What fuels the standoff is the protesters’ demand for more democracy, including the right to choose Hong Kong’s political leaders without interference from Beijing. The Chinese government, for its part, wants to keep democratic demands in check and maintain some control over Hong Kong politics.
What ignited these protests?
It’s all about 2017. That’s the year Hong Kong’s voters were supposed to gain the right to elect their own chief executive (the leader of Hong Kong). Last month, however, the Chinese government announced that all candidates would need to be pre-approved by a committee friendly to the Chinese Communist Party.
Pro-democracy groups saw this pre-approval as a way to limit the will of voters. They came together under the name of “Occupy Central” to plan protests and try to reverse Beijing’s decision.
What do the protesters want?
They want the current chief executive to resign, and they want free elections beginning in 2017.
One interesting wrinkle is that often, when people take to the streets for universal suffrage, there’s a concrete reason they want the right to vote. It could be to drive out a dictator, to improve social services, or to ease an onerous tax system.
For now, though, it’s not clear that the protesters in Hong Kong want any such change. Economically speaking, Hong Kong is a very privileged region. Per-capita income in Hong Kong is roughly as high as it is in the United States, and four times higher than in China as a whole.
It is possible, though, that a recent economic slowdown is contributing to the unrest.
Is Hong Kong part of China, or not?
“One country, two systems.” That’s the basic framework. Hong Kong is not an independent nation but it does have a good deal of autonomy — including a separate political structure, a different legal system, and protections for free speech.
For over 150 years, Hong Kong was actually a British colony, which explains why protesters are filling streets with names like “Harcourt Road” and “Queensway.” Hong Kong gained its status as a hub of global finance while under British rule, and it didn’t rejoin China until 1997.
How has China responded to the protests?
Whether or not Chinese officials were involved in the decision to crack down on protesters, they have expressed their support for those tactics.
They’ve also been working hard to prevent the spread of information and images coming out of Hong Kong. That includes beefing up the “great firewall” and even blocking photo-sharing sites like Instagram.
How will this end?
To a large degree, the endgame may depend on the actions of the powerful Hong Kong business community. If businesses side with the protesters, that could put tremendous pressure on Beijing to rethink its approach. But if they choose law and order over democratic demands, protesters may be dangerously isolated.
The darkest shadow looming over these events is the one cast by the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, where tanks were brought in and hundreds of student protesters were killed. Twenty-five years have passed since then, and a new generation of leaders has assumed power. But the legacy of Tiananmen Square remains highly charged and the current situation may once again force Beijing to choose between accommodating demands for democracy or quashing them.