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Protests in Hong Kong: The Interests and Goals of the Movement

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Acloudless mid-September afternoon in Hong Kong. At City Hall, two flags—one of the People’s Republic of China, the other of Hong Kong—flap halfheartedly in the wind coming off the harbor

Inside, university students are engaged in intense debate. A moonfaced young man, his thick hair pulled up in a bun, rises from his seat at a long white table to attack the formula known as “one country, two systems,” which was deployed in the early eighties, by the Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, as he negotiated with Britain for the handover of Hong Kong. It seemed to guarantee that after the handover, which took place in 1997, Hong Kong would continue to enjoy distinct political and socioeconomic freedoms for at least fifty years. The young man, however, declares that the formula is nothing but a “rhetorical coverup” for an erosion of liberties. Given the city’s compromised autonomy, hasn’t the central government, in Beijing, broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong?

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When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, there were fears that the city’s residents, long accustomed to open media, free speech and frequent protests, would suddenly find themselves stifled by China’s heavy hand. Many things did change — in particular, Hong Kong’s elected legislature was abolished, replaced by an assembly of legislators appointed by Beijing — but in large part the city’s lively political and social life continued, enabled by the rights provided by the city’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China. Among other things, Hong Kong isn’t behind China’s Great Firewall — in fact, Google moved its Chinese search engine to the city in 2011 to escape censorship. They also have considerable economic freedom, all part of the city’s role as a low-tax, free-trade zone within China. An implicit part of the exchange was that any serious requests for political representation were off the table — and up to now, the bargain has worked. That changed in September 2014 when large-scale protests erupted, with tens of thousands taking to the city’s streets to demand open elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Following the hard line favored by Chinese president Xi Jinping, the city’s police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters, but the result has been a marked increase in resistance. Images of Hong Kong students using the now-iconic “hands up” gesture — echoing protesters in Ferguson, Mo. — has show how an open media can enable images and ideas to quickly move around the world and take on new meanings. Even before the current outburst of civil disobedience, China’s authorities had been slowly tightening their grip on the city’s media

The organization Reporters without Borders found that in 2014, Hong Kong’s press freedom had declined relative to earlier years. China has also been reaching beyond its borders in an attempt to control its image — for example, denying visas to reporters who were asking too many questions about high-level corruption. The country was even linked to apparent attacks on the New York Times website.

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Although there was almost full employment in 2018, youth employment has been an issue of concern for many years (Government of the Hong Kong SAR 2019). With the introduction of more self-financed sub-degree and degree programs, many graduates are not able to move up the social ladder because the real income for university graduates has been quite stagnant since the handover. Again, lack of upward social mobility triggers negative emotions in young people which eventually promotes a sense of hopelessness in young people (Shek and Siu 2019b)

This also explains why young people have psychological resistance to return to China because their lives have not improved much after the handover. It is also why some young people waved the British flag during demonstrations which are clearly a sign of remembering the “good old days” for university students under the British rule. Obviously, the lack of opportunity for Hong Kong young people to have upward mobility is a serious threat to individual well-being and societal quality of life. Nevertheless, young people are commonly not aware of the fact that the lack of social mobility also exists in many developed countries in the world and there was also much inequality under the British rule. In other words, young people with poor well-being are emotionally charged time bombs waiting to be detonated. Finally, students with special educational needs may be a factor that should not be overlooked. When we examine the slogans of the protesters, it is not uncommon to see that there are many incorrectly written Chinese characters. There are two possible explanations – either the protesters are poorly educated or they are dyslexic who are commonly having difficulties in writing Chinese characters. It is noteworthy that students with special education needs (e.g., those with autistic features or dyslexic) are stubborn in their views.

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Generally speaking, the strategic question for East Asia is what the rise of China means for its neighbors. That question will be answered in part by China’s power relative to the United States and others. But it will also be answered by what happens between China and its neighbors in a series of specific encounters

Through those interactions, China will define what kind of great power it will become. North Korea, the East and South China Seas, and Taiwan are the most obvious of these specific encounters. But Hong Kong is as well. If the struggle there for a more democratic system ends well, it will tell us something positive about China’s future trajectory. If it ends badly, it will say something very different.

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Shek, D.T.L. Protests in Hong Kong (2019–2020): a Perspective Based on Quality of Life and Well-Being. Applied Research Quality Life 15, 619–635 (2020).

Yau, C. (2020). HK$65 million bill for repairs on public facilities vandalised by antigovernment Protesters.

Zimbardo, P. G. (1969). The human choice: Individuation, reason, and order versus deindividuation, impulse, and chaos. Nebraska Symposium on Motivation, 17, 237–307.

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