Hong Kong in Turmoil: 5 Takeaways From Weekend of Protests

Sep 28, 2014

Hong Kong, one of the world's most dynamic and orderly cities, has become a battle zone.

On Sunday and into early Monday, police used tear gas and pepper spray to try to disperse protesters from the main government complex downtown. The crackdown had the opposite effect. More protesters joined the demos and sit-ins, which have now spread to other parts of Hong Kong island and to popular shopping districts across the harbor in Kowloon. Tens of thousands have taken to the streets. Clashes between protesters and police are taking place. Traffic is at a standstill. A sense of danger prevails in what is normally one of the safest places on the planet. When citizens awake Monday morning to try to go to work or school, they will find a city in chaos and crisis.

The protesters, who had been in a standoff at the downtown complex for days, want Hong Kong's authorities to introduce full democracy in the territory, starting with the election of its head of government, or Chief Executive, in 2017. But China, which has sovereignty over Hong Kong, decreed that a narrow "nominating committee" would allow only up to three candidates to contest, effectively screening out anyone whom Beijing opposes.

Maya Wang, China researcher for Human Rights Watch, says Beijing has lost control in trying to grasp more of it. "Rejecting democracy in Hong Kong has dramatically backfired [for them] in that people here have now lost confidence in the central government," she said. The situation on the ground remains fluid, but here are five takeaways from Hong Kong's season of unrest:

1. The protests cut across Hong Kong society.
The protests disprove the conventional wisdom that Hong Kong's citizens care singularly about making money and getting ahead. The protesters represent a cross-section of society: young and old, professionals and small-business people, the low-income and the middle class. As lawyer Audrey Eu, a longtime democracy activist, says: "This is a broad-based movement."

2. This is as much about inequality as democracy.
While greater democracy is the No. 1 item on the protesters' agenda, livelihood issues also figure. Once, the Hong Kong dream — rapid-upward social mobility — was accessible to many individuals and families. But in recent years Hong Kong has become an ever more expensive place to live for its citizens. The entry price to buy a home is beyond the means of many citizens, who equally feel that government policies are rigged to favor the elite, especially wealthy property developers. Indeed, Hong Kong has one of the widest income gaps in the world for a developed society. Those agitating for more democracy believe that it will result in a government more accountable and responsive to the needs of the less well-off.

3. The difference between Hong Kong and mainland China is not just political.
Hong Kong citizens resent ever greater numbers of mainland residents and visitors buying up everything from apartments to infant formula, and occupying everything from hospital beds to school places. Locals also find mainlanders can be boorish. Hong Kong social media often spotlights mainland parents allowing their children to urinate or even defecate in public. While this may not seem critical, it shows how far apart culturally Hong Kong and mainland China are.

4. Beijing is clearly mismanaging the fringes of China's empire.
Both Xinjiang and Tibet are restive, with locals angry at being marginalized by Han Chinese in their own homelands. The territory of Xinjiang, in particular, has been rocked by bomb and knife attacks as extremists turn to violence to fight back. Taiwan, which Beijing wants to reclaim under the same "one country, two systems" formula for reunification for Hong Kong, will be hugely distrustful now of any promises of autonomy from Beijing. And even citizens in Macau, the most obedient of China's special regions, are now agitating for greater freedom and transparency. Beijing's tactics might work in the short time to suppress dissent, but the tensions will only build and boil over. As is happening in Hong Kong.

5. Hong Kong faces a tough fight ahead.
Hong Kong is pushing for democracy precisely when China is becoming more authoritarian at home and exercising a sterner diplomatic approach abroad. Beijing is cracking down hard on dissent at home. The latest example: the life sentence handed to moderate Uighur academic Ilham Tohti allegedly for advocating "separatism" for Xinjiang. China has also become more assertive, even aggressive, over its maritime disputes with its Asian neighbors, essentially refusing to negotiate and imposing its own boundaries. Thus, Hong Kong — which, with its 7 million people, is just a tiny corner of China — can expect no quarter from Beijing over its fight for democracy.

— With reporting by Elizabeth Barber / Hong Kong

— Video by Helen Regan / Hong Kong

Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
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Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters walk along the protest site on a quiet night as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protester sleeps on a concrete road divider on a street outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
People try to prevent a man from removing a barricade set up by pro-democracy protesters blocking a main road at Hong Kong's shopping Mongkok district Oct. 4, 2014.
Policemen try to get a man to let go of a fence guarded by pro-democracy demonstrators in an occupied area of Hong Kong on Oct. 3, 2014.
A local resident breaks through police lines and attempts to reach the pro-democracy tent on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A student protester is injured after being pulled off and hit by residents and pro-Beijing supporters while local police are escorting him out of the protest area in Kowloon's crowded Mong Kok district, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Students and pro-democracy activists leave the protest site as local police hold back local residents and pro-government supporters on Oct. 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong.
A man walks past a barricade as protesters continue to block areas outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong, Oct. 3, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstration in Hong Kong, Sept. 3, 2014.
Student protesters raise their hands to show their non-violent intentions as they resist during change of shift for local police but backed down after being reassured they could reoccupy the pavement outside the government compoundís gate, Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Police stand guard outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on Oct. 2, 2014, as pro-democracy protesters remain gathered for the fifth day in a push for free elections of the city's leader.
A taxi driver gives a thumbs up to pro-democracy protesters as he drives past the protest site in front of Hong Kong's Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's office, Oct. 3, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Protesters sleep on the road outside the Police Headquarters building on Oct. 2, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Students from various universities continue their protest in the streets of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester holding an umbrella stands on the street close to the Hong Kong Government Complexon Oct. 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, delivers a speech as protesters block the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Protesters react as Joshua Wong, leader of the student movement, speaks to the crowd outside the government headquarters building in Hong Kong Oct. 1, 2014.
Tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators, some waving lights from mobile phones, fill the streets in the main finical district of Hong Kong, Oct. 1, 2014.
A protester sleeps on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex at sunrise on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators rest during a protest in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters relax on the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
A pro-democracy protestor speaks to the crowd in front of the government offices in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A couple wearing protective masks and ponchos walk through Admiralty district as part of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
Protesters sing songs and wave their cell phones in the air after a massive thunderstorm passed over outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 30, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators gather for the third night in Hong Kong on Sept. 30, 2014.
A businessman stands in front of a road block set up by protesters at the main street of the financial Central district in Hong Kong Sept. 29, 2014.
A protester raises his arms as police officers try to disperse the crowd near the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 29, 2014.
Umbrellas used to shield demonstrators from pepper spray and the sun are displayed during a pro-democracy protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Residents on scooters bring supplies to protesters camped outside the headquarters of Legislative Council during protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Police walk down a stairwell as pro-democracy demonstrators gather for a rally outside the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters gather in the streets outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on Sept. 29, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy demonstrators hold up their mobile phones during a protest near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 29, 2014.
Pro-democracy demonstrators are sprayed with pepper spray during clashes with police officers during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator wearing a mask and goggles to protect against pepper spray and tear gas gestures during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police launch tear gas into the crowd as thousands of protesters surround the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A protester walks in tear gas fired by riot policemen after thousands of protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong, Sept. 28, 2014.
A pro-democracy protester confronts the police during a demonstration in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters demonstrate in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Policemen confronts protesters in Hong Kong during a demonstration on Sept. 28, 2014.
Riot police fire tear gas on student protesters occupying streets surrounding the government headquarters in Hong Kong, early on Sept. 29, 2014.
A pro-democracy demonstrator pours water over a man's face after police fired tear gas at protesters during a rally near the Hong Kong government headquarters on Sept. 28, 2014.
Pro-democracy protesters put their hands up in the air in front of the police in Hong Kong on Sept. 28, 2014.
Some of the protesters sleep as they block the main street to the financial Central district outside the government headquarters, with other demonstrators in Hong Kong, Sept, 29, 2014.
Policemen rest following pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong on Sept. 29, 2014.
Protesters sit behind a government building as the standoff continues Oct. 5, 2014 in Hong Kong.
Paula Bronstein—Getty Images
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