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Hong Kong ProtestsHong Kong Protests: Push for Democracy 25 Years After Tiananmen

By Katie Vloet
Nov. 24, 2014

The current pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong—symbolized by yellow ribbons and opened umbrellas—have grown from deep historical roots and have illuminated emerging schisms in the city, three authorities on China said during a talk at Michigan Law.

"We are seeing real divisions emerging in Hong Kong … both generational divisions but also divisions according to educational level," said Louisa Lim, visiting professor of journalism at U-M, where she also was a Knight-Wallace Fellow. Lim was the Beijing Bureau Chief for NPR and Shanghai correspondent for the BBC, and she is the author of The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (Oxford University Press, 2014).

She cited surveys by the Chinese University in Hong Kong, in which younger people were much more supportive of the Occupy protest movement. Among people ages 15 to 24, more than two-thirds of respondents to the survey were supportive, compared with less than a quarter of people ages 60 or older. Among people with the highest education levels in the survey, 45 percent said they support the Occupy Movement, compared with just 21 percent among people with the least amount of education.

She also pointed out that Beijing is in a bind with Hong Kong’s incumbent Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung. "There are very high levels of dissatisfaction with C.Y. Leung," Lim said during the panel discussion on Nov. 20, entitled "Hong Kong Protests: Push for Democracy 25 Years After Tiananmen." Watch the full panel discussion.​

One of the underlying issues, said Mary Gallagher, professor of political science at U-M and director of the Lieberthal Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, is that there is no way for the pan-democratic forces in the Hong Kong SAR to become the ruling party in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR)’s Legislative Council (LegCo), even though it tends to win the popular vote in geographical electoral constituencies that are subject to direct voting.

"The system creates an opposition party that doesn’t have any way to win [control of LegCo], which creates a lot of political frustration within Hong Kong," she said.

Prof. Nicholas C. Howson​, an authority on Chinese law who was involved in both pre-1997 democratization proposals and the 2003 struggle over amendment of Hong Kong’s security legislation, detailed the history of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR), which was a British colony until 1997, when China resumed sovereignty over Hong Kong Island and a part of the Kowloon Peninsula, and a 99-year lease for the New Territories was ended. Post-1997, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), a sub-national government that is largely the equivalent of the People’s Government for the directly administered municipality of Chongqing for instance Howson said.

Protesters have criticized the Hong Kong SAR government for chipping away at freedoms that were traditionally enjoyed by the city’s residents, and the PRC for contravening apparent promises regarding post-1997 democratization they say were set forth in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. In particular, they have objected to the National Peoples’ Congress (NPC) Standing Committee’s August 2014 pronouncement regarding "universal suffrage" for election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive in 2017, and the negative implications for election of the LegCo in 2020. In that interpretation of the Hong Kong SAR Basic Law, the NPC Standing Committee determined that only two to three nominees who gain the support of a majority of the current Chief Executive nominating committee will contest a general election. Protesters have argued that the restricted nomination list produced by a nominating committee dominated by pro-establishment/pro-PRC forces will result in chief executive elections that are very far from "universal suffrage."

Howson pointed out, however, that there is no case to be made that the NPC Standing Committee’s August 2014 pronouncement is a breach of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which he describes as "a treaty-like accord and the only public international law instrument bearing on democratization, or not, in the Hong Kong SAR post-1997." Indeed, the NPC Standing Committee's actions since 1997, at least regarding democratization, have been in perfect conformity with the letter and spirit of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Basic Law of the Hong Kong SAR, and all subsequent NPC Standing Committee interpretations, he said.

This is important Howson said, because the future progress of democratization in the Hong Kong SAR will be determined by political action just like the current protests in the streets of Hong Kong, not claims under international or PRC or Hong Kong law, and importantly by Hong Kong's establishment as much as by the Politburo in Beijing, as they engage with the forces of democratic opposition in Hong Kong.

The panel was presented by the Michigan Law Asian Pacific American Law Students Association and co-sponsored by the Asia Law Society, International Law Society, Entertainment, Media, and Arts Law Students Association, and the U-M Lieberthal Rogel Center for Chinese Studies.

Read more feature stories.​​​​​

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