How Hong Kong protests are a big problem for Beijing – even if they fizzle

The city's youth increasingly identify themselves as 'Hong Kong people' rather than Chinese. An effort to bring the mainland's 'patriotic education' to Hong Kong in 2011 failed – resulting in wide gaps in core values.

Bobby Yi/Reuters
Pro-democracy protesters block a bridge leading to the financial Central district (background) during a rally in Hong Kong Oct. 10, 2014. Thousands of protesters regrouped in central Hong Kong on Friday to push their call for democracy, a day after the government called off talks with students amid a two-week standoff that has shaken communist China's capitalist hub.

As pro-democracy street protests swell and recede inconclusively in Hong Kong, Beijing may feel little pressure to give way. But the wave of discontent that has swept the city over the past two weeks threatens much greater challenges to China’s rule there in the future.

“There will be a long period of confrontation,” predicts Ting Wai, who teaches politics at Hong Kong Baptist University. “The recent movement may stop, but the conflict will continue,” he adds, fueled by fundamentally different views of what Hong Kong should look like.

Behind the dispute over how Hong Kong’s next leader should be elected lies an awkward contradiction at the heart of the city’s status since its handover to China in 1997: “one country, two systems” as Deng Xiaoping put it.

For Beijing, “one country” is the key priority. For most Hong Kongers, “two systems” is what they care most about. 

“It’s a question of values, of how we want to see Hong Kong develop,” says Yan-yan Yip, head of Civic Exchange, Hong Kong’s leading governance think tank. “That means there is no easy way out.” 

The recent trouble boiled over when the Chinese government insisted that all candidates running for Chief Executive in 2017 elections should be vetted by a committee stacked with Beijing loyalists.

Choose any color, so long as it’s red, Hong Kong voters have been told.

Central government officials “have made it clear that they cannot accept candidates who would work against them,” says Starry Lee, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, the city’s leading pro-Beijing party. “They have to deal with this from a national security point of view.”

For the protesters, demanding the open nomination of chief executive candidates, it is a matter of democracy and of their freedom of choice. “If we don’t demonstrate, I’m afraid that China will take away our freedom in a couple of years,” said Jenny Chan, a student nurse, as she handed out water to fellow demonstrators last week.

Chinese or Hong Kong identity? 

Hong Kongers care about their freedom of choice. When the Hong Kong Transition Project, which has been monitoring public opinion since the handover, asked people last April what was the most important thing they would like to see protected and promoted, 65 percent said “Hong Kong’s identity as pluralistic and international.” Only 4 percent responded “China’s identity as ruled by the Communist party.” 

Among those under 30, the picture was even more pronounced: 84 percent chose a pluralist Hong Kong, while just 2 percent wanted most to protect China’s identity. 

Equally problematic for Beijing is the way in which young people increasingly identify themselves as “Hong Kong people” rather than as Chinese. The same April survey found that 55 percent of respondents under 30 defined themselves as a “Hong Kong person” and 30 percent as a “Chinese Hong Konger,” while 10 percent called themselves “Hong Kong Chinese” and 5 percent simply “Chinese.”

Mainland observers blame that on a lack of “patriotic education” – the Communist Party-boosting civics classes that all mainland schoolchildren take. 

“The lack of civic education makes young Hong Kong people confused about their identity,” says Zou Pingxue, a scholar affiliated with the Beijing government’s Office for Hong Kong and Macao Affairs. “Only a correct sense of identity and a right understanding of ‘one country two systems’ will help with its implementation.” 

But an attempt by the Hong Kong government to introduce mainland-style “patriotic education” in 2011 failed – defeated by mass demonstrations by students who protested about plans to “brainwash” them.

“Beijing is puzzled that 17 years after the handover, Hong Kong hearts have not returned to China,” says Professor Ting. “But the means they use are characteristic of the Communist Party and they are not appealing to Hong Kongers.” 

Resentment against mainlanders 

Hong Kong’s citizens have robustly rejected other examples of mainland political culture, such as an anti-sedition law that was withdrawn in the face of widespread public opposition – and large demonstrations – in 2003. 

But there are fears that an alien political culture is threatening to creep in anyway; in a white paper on Hong Kong’s future published in June, Beijing insisted that all administrators, including judges, “love the country.” Many judges worried that this was an attempt to undermine their independence, since in Chinese official-speak “love the country” means “do not challenge the Communist Party.” 

Free press advocates, meanwhile, were especially shocked by the brutal knife attack in February on Kevin Lau Chun-to, former editor of the liberal daily Ming Pao, which had run controversial articles on the business dealings of prominent Hong Kong citizens.

Locals are not shy of voicing their growing resentment against mainlanders – neither the 40 million tourists who visit the city each year (who are known disdainfully as “locusts”), nor those who stay and buy apartments, pushing home prices out of the reach of many Hong Kongers.

Such pressures are changing the nature of Hong Kong, say old-timers. The immigrants, who speak Mandarin, not the local language Cantonese, “don’t really want to integrate into Hong Kong society,” says Ting. “They think Hong Kong should adapt to them. If they come with a Chinese mindset and a Communist Party mentality, eventually Hong Kong will be changed.”

“Without democracy,” he argues, “we cannot protect ourselves from negative influences from the mainland.” 

New self-confidence 

The demonstrators may not achieve their goal of a fully democratic election in 2017; the Hong Kong government called off talks planned for Friday when student leaders announced a new round of civil disobedience. But the protests have created a new mood of self-confidence, say the young people who have joined the street sit-ins and their supporters.

“This feels like the start of something,” said Arthur Lo, a neurology student, as he sat in the road outside the government headquarters one recent morning amongst clumps of other youngsters. “It’s the start of people learning that they have to make their voices heard to the government.” 

Lam Wai-man, a scholar who has written extensively on social movements’ impact on Hong Kong’s political scene, says that over the past two weeks she has noticed “less fear in peoples’ hearts and more courage to come out when they feel they are upholding their values.” 

The demonstrations, believes Kenneth Chan Ka-lok, a former chairman of the pro-democracy Civic party, “have punched a big hole in the political landscape, and raised questions about Hong Kong’s core values that won’t be wished away.”

The risk, he adds, is that as students grow more assertive “this could degenerate into a straight fight between Hong Kong and Beijing ideas of identity. That’s going to be an ongoing crisis – and very dangerous for Hong Kong and China too.”

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