Photograph: Flickr / Miquel Fabre
China’s August decision to have a nominating committee rather than the general public select electoral candidates has sparked student-led demonstrations across Hong Kong. Now dubbed the umbrella revolution, the protests have inspired comparisons to Tiananmen Square and, significantly, led many people to ask whether China may be facing a dramatic turning point in its political system.
Could this be? If we look at the Hong Kong government’s response to the protests as a reflection of Beijing’s plans and political aims, the truth seems somewhat disappointing. The response of Hong Kong chief executive C Y Leung - known as ‘689’ in reference to the number of votes he supposedly gained during national elections – seems to point to an ongoing loyalty to Beijing. If we assume Hong Kong is adhering to the PRC’s directives, the use of tear gas on protesters amongst other things is a clear indicator that the central government is keen to avoid giving more power to Hong Kong citizens, and will not allow the pro-democracy movement to spread to wider China. So naturally it seems wrong to paint the protests as a turning point for the Communist Party’s domestic policy.
We must also ask how likely it is that we will see any similar grassroots uprisings on the mainland. Or that any such uprising could prevail? Democratic movements in the PRC have been completely suppressed in the past - the 1978 Beijing Spring and the massacre of Tiananmen instantly come to mind - and today opposition to the state continues to be stamped out; note the mistreatment and arrests of political dissidents and various human rights abuses over the years. Realistically, there is no way that pro-democracy activists will be able to co-ordinate their actions in any truly effective way.
The tone of China’s state-controlled media when reporting Hong Kong’s activism is also incredibly telling; accusations of the rebellion being sparked by ‘foreign intervention’ do not give the impression that China will change its stance on anti-government sentiment any time soon. And why would it want to? Considering the various outbreaks of anti-Communist Party activities in recent years, it seems natural that the Party would be hesitant to give the impression that it is somehow relaxing its stance over its authority over autonomous regions, lest it encourages others elsewhere.
It would be a mistake to assume that there is one single Chinese perspective on this issue, but it’s definitely worth imagining the mind-set of those who oppose the Hong Kong protests and considering that there simply aren’t mass calls for democracy in China. This is not to claim that there isn’t a single person in China who would like democracy – after all, the need for the Party to act repressively proves otherwise. But there’s another side to consider. Importantly, it has often been noted that Chinese culture focuses more on the values of maintaining harmony and order, as opposed to the much-touted Western value of individual freedom. Again, this is not to paint a picture of mainland China’s entire population as somehow apathetic and resigned, but it is an important point to weigh up if we’re considering whether the Hong Kong protests are a turning point for China. It suggests that rather than a potential political upheaval we could simply be looking at a clash of cultures: the legacy of British rule in Hong Kong is more than just the English language, it is a set of ideals not held on the mainland.
Let’s not forget that the Communist Party may not see any reason at all to give in to the demands coming from Hong Kong. Although Article 45 of the Basic Law (Hong Kong’s quasi-constitution, stipulated by Britain in return for handing the island back to Beijing) does talk about universal suffrage, a conservative reading of this tells you Hong Kong citizens are not given the right to nominate candidates – they are simply given the right to elect. For those in the Chinese government, this will seem perfectly in line with the promise of ‘one country, two systems’ – even more so when this is more political self-determination than was given to Hong Kong when it was a British colony - and so it will probably see no reason to modify its mainland politics.
This is in some ways the final blow to the idea that the world should expect some kind of historical watershed moment to occur in China. Whilst we can still speculate about how much change Hong Kong will see over the coming years, we shouldn’t count on the emergence of any dramatic changes to the mainland political system. Hong Kong protests may be much less of a turning point for wider China than many would like; perhaps a more key question is how Beijing will maintain its promise of ‘one country, two systems’ in the years running up to 2047, the centenary of Communist Party rule.
On perhaps a more positive note, we should remember that even if the demonstrations fail to yield any tangible result now, the spirit of revolution isn’t one that can easily be eradicated. If the revolution comes, it will not be televised, simply felt. Responding to criticism of the futility of the umbrella revolution, student leader, Joshua Wong, stated that “all our actions are like planting a seed.” When you think of it like that, you have to admire the dedication of the protesters. They know that they are unlikely to succeed, but they are gambling on bigger and better change to come.