Tens of thousands of activists occupied the streets of Hong Kong last week in what is now being termed the “longest series of political protests” since the 1997 British handover to the Chinese government.
What's happening in Hong Kong right now is monumental, but it can become a little confusing with the news being updated nearly every hour of the day.
Here’s a simplified version of the complex situation.
- Why are people protesting?
Hong Kong's citizens are protesting to keep their promised democratic rights, which they fear, rightfully so, could be taken away by the central Chinese government in Beijing.
- Wait... isn’t Hong Kong like a different country from China?
Officially known as Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China, it is a self-governing region on the southern coast of China.
After spending over 150 years under British rule, Hong Kong had prospered into an important center of international commerce and banking for most of the 20th century. Despite being under colonial rule, Hong Kong enjoyed considerable political freedom and democracy compared to the rest of China.
In 1984, Britain and China signed a joint declaration, prompting Hong Kong's transfer to China in 1997.
- What went wrong then?
Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese rule under the "one country, two systems" formula – a deal that let Hong Kong keep its special rights and the autonomy it inherited from the British rule.
In 2007, Beijing said it will allow the people of Hong Kong to directly elect their own leader in 2017 and their legislators by 2020.
However, in August 2014 China's top legislative committee ruled that voters will only have a choice from a list of two or three candidates selected by a nominating committee, which would consist of largely pro-Beijing officials.
The condition that any candidate would have to secure the support of “more than 50 percent” of the committee before running in the election prompted fears that China would try to influence power in Hong Kong.
Due to this fear, a group of protesters started Occupy Central, a pro-democracy campaign led by academic Benny Tai in the first half of this year.
An unofficial referendum held under this new movement in June showed a large majority of citizens demanded a right to nominate a candidate for Hong Kong’s chief executive, without the interference of the Chinese government.
Subsequently, demonstrations broke out.
- Is it all about democracy then?
Yes, but it’s also about inequality.
Apparently, Hong Kong is becoming increasingly expensive for its own citizens, who want a government that is interested in addressing the needs of middle-class families and not just keen on business ventures. According to a Time magazine article:
“The entry price to buy a home is beyond the means of many citizens, who equally feel that government policies are rigged to favor the elite, especially wealthy property developers.”
- OK. But why are so many students involved?
For a developed society, Hong Kong has one of the widest wealth and income gap in the world – a trend that yielded discontent, especially among the young people, including a large number of students, who want jobs and more opportunities.
They are fighting for universal suffrage – meaning every citizen above the age of 18 is allowed to vote – and against the “influx of free-spending mainland Chinese visitors to the city who buy up everything from apartments to baby milk formula.”
- So, is everyone in Hong Kong cool with the protests?
Predictably, business leaders also think that cutting off ties with China can hinder progress and challenge economic stability.
- Keeping the Tiananmen Square incident into consideration, how has China responded so far?
On June 3 and June 4, 1989, Chinese leaders ordered troops to open fire on demonstrators and sent in tanks to crush a student-led campaign movement, killing hundreds.
Although many young people living in China are kept in the dark about the incident, by means of heavy censorship laws, Hong Kong is well-aware of the incident.
Pro-democracy protesters draw inspiration from the Tiananmen massacre and want to avoid similar fate at the hands of the Chinese government, which has not officially responded to the growing wave of demonstrations so far.
The Hong Kong riot police, on the other hand, have taken action against protesters, in clashes that saw the “city’s first use of tear gas in years” and the presence of officers with long-barreled guns, inciting even more public fury.