Beyond Violence 

Price of Democracy: Hong Kong Protest in Retreat

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Student protesters demanding greater democracy for Hong Kong stated on December 4 that they are seriously considering a retreat from the roads they have occupied for more than two months. The announcement came after the police increased their efforts to remove the demonstrators from the streets by dispersing protesters in Admiralty district and the government headquarters, and clearing the protest site in the district of Mong Kok. The police took this action after the high court issued an injunction due to the complaints from bus and taxi companies over financial losses incurred by the blocked traffic.

The pro-democracy protest started in October 2014 when people in Hong Kong called for free elections in 2017 without Beijing vetting the prospective candidates. Joshua Wong, the 18-year-old student protest leader, who appeared on Time magazine’s cover in October, was arrested under the charge of obstruction. On December 1st 2014, he began a hunger strike along with four other teenage protesters to demand renewed talks with the Hong Kong government while on parole- his hunger strike ended 108 hours later.

It may not be accurate to draw the conclusion that the protest is doomed to fail, but it has definitely lost its momentum. At the beginning of the protests, there were tens of thousands of protesters on the streets but now only hundreds remain on the designated protest sites, most of whom are students. Neither the local government nor the central government in Beijing has showed any sign of concession. The communication between the protestors and the government has stalled, although there was never any direct communication between the two sides to begin with. In November, the student protest leaders planned to take their demands to Beijing when China was hosting Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit, only to find out at the airport that their permits to visit the mainland had been revoked by the Chinese government. Even when the protest was at its peak in October, the Hong Kong officials cancelled the scheduled talks after protest leaders called on their supporters to take to the streets again to keep up pressure on the authorities, claiming that this call was “an acceptable threat” to use against the government. To make things worse, polls show a decline in public support for the occupation of the busy city thoroughfares, as well as rising discontent over the disruption to businesses. These recent calls by the student leaders are merely the latest sign of the narrowing options that the protesters face

This stalemate comes as no surprise. China will take whatever measure they can in order to assert its authority and avoid looking weak, especially with dissidence boiling domestically. The world is watching China’s next move closely. China recently barred Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom (MPs) from entering Hong Kong. The visit was supposed to be part of the MPs’ investigation into the UK’s relations with Hong Kong 30 years after the signing of the Joint Declaration that handed the former British colony back to China. In late October, President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan risked antagonizing Beijing by voicing his support for the protest in Hong Kong, stating that, “if Mainland China can practice democracy in Hong Kong, or if Mainland China itself can become more democratic, then we can shorten the psychological distance between people from the two sides of the Taiwan Strait.”

The protest has been based on the principles of non-violence. In general, it has demonstrated the value of law and order in Hong Kong. The demonstrators cleaned up the streets themselves after clashes with the police. Study camps were set up for students to study while camping at the protest site. The protesters tried their best to voice their demands in the most non-violent way possible. However, the protest appears to be doomed as China has never given in to any public protest. In the case of Hong Kong, the government does not even have to do anything other than wait for the protesters to wear themselves out. When fatigue and boredom overwhelms the residents of Hong Kong, the democracy and freedom oriented idealism will gradually be replaced by the business-minded pragmatism and the government’s strategy will have worked.

But isn’t the decline of the protest also a sign of the people’s own decisions? The protesters believe that democracy in Hong Kong is a good cause but how much are people willing to pay for it? “Living in these troubled times, there is a duty. Today we are willing to pay the price,“ said the students in a statement released on December 1. Yet how much this opinion resonates amongst the generalnpublic is highly questionable. As a resident of Hong Kong who objects to the protest said to this author, “there are many other ways to express your opinions than blocking the roads, and there are many things that are more important than interrupting business to fight for real democracy.”

Many people around the world take freedom and democracy for granted. They claim that these are basic human rights. However, the reality is often far from ideal and there is much grey zone under the idea of democracy. Democracy, for much of the world's population, is a luxury rather than a basic right. It is important because it is thought to be the best possible form of governance to achieve self-autonomy and individual opportunity. However, democracy is not the only thing that ordinary citizens want from their governments, as they also place strong importance on personal security, shared economic growth and functioning public services. When faced with an opponent as strong as China, the protesters may risk losing these benefits during the fight for democracy. However, when these needs are met without having a democratically elected government, is democracy still desired by the people, and are they willing to sacrifice stability and economic growth for it? Nobody can offer clear-cut answers to such questions.

The barricades can come down, and commerce can return to the occupied areas overnight, but the long-term effect of the protests may take years to appear. China has asserted its own authority by risking losing a whole generation of Hong Kong residents. The seeds are planted, and the identity of Hong Kong’s residents is growing stronger, making a clearer distinction between them and the Mainland Chinese. When handed back to China, Hong Kong was promised only 50 years to maintain its position as a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region. As the end of that period is approaching, this will not be the last challenge for Beijing. Hong Kong residents have growing appetite for democracy which correlates to their decreasing confidence in the future under Beijing’s governance. The protests have sent a message that has gained support all over the world. At present the price for democracy may be so high that most Hong Kong residents don’t think they can afford to risk the stability. But what about in the future? That question not only presents a future challenge for China, but also creates a precedence for Taiwan as well as other parts of China.

Written by S.C. and published on 22-December-2014

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