China’s National Day holiday this year is set to be a very memorable one for the mainland’s leaders, but not exactly for festive reasons thanks to Hong Kong. An ongoing student protest merged with a popular movement to create large protests that erupted on Sunday into a 24-hour (and continuing) standoff with police, resulting in tear gas and pepper spray being used on masses of unarmed protesters. This might be a momentous day for Hong Kong, which has certainly seen a new era. It certainly shocked me, and possibly many HKers and those in authority, as the momentum has intensified rather than the opposite as the protests went on. Things are still hot with people engaging in a second night of mass protests right now.
People in HK have not been very happy since Beijing explicitly rejected full open elections in 2017 at the end of August. Students decided to boycott classes last Monday for a week, while the Occupy Central movement, modeled after the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US (Central is HK’s main business district), aimed to carry out their protest on October 1. Thousands of university students kicked things off by boycotting classes and conducting outside gatherings, marches and even trying to rush HK’s chief executive. They decided to continue the protests on Friday, when they were joined by secondary school students, and on Saturday, Occupy Central’s leaders decided to push forward their occupy protest and hence combine with the students. The root of these events go back 18 months ago, when the Occupy Central movement was formed to press for 2017 election reform.
The protests have had some repercussions on both the mainland and in Taiwan.
First, the HK protests actually took away from the fact that China’s President Xi Jinping issued an open call (last Friday no less, while the HK students protests were underway) for Taiwan to reunite with the mainland under the “One country, two systems” concept. Not surprisingly, Taiwan was not impressed. However, somewhat surprisingly Taiwan President Ma Ying-jeou gave a robust response, rejecting the offer as it would not be accepted by Taiwan’s people. Some Taiwanese have also expressed support for the HK protesters, including holding outdoor rallies in Taipei.
What was particularly good about Ma’s response was his reason of why Taiwan couldn’t accept the “One country, two systems” concept, put forward by mainland China in which Taiwan could maintain its political system while being part of a united China. “In the early 1980’s the ‘one country, two systems’ concept was created for Taiwan, not for Hong Kong. But Taiwan has sent a clear message that we do not accept the concept. If the system is good, then we believe it should be ‘one country, one system,'” says Ma. And that’s something I never thought of, that the fact there’s a need for one country to have “two systems” means there’s something wrong with the systems. The main point is that Taiwan cannot be part of a China that is not democratic and open.
On the mainland, Instagram became the latest to join the ranks of banned social media sites, due specifically to photos of HK protests being spread on it. State media had limited or ignored coverage of the student protests during the week, which might be because the sight of students protesting the government on the streets has a resemblance to events in 1989 in Beijing and nationwide. Weibo (microblog) services were also censored for posts about HK too. Sunday’s protests finally caused mainland state media to cover them, not surprisingly in a stern, omenous manner.
Despite the courage and admirable goals of the protesters, there are concerns. I worry about Beijing’s response – would the protesters be so bold in facing PLA soldiers instead of local HK police – but I also think some of the demands are becoming unrealistic. This includes a growing call for HK leader Leung Chun-ying to step down. While he is widely disliked, his resignation would have no benefit as Beijing would very likely not agree to hold new elections, and certainly not with full suffrage as the 2017 one is promised to have. Even worse is if the central government decides to appoint a party official from the mainland or a local businessman who would be even less competent than CY Leung.
Another issue is that while some observers and protesters think that mainlanders might be sympathetic, which they think is the main reason why the Chinese regime was worried enough to censor social media about the protests, this is far from certain and it’s highly likely that instead they may find the protesters naive or foolish, whether due to fear of their government, lack of understanding of the protesters’ cause, or just a feeling the protesters cannot succeed.