TIME Hong Kong

Hong Kong in Turmoil: 5 Takeaways From Weekend of Protests

Here are the key things to know about the worsening clashes between police and demonstrators in the city

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

TIME Viewpoint

Showdown in Hong Kong

Hong Kong protesters rally outside government offices after Beijing’s Aug. 31 announcement of its election scheme for the territory
Hong Kong protesters rally outside government offices after Beijing’s Aug. 31 announcement of its election scheme for the territory Lam Yik Fei—Getty Images

Beijing must realize that the territory’s openness is what gives it real value to China

When China took Hong Kong back from Britain in 1997, the leaders in Beijing labeled their reclaimed possession an “economic city.” They weren’t just referring to Hong Kong’s high-octane penchant and talent for making and spending money. They meant, too, that Hong Kong’s citizens should concentrate quietly on their livelihoods. Yet today, Hong Kong, a financial hub and largely open society, is one of the most politicized and polarized places in China. Despite its business-as-usual veneer, the territory is tense, fragmented and unsure.

Beijing is, above all, responsible for this transformation. The latest trigger: the Chinese leadership’s Aug. 31 ruling on the next election, set for 2017, of Hong Kong’s head of government, who is called the chief executive (CE). While the CE would for the first time be chosen by the voting public instead of the current narrow 1,200-member election committee, Beijing set suffocating conditions for the ballot. A likely facsimile of the committee—dominated by the conservative, pro-China establishment—would vet candidates beforehand. Nominees would need at least 50% of the group’s support to make the cut. And only three candidates at most would be allowed to run.

Backers of the scheme say it heralds progress and represents a historic step for Hong Kong as well as China. Critics say it’s a sham designed to exclude anyone in Beijing’s bad books.

Because Hong Kong is wired into the global economy, what happens to it matters to the rest of the world. The CE is essentially just a big-city mayor, but how he or she is chosen frames how free Hong Kong remains within China. In theory, the territory has a special “one country, two systems” status under which it exercises a fair bit of autonomy and retains its liberties and way of life. In practice, Beijing is applying ever greater pressure on Hong Kong’s officials, businesspeople, journalists, educators and even judges to show loyalty to China.

The CE decree is the most overt sign of the mainland’s interference. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp—a varied assemblage of politicians, students, academics, barristers, activists and opportunists—has reacted with anger and dismay. More street protests are likely. One group vows to hold mass sit-ins downtown. Anti-Beijing lawmakers say they won’t support the election plan. If it fails to pass—it needs a two-thirds majority in the territory’s legislature—a political impasse could result, and Hong Kong would face a crisis of governance. Even if the election took place as dictated by Beijing, turnout could be low, rendering the process meaningless and the winner functionally illegitimate.

Freedom vs. authoritarianism is a righteous battle anywhere, but Hong Kong’s is not a straight fight. Though the territory has been a part of China for already 17 years, mentally, the two exist in parallel universes. Values, culture, behavior, language—they all diverge. Many young mainlanders admire Hong Kong’s spirit, and many older Hong Kong citizens take pride in China’s new might.

But, broadly, neither side is comfortable with the other. China sees Hong Kong as spoiled and ungrateful despite its privileges denied to the rest of the nation. Hong Kong regards China as overbearing and uncouth. A recent survey by the University of Hong Kong shows less than 20% of local respondents identifying themselves as “Chinese.” Hong Kong’s antipathy toward China goes beyond the political—it’s existential.

To China’s leaders, what’s different about Hong Kong is what makes it dangerous. Some local activists have called for the end to Communist Party rule of the mainland, making them, from Beijing’s standpoint, subversives. Beijing’s harder and more intimidating line toward Hong Kong reflects its harder and more intimidating line at home and toward much of the rest of the world. If powers like the U.S. and Russia are reluctant to challenge China, goes the thinking in Beijing, who is tiny Hong Kong to do so?

Such sentiments are understandable but petty for a nation desiring greatness. Beijing must think boldly about Hong Kong. It should realize, and accept, that the city is a model, not a rebel; that it is what the mainland should aspire to be—Chinese yet international. Then, perhaps, Hong Kong might finally come home to China.

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