The protests could probably be appeased by less arrogant policies that concede something.
The facts in Hong Kong confirm few certainties and raise many questions. By now, the data clearly shows the explosion of antagonism between Beijing and the ex-British colony. Tens of thousands of protesters, clashes with police, and European-style images confirm this: tear gas, riot shields, batons, but also the determination and courage of those taking to the streets.
The motive that unleashed the protests is clear: in 2017, citizens will have to vote in direct and universal elections for the governor of Hong Kong. After four partial elections—in which Beijing’s decisions were decisive—preparing a new law for the next election is necessary.
China has already made it known that it will impose stringent rules and, most importantly, it will select the roster of candidates. Essentially, residents will only be able to vote for candidates approved by Beijing. It’s a forceful application of the “one country, two systems” concept that Deng Xiao Ping and Margaret Thatcher negotiated for the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. For Beijing, membership does not allow any exemptions.
The island is allowed to have its own currency, flag, bureau of statistics, and a baseline of democratic freedom that China is progressively—and perhaps surprisingly—encroaching on. The protests represent the tip of the iceberg of the resentment felt toward Beijing, whose tentacles are threatening to jeopardize Hong Kong’s diversity and greater wealth. For this reason, the protests’ slogans come from hearts, minds, and wallets. They want to limit the inflow of uneducated tourists from Mainland China, the nouveau riche without rules, and women that give birth on the island to gain residency. The tension is palpable; a law even prohibits bringing more than 1.8 kilos of powdered milk back to China, unobtainable on the Mainland and obviously desired in Hong Kong.
And yet, this time the protests contain strong idealistic themes like liberty and elections. A population that has frequently been accused of cultivating materialistic ambitions has discovered and affirmed unexpected tensions. Not surprisingly, the demonstrations have taken on a famous slogan against Wall Street’s injustices. It’s called Occupy Central, after the place where finance and public offices are concentrated.
The first victim is the local government. It has withdrawn police from the clashes, hoping that protesters will respect the law and dialogue. They seem like judicious moves, but they will probably be short-lived due to Hong Kong’s limited autonomy. Those making decisions in Hong Kong know that they owe their nominations to China, as well as their futures. The ghost of Tian An Men Square is returning to Beijing, even if the protests cannot be compared. In any case, the Chinese government doesn’t understand that the antagonistic situations need to be understood before they can be repressed. They see conspiracies, instability, and attempts to overthrow its sovereignty, when it could manage the situation with ductility without folding.
No one doubts China’s ownership of Hong Kong. The protests could be appeased by less arrogant policies that concede something without making the monolith vacillate. If Beijing barks and doesn’t bite, it’s preparing for repressions that are striking due to their uselessness. A long-sighted look would be useful for politics: Hong Kong is in the same sea as Taiwan, the mother of all tensions. The dialogue has been resumed, business is booming, and unification is no longer a mirage. Is it worth scaring 23 million Taiwanese to repress peaceful students in Hong Kong?