The recent protests in Hong Kong regarding an imposed Beijing-backed plan for “moral and national education” have received little mainstream media attention–at least on this side of the pond. Although the issue has been somewhat resolved with Leung Chun-ying, the Beijing-installed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, making the education plan optional for schools, it points to the significant obstacles that face China-Hong Kong relations.
Many protesters condemned the courses as “brainwashing” and a violation of the “one country, two systems” formula under which Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997, after more than 150 years of colonial rule. Beijing has long pushed authorities in Hong Kong to narrow the widening gap between local residents and mainlanders, who have flooded into Hong Kong to shop and, in some cases, give birth in the city’s well- equipped hospitals. The influx of tourists to Hong Kong has created a negative sentiment toward mainlanders, who are ironically viewed as “the other.”
This sentiment arises from the obvious differences between the capitalist and cosmopolitan Hong Kong and what is perceived to be a quasi-communist and backward mainland China. While the vast majority of Hong Kong’s 7 million people are ethnically Chinese, surveys show that bonds of shared identity with the rest of China have grown weaker, not stronger, since Britain pulled out in 1997. According to a poll released this summer by Hong Kong University, Hong Kongers have less trust in the central government in Beijing than at any time since 1997.
So what does this all mean and why should we care? Well to start, we should look at the future implications of Hong Kong’s apparent defiance to Beijing. Many commentators have deemed these protests as having tones of the infamous Tiananmen Square incident in 1989 and rightfully so. Many of the protesters were students and academics who believed that such non-democratic policies should not be imposed without the consultation of the public. Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party have denounced the student activists as pawns in an alleged political conspiracy. However, the biggest issue is what happens to Hong Kong after 2047, when Beijing’s promise of considerable autonomy for Hong Kong is to expire. Events such as the anti- education protests do not spell a very bright future for the island city-state, yet a touch of perspective is needed before making a conclusion.
However different Hong Kong may be to mainland China, it remains an integral part of the Chinese state. It is a major financial centre that facilitates billions of dollars in trade and investment for China and many other countries around the world. But even more importantly, Hong Kong represents China’s tolerance and progressivism. Beijing’s allowance of a “second system,” a virtually complete opposite of their own, presents and image of China’s peaceful rise which it is trying to project. Furthermore, China’s gradual transition to a market-oriented system bodes well for the future of Hong Kong, which obviously shares this system. Although it makes sense for outsiders to criticize China for its blatant attack on Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy and quasi-democracy, I believe that observers of the “one country, two systems” formula should take these apparent attacks on democracy with a grain of salt.
Quentin is a fourth year political science honors student who is fascinated with China’s rise and its implications on the rest of the world. In addition, he is still trying to become more active on Twitter, where you can follow him @quewl.