The Hong Kong Revolution: Is there an invisible hand holding the umbrella?

By Danny Dubbaneh

In September 2014, activists in Hong Kong began protesting outside government headquarters and occupied several major city intersections, after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) announced its decision on proposed electoral reform. The Hong Kong protests, also known as the Umbrella Movement or Umbrella Revolution, began as a response to the NPCSC disallowing civil nominations. By doing so, the NPCSC established that a 1200-member nominating committee, nominated by the business factions and controlled by Beijing, would elect two or three electoral candidates with more than half of the votes before the general public can vote on them.

On September 22, 2014, the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism began protesting outside government headquarters against the NPCSC’s decision. This protest took on the name Occupy Central movement which continues to pressure the PRC Government into granting an electoral system that “satisfies the international standards in relation to universal suffrage” in the Hong Kong Chief Executive election in 2017 -as promised according to the Hong Kong Basic Law Article 45. More citizens joined the protests after the use of heavy-handed police tactics, including the unnecessary use of tear gas, and attacks on protesters by opponents. The umbrella was initially used by activists in Hong Kong to shield themselves from police pepper spray. But it has quickly emerged as an unlikely symbol of resistance in ongoing pro-democracy protests there.

Although protest leaders said they had not received any funding from the United States government or nonprofit groups affiliated with it, many Chinese officials choose to blame hidden Western forces.   Part of their argument was because they find it difficult to accept that so many everyday-civilians in Hong Kong want democracy. After a commission of U.S. lawmakers and Obama administration officials published a report titled, “Increase Support for Hong Kong’s Democracy,” accusations against the U.S. from China’s state-run media have increasingly claimed the role of the U.S. in supporting the Hong Kong protests. As Hong Kong is the only other nation that processes U.S. dollar interbank payments, it is in the U.S. interest to act on the behalf of Hong Kong. However, any actions undertaken by the U.S. must respect the sovereignty of China and be restricted to democracy-supporting activities.

A protester raises his umbrellas in front of tear gas which was fired by riot police to disperse protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong

Protesters using umbrellas to shield themselves from tear gas (Credit REUTERS/TYRONE SIU)

As pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong continue with no sign of any sort of compromise, a standoff is deepening between China and the U.S. over the protests. Hong Kong’s unique position as a semi-autonomous entity with its own political and economic system separate from China only serves to complicate the issue. China has made it clear to the international community that the Hong Kong protests are a distinctly domestic issue with no room for foreign input. However, the U.S. needs to become more vocal on Hong Kong, and make an effort to frame local democracy aspirations as an increasingly important human-rights issue. The U.S. respects China’s sovereignty but stresses a need for the support of free and fair elections under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which guarantees the territory’s semi autonomy until 2047.  The U.S. government claims the right to a voice because of its interests in Hong Kong, including numerous businesses that depend on its reliable institutions, like its legal system.

The U.S. has demonstrated a high level of commitment to supporting democracy in Hong Kong. According to its annual reports, the National Endowment for Democracy, a nonprofit directly supported by Washington, distributed $755,000 in grants in Hong Kong in 2012, and an additional $695,000 last year, to encourage the development of democratic institutions.  With the upcoming 2016 and 2020 elections, Chinese leaders are making their intentions to install politicians they can control increasingly clear. This raises serious concerns about Hong Kong’s autonomy, freedom and economy, which relies heavily on transparency and the rule of law. The numbers of U.S. interests in Hong Kong make it imperative to respond to the growing threats to democracy in Hong Kong and take steps to defend rights and freedoms in Hong Kong.

In order to support democracy while also respecting China’s sovereignty will require a balancing act on the United States’ part. The U.S. must avoid taking any actions on a national level and allow NGOs to continue to support and encourage the development of democratic institutions in Hong Kong. Taking this approach will enable the citizens of Hong Kong to have the resources to defend their own democratic values and absolve the U.S. of being blamed for having any role in the Hong Kong protests. Protecting democracy in Hong Kong is extremely important for the U.S. but it is something that the people of Hong Kong must fight for themselves. The U.S. can be supportive of these efforts but must be careful not to overstep their bounds and raise issues of violating China’s state sovereignty.

Danny Dubbaneh is the Executive Editor for the Journal of Diplomacy. Dubbaneh is pursuing his MA in Diplomacy & International Relations where he focuses on Economic Development and Foreign Policy Analysis.

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