By Gesine Höltmann
While Western media focus on demands for universal suffrage and civil nominations of candidates, it seems that failed promises of democracy are only the trigger for protest that has been boiling in the form of mounting discontentment amongst Hong Kong citizens. On one hand there are immense housing prices, large income inequality, and dim prospects for youth engender disillusionment with government policies. On the other one it is also a more substantial fear that drives the blockades: The fear of being swallowed by mainland China and the final abandonment of the two system promise.
Hong Kong citizens describe their government as “catering Chinese interests” and note many subtle changes that are taking place – the stealthy immigration of mainland Chinese into the administrative region is regarded by many as an attempt to bring about assimilation to the mainland. A national education program, issued a few years ago, imposes nationalist tendencies on Hong Kong’s schools. Its schools still teach about Tiananmen Square, but for how much longer? The movement has taken its toll on freedom of press and Hong Kongese students claim that even previously ‘neutral’ papers now decidedly report pro-government.
Yu Wang, a Chinese currently studying in Maastricht, points out that it is essentially a struggle for “maintaining Hong Kong’s core values” – freedom of speech, knowledge and press freedom – and the rule of law. But how many Hong Kong citizens actually step up for these values? It seems that the student-led movement is only sparsely joined by the middle class: Ruby Yeung, UM-student from Hong Kong, emphasizes that a majority of the population is not involved with distant matters of politics. They, in contrast, worry about its daily hardships, which are in the view of many only compounded by the blockades of the city center. Taxi drivers have staged their own counter-protests, seeing only the economic disadvantages and not the long-term benefits of democratic rule. Many view the movement to be powerless in the face of the government and therefore unnecessary. The camp of those who do not want to get involved is clearly marked by a generation gap: older people or heads of families have a larger risk of protesting or are relatively content with the status quo – those who join the blue ribbons can already be termed extreme supporters of the CCP, who go as far as to call for army intervention. But what remains of the revolution in its second month?
After six weeks of protests, the number of activists has significantly ebbed. Those who remain, however, have barricaded themselves in tents and established permanent networks to access food and water: they have come to stay. Maastricht exchange students in Hong Kong report that “students show no intentions of leaving” citing that they have “too much to lose” when giving in to government pressures. Such persistence urges the question how this will and can end, and the official statement from above does not bode well, emphasizing that “there is a necessity to clear this movement”. While it is a generally accepted notion that Beijing will not allow full democratization of Hong Kong in the near future, it cannot be known to what extent it is willing to perform minor reforms or whether it will follow through on silencing the movement. Whatever we will see in the following weeks, Beijing will not risk crossing the line of tear gas and pepper spray – the umbrella movement has situated itself successfully in the eyes and minds of the world, and China cannot afford anything remotely resembling of Tiananmen.
I would like to extend a big thank you to UCM exchange students currently in Hong Kong, as well as Yu Wang and Ruby Yeung, who currently study in Maastricht and have provided me with interesting insights and accounts of the situation from a local perspective.