Some of you may be wondering what the driving force behind these protests is. Put briefly, Hong Kong's citizens are protesting for their right to certain democratic rights, specifically those pertaining to universal suffrage in the election of their Chief Executive. Those protesting believe that these rights are actively being denied by the central Chinese government in Beijing. While this weekend’s events and the ongoing protests are some of the most significant ever seen in Hong Kong, it is important to note that they are the culmination of a struggle between Hong Kong and Beijing that has been ongoing for almost 20 years. More on that later.
So how did the current protests begin? Last Wednesday, various student groups began leading peaceful protests and class boycotts to voice concern about China’s plans for the 2017 election of the Special Executive. The situation began to escalate on Sunday, when members of a protest group called Occupy Central joined the student groups in their launching of a massive civil disobedience campaign. Occupy Central, named after perhaps the most significant business district in the city, has since admitted that they originally planned to stage the campaign on October 1st, a national holiday here in Hong Kong. Seizing on the opportunity provided by the massive student protests, Occupy Central (led principally by Benny Tai, an academic at the University of Hong Kong, and several other significant co-founders) announced early in the morning on Sunday that the civil disobedience campaign would begin early. And then came the police response.
This process really began almost two decades ago in 1997, when the United Kingdom handed over Hong Kong to the Chinese government after over 150 years under British rule. As part of the handover agreement, the Chinese government in Beijing promised to let Hong Kong retain certain special rights and autonomy, under an arrangement since known and most commonly referred to as "one country, two systems." A key part of this arrangement was that Hong Kong's citizens would be allowed to democratically elect their top leader (the Chief Executive) through universal suffrage, or one person, one vote.
Tensions began to rise earlier this year in July, when the Chinese government issued a white paper arguing that it has comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong, and that the degree of autonomy Hong Kong enjoys "comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership." On August 31st, 2014, the aforementioned Framework Decision was released. Critics immediately noted that while citizens would be allowed to vote for the chief executive, the candidates for the election would have to be approved by a special committee just like the pro-Beijing committee that currently appoints the chief executive. They argued that this will essentially allow Beijing to screen candidates in order to ensure that any Chief Executive is one that is pro-Beijing.
The underlying current behind these protests is about more than the Framework Decision and the particulars of Universal Suffrage. For those supporting or representing either the Students Movement (also now being called the Umbrella Movement) and/or Occupy Central, it is about a wider ability for Hong Kong to retain its autonomy and have access to fundamental democratic freedoms under the one-country, two-systems arrangement. For those on the other side, it is about maintaining the rule of law and not allowing what have been called ‘illegal’ and ‘unauthorized’ protests. Many supporters of both sides have acknowledged that the protests may do little to change the Chinese government’s mind. The Central Government has taken a hard stance, and the likelihood of them backing down at this time seems minimal.
The protests could continue for days, weeks, months and possibly even years. Whether they will continue to attract the international attention that they have attracted the last few days remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen whether the same level of participation will continue. At this point, how things escalate from here could be based on a number of factors, not least including how police deal with the situation and whether or not further action galvanizes additional segments of the public. Much has already been written (and will continue to be written) about the legality of the process, the disagreements between the involved parties, and possible ways forward. But in this piece, it is this writer’s intention to put this struggle into context for those in places (like Canadia) where it appears as though we take for granted the democratic freedoms and rights that are being fought for.
In Canada’s recent electoral history, voter turnout (the percentage of eligible voters who actually case a ballot in an election) has been sparse to say the least. As per Elections Canada, voter turnout in a Federal election hasn't climbed over 66% (i.e. more than two thirds of the population) since the October 1993 election. Our two most recent Federal Elections in 2011 and 2008 produced some of the lowest voter turnout rates in the country’s history (58.8% and 61.1%, respectively). Voter turnout in municipal elections in Canada is even worse. In my beloved, home province of Ontario, it was seen as something of an accomplishment that the June 2014 elections brought out more than 50% of the population for the first time, after five previous elections had seen steady decreases in turnout, culminating in Ontario’s lowest percentage ever (48.2%) in 2011. In my beloved hometown of Toronto, the most recent municipal election that saw Rob Ford become mayor saw major increases in voter turnout (53.2%) after absolutely putrid turnout rates in 2006 (39%) and 2003 (38%).
Now, it is obviously worth noting that there are many indications of the political and democratic health of a society outside of voter turnout. I take that point. It is also worth noting that there are commonly expressed justifications for voter apathy in Canada, not least of which is a Federal Electoral System that many people argue leads to ‘wasted votes’. If you’re voting for a Liberal Candidate in a riding heavily dominated by conservatives, your vote isn’t going to count, is how that line of argumentation generally goes.
Nonetheless, as a foreigner abroad (and a proud Canadian and Torontonian), it is hard to look at what is happening in Hong Kong at the moment and not feel as though we are taking for granted what should be cherished democratic freedoms. And it’s not as if we’re alone. In the UK, voter turnout hasn't eclipsed two thirds of the population since the 1997 General Election. According to some figures, voter turnout in the US elections has never eclipsed two thirds, not even in the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008.
Being a foreigner in a new place can produce several complexities, not least of which is trying to understand the legal and political histories of those places, particularly in relation to politically sensitive issues such as the fight for universal suffrage that is now occurring in Hong Kong. That said, it can also help to usefully put things into perspective. Whether one agrees with the pro-Beijing camp that Hong Kong is steadily working its way towards universal suffrage through gradual and orderly progress in accordance with the Basic Law, or sides with the Students’ Movement and Occupy Central in arguing that the recent aforementioned Framework Decision is an affront to international standards on universal suffrage and democracy, it’s hard to argue that in the “Western” world we are truly cherishing democratic rights that people elsewhere in the world are fighting so desperately for.
The images the entire world is now seeing from Hong Kong’s protests are surprising, frightening, and should serve as a wakeup call to Western democracies and those who have the privilege to exercise their democratic freedoms within these democracies. Regardless of how long the protests carry on or what impact (if any) they have on Beijing’s stance, they should at the very least cause us to think twice about taking our democratic rights and freedoms for granted.