While the number of Hong Kong protestors has decreased from thousands to hundreds in the past few days, the protestors have scored a victory in the government’s agreement to begin formal negotiations. Although success at these talks is far from guaranteed, the sheer fact that a region ruled by China has made it to such talks offers insights on the climate for pro-democracy protest in China.
The protests are rooted in Hong Kong’s colonial history. Hong Kong was a British colony for 150 years before being ceded to China. In the process of relinquishing control, the United Kingdom negotiated the Basic Law, which is known as the “one country, two systems” deal. The Basic Law ensures that Hong Kong citizens will have liberties such as freedom of speech, religion, and press as well as the judicial system they inherited from the UK until 2047. On August 31, China’s National People’s Congress announced that Hong Kong’s 2017 elections would involve candidates chosen by Beijing rather than popular vote, and Hong Kong residents took to the streets in protest.
The Hong Kong protests have two key implications. First, China has realized that a brute show of force, like the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre, is a public relations disaster. Here, the most stringent methods used against the protestors were tear gas and pepper spray. Not only did the tactic fail to disperse the initial crowd of 2,000 unarmed students, it also acted as a catalyst to the protest, increasing the number of protesters to tens of thousands of people. It also earned the movement the name “The Umbrella Revolution” when students acted quickly to pass umbrellas to those on the front lines for use as shields against the spray.
Second, numbers matter. The sheer number of demonstrators rendered China’s usual approach to squashing local protests through appeasing with minimal concessions and jailing leaders ineffective. Moreover, even if China were tempted to try such strategies on Hong Kong citizens in the context of a future smaller protest, given Hong Kong’s history, it seems likely that such arrests would similarly swell the number of protestors. Since China’s announcement that Hong Kong’s 2017 elections will feature Beijing’s choice of candidates ignited the protests in the first place, arrests violating democratic rights would toss fuel on the fire.
Despite China’s reluctance to put an end to the protests though violence and the Hong Kong’s protesters’ strength in numbers, it is unclear how successful the negotiations will be. The Chinese government appears unwilling to back down from its decision to control the 2017 elections, and the bargaining position of the protesters seems weaker as their numbers dwindle. Furthermore, some suggest that even if China makes some concessions to the protestors, this is just one more example of China maintaining control through allowing protests that fail to result in meaningful change.
Yet even if negotiations collapse, the Umbrella Revolution’s success in merely getting to talks still has implications for Hong Kong and the rest of China. China’s reluctance to responds aggressively confirms that it will avoid answering future democratic protests with another Tiananmen Square tragedy. And if tens of thousands of people band together against Beijing’s control, they might have the power to slowly chip away at restrictions on their liberty.