia’s vast geographic, cultural, and economic differences between OECD members South Korea and Japan, Hong Kong’s hybrid status, still developing Indonesia and Thailand and still-occupied Tibet and East Turkestan, make comparisons challenging and coordination nearly impossible.
And therein lies the problem.
Protests can take place in Hong Kong partly due to the city-state’s special status, which allows for an enlarged civic space that fellow “Chinese” citizens in Tibet and East Turkestan, not to mention Beijing, can only dream off. Remember, it was only 25 years ago that China had its own youth uprising, when students took to the streets across the country and, most famously, in Tiananmen square.
On a recent trip to Chengdu, also a hotspot in 1989, the author noticed buses of police at all of the city’s main gathering spots, which local observers stated was a recent phenomenon related both to Occupy Hong Kong, and the turmoil in East Turkestan. The Chinese Communist Party obviously fears something. But ask students at Occupy Central if they believe their movement will spread to the mainland and the answer is “China will never allow it.” Or, worse, “Chinese don’t care.”
Hong Kong protests because it fears it will become China, or, worse, like occupied Tibet. But it won’t stand up for Chinese or Tibetans. Yet, Hong Kong cannot win unless China changes, which means it cannot win until Tibet is free.
In the end, this may be the movement’s downfall – the lack of solidarity throughout the region.
Youth and Hope
Nevertheless, this is only the start. Occupy’s 2014 movement galvanized the world, and was focused not on building revolutions to sweep aside old powers, but to bring concrete changes to a society and increase citizens ability to have a say in that society. Change rarely happens in a year, and a greater role of youth and technology could bridge the gaps between the movements ‘goals and its current capacity.
Young people throughout Asia have access to new ideas through the Internet and more readily share information on a global scale through social media. Changing demographics such as the “youth bulge” will have a large impact on Asia and programs that engage young people in the political process will be essential in the years ahead.
Remember, Hong Kong is tiny. Its population is just 7.2 million, barely .5% of China. Moreover, its economy, which, in 1998, when it rejoined the mainland, was 18% of China, is now just 3%. China does not fear Hong Kong on its own – it is no longer big enough to effect the mainland – but what it does fear is a broader social movement connecting Hong Kong, Tibet, East Turkestan along with migrant workers in Guangdong province, students in Beijing, and the millions who were oppressed by the Communist parties during the Cultural Revolution or the recent purges against Human Rights activists. That is what China fears. But keeping the movement focused on Hong Kong, Occupy leaders are foreshadowing its own failure.
There is still time, of course, for the movement to grow. This is Asia’s century, and China is on everyone’s radar. Watch the protests closely, because whether they succeed or fail will show what type of Asia China will lead the world in the decades to come.