In the 15 years since the handover from the UK to China, the first of July has been a thoroughly self-contradictory day in Hong Kong. On the one hand, the return to the motherland is officially celebrated by a public holiday culminating in spectacular evening fireworks over Hong Kong Island. On the other hand, the day is marked by the annual July 1 democracy marches.
This year, the official holiday was preceded by a three day visit by People’s Republic of China (PRC) President Hu Jintao. He presided over the inauguration ceremony of the recently elected Hong Kong government, headed by Chief Executive Leung Chun Ying. During his speech about the importance of the “one country, two systems” approach, a protester began shouting at him about the politically sensitive topic of the Tiananmen Massacres of 1989. The protester was quickly escorted out of the room, and news channels in Mainland China uniformly did not report the incident.
On Sunday July 1st, in the blazing heat, an estimated 400,000 people took part in marches. This reporter joined a group of onlookers in a stationary tram car in Causeway Bay to observe and photograph the protests. The protesters marched from Victoria Park, through the Island, to the government’s central offices in Central. They marched until darkness fell.
Although songs were sung, and militant slogans shouted, the general atmosphere of the protests remained calm and relaxed throughout. For many, this seemed to be a family affair, as parents and children alike marched down the sealed off streets at a slow pace. The only hassle seemed to arise from a group of pro-Leung marchers who sneaked into the crowd and began chanting their own slogans, before they were pushed back out.
The content of the protests comprised an array of different causes. This year, in particular, there were many reasons to march. Large numbers of participants protested against the election of Leung. Since his election, Leung has been embroiled in a public scandal regarding illegal structures in his expensive home on the luxurious Victoria Peak, one of the most expensive neighbourhoods in Hong Kong. Illegal housing structures are a widespread problem in Hong Kong due to limited space. The same scandal was what many believe brought down Leung’s opponent during the elections.
Many protesters also accused Leung of being Mainland China’s lapdog, and worry that he will concede too much of Hong Kong’s autonomy when under pressure. At his inauguration, Leung delivered his speech in Mandarin Chinese, rather than the local Cantonese. Many in Hong Kong saw this as a sign of betrayal. Many of the banners and chants in the protests were aimed directly at Leung. One memorable poster had a 3D Pinocchio’s nose attached to his photo.
Some of the most vicious banners were targeted against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), especially in light of China’s rapidly deteriorating human rights record just this year. Interestingly, one group of protestors had travelled all the way from Mainland China to march. They were protesting government reclamation of their lands close to Hong Kong. They said they couldn’t protest at home, so they came here instead. Finally, a large portion of participants simply marched for general improvements in living and democratic conditions. They argued that living standards had not improved in the 15 years since the handover, and universal suffrage – which had been promised for 2012 – remained as elusive as ever.
The politics of Hong Kong continues to be a flashpoint in the considerations of CCP policies. The Sino-British Joint Declaration that preceded the handover stipulated that Hong Kong should maintain its capitalist economy and autonomous rights for 50 years after 1997. The question remains, which direction will the development of this half-century take – back into the firm hands of the CCP, like the rest of China, or into a democratic city-state? The example that Hong Kong sets can have significant consequences for the rest of China.
The protests symbolize a continued strain between Hong Kong and Mainland China. Although this strain is an arguably smaller irk for the CCP in comparison to Taiwan, no doubt Beijing is paying close attention to any sign of open defiance in Hong Kong, especially as the CCP is about to go through it’s a power transition this autumn – the first one in ten years. Hong Kong is becoming an opening in the tight wall of control by China, where both the Chinese and Westerners come to express their true sentiments. One example is the concentration of Chinese banners denouncing the CCP in Hong Kong tourist attractions, no doubt targeted at the large numbers of tourists from Mainland China.
From the CCP’s perspective, if Hong Kong is granted too much autonomy, it can tip the scales to threaten Beijing’s control. This could cause the Mainland Chinese population to emulate Hong Kong. The wealthy already see Hong Kong as an alternative China, where people can say what they want and mothers can have more than one child. Hong Kong is already home to the biggest open annual remembrance event for the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre. On the other hand, if the CCP pressures Hong Kong too much, it can provoke a second Taiwan situation in China’s immediate border. With a hardly calmed Taiwan and recently volatile Tibet in its periphery, this is the last thing China wants. As Hu’s government prepares to retire and make way for a new generation of leaders, Beijing’s primary concern will be striking a balance to ensure calmness on all possible flashpoints, so that the power transition can go as smoothly as possible.