Hong Kong protests 101: What's behind the city's turmoil?

Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong turned chaotic this weekend, as police used tear gas on crowds seeking a greater say in the region's governance. But the confrontation has long been in the works.

Vincent Yu/AP
Thousands of people block a main road to the financial central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Sunday. A tense standoff between thousands of pro-democracy protesters and police warning of a crackdown spiraled into an extraordinary scene of chaos Sunday as the crowd jammed a busy road and clashed with officers wielding pepper spray.

Hong Kong police used tear gas on pro-democracy protesters on Sunday, turning up the heat on an already boiling confrontation between Hong Kong citizenry seeking a greater say in their region's affairs and the Beijing-backed leadership of the island. But what is their face-off really about?

What is the history of Hong Kong's place in China?

Hong Kong is a "special administrative region" within China, having been returned to mainland sovereignty in 1997 by Britain. But having been a British colony since 1842, Hong Kong developed a decidedly more Western form of government and bureaucracy than the rest of China. Its citizens enjoy a greater degree of civil liberties than those on the mainland, due to the "one country, two systems" agreement between China and Britain.

Per the terms of the handover, Hong Kong has not had China's socioeconomic model imposed upon it. Instead, it has been granted a "high degree of autonomy as a special administrative region in all areas except defense and foreign affairs," which will last until 2047.

What caused the current protests?

The issue is the implementation of a 2007 decree by the National People's Congress of China that promised "universal suffrage." Hong Kong's head of government, the chief executive, is currently elected by a mostly pro-Beijing, 1,200-member election committee. But the 2007 decision declares that the chief executive "may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage" in 2017.

In Hong Kong, that was taken to mean that every citizen would be allowed to vote for their chosen candidate for the position in a traditional democratic process.

Mainland China does not view the decision the same way, however. In June, it released a "white paper" declaring that Beijing is the grantor of Hong Kong's independence, and it would interpret Hong Kong's Basic Law, the region's constitutional document, as it saw fit. And in August, Beijing announced that "universal suffrage" would be granted in so far as all Hong Kong citizens would be allowed to vote – but only from a list of three candidates selected by an electoral committee. Allowing direct, open voting would create a "chaotic society," Beijing said.

The protesters say that the vetting by the pro-Beijing committee would render the vote a "fake democracy," and one not in keeping with "universal suffrage." They began protesting this week, occupying an area next to the government compound in largely peaceful protest, although intermittent scuffles with police have resulted in a few dozen injuries and a few score arrests.

What's going to happen next?

It depends in large part on how heavily Beijing and the regional authorities decide to crack down. The police's use of tear gas earlier today briefly broke up the demonstrations, but protesters returned in the tens of thousands in the evening. Michael Davis, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, told Bloomberg that "Heavy-handed approaches to the students will surely backfire.... Hong Kong people have proven time and time again that if the government handles public concerns badly, the public will mobilize against them.”

But The New York Times notes that if authorities "move too gently, and they may give the demonstrators hope."

“At this stage, it looks like they will have to show their fist,” Willy Wo-Lap Lam, a longtime commentator on Chinese politics who teaches at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said while visiting the sit-in. “If the police mishandle this, then government leaders will also appear ineffective.”

The great fear is that the People's Liberation Army gets involved, which would invoke memories of the massacre in Tiananmen Square in 1989, which left hundreds of pro-democracy students dead. Willy Lam told the Los Angeles Times that there have been “credible reports” that the PLA's Hong Kong garrison had been put on alert. “If the Hong Kong police cannot disperse the crowd," he said, "there is the possibility of the PLA getting into the action."

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