A student pro-democracy protester covers his face in plastic wrap to guard against pepper spray in a standoff with police in Hong Kong on Monday. Protesters expanded their rallies throughout Hong Kong, defying calls to disperse in a major pushback against Beijing’s decision to limit democratic reforms in the Asian financial hub.

Wong Maye-E/AP

Nation & World

The rising in Hong Kong

long read

Concerted push for democracy is driving Chinese area’s ‘umbrella revolution’

A modest student protest in Hong Kong last week has ballooned into a rare and dramatic public display of political defiance against the Chinese government’s overarching authority.

The unrest began Sept. 22 with a call from the Hong Kong Federation of Students to boycott classes in protest of the government’s plan to limit candidates in Hong Kong’s first leadership election, slated for 2017, to those approved by a panel of presumed Beijing loyalists. The decision was widely viewed as a sharp reversal of a long-held promise to allow Hong Kong voters to select a new leader in open, democratic elections.

The student ranks swelled to tens of thousands earlier this week as activists and supporters of another pro-democracy group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace, joined the protest. Demonstrators filled the streets, blocked major thoroughfares and effectively shut down the busy central business district. After some tried to storm the downtown government headquarters, tensions erupted as unarmed protestors and police in riot gear clashed amid pepper spray and tear gas, prompting demonstrators to don goggles and plastic wrap or use umbrellas as shields from the stinging vapors. The humble umbrella has since become a symbol of the movement’s resistance.

China has called the protests illegal, but Hong Kong police dialed back their response. More supporters have taken to the streets, reinvigorating the demonstrations just in time for National Day on Oct. 1, a two-day holiday marking the 65th birthday of Mao Zedong’s formation of the People’s Republic of China — and the deadline set by Occupy Central for Hong Kong’s top leader, Leung Chun-ying, to resign.

Anthony Saich is the Daewoo Professor of International Affairs and director of the Ash Center for Democratic Governance at Harvard Kennedy School. He also serves as the faculty chair of the China Public Policy Program. His current research focuses on politics and governance in post-Mao China. Saich spoke with the Gazette about what’s happening in Hong Kong.

GAZETTE: What’s driving this event, and what makes this protest different from others in Hong Kong?

SAICH: The immediate cause is the fallout from the decision from Beijing that they were going to allow “universal suffrage,” but essentially control the pool of candidates who would be eligible to stand. That has led to the suspicion that only those who have a pro-Beijing orientation would pass muster. I think that it really has been a catalyst for a deeper set of concerns and frustrations among different groups in Hong Kong about where Hong Kong is heading, as we’re now some 17 years into the handover period. It’s actually pulled in a mixture of groups; you’ve got the Occupy Central group, which has had a number of disparate disagreements with the Hong Kong authorities. Then you’ve got the Scholarism group, which is representing the student communities. But there do seem to be quite a number of people joining in the demonstrations who are not affiliated with either of those two groups, which suggests that the dissatisfaction is broader than just a small group of students or activists who’ve been engaged with protests before.

You always have some set of demonstrations related to the June 4, 1989, killings in Beijing, Tiananmen Square, and that has gone up and down over time. What was surprising was this year, with the 25th anniversary, the turnout was larger than many people expected, which speaks to some of the underlying frustrations from many people in Hong Kong toward the mainland. Is it different from other demonstrations? I think the answer to that is yes, because it does seem to have a broader base. It does have quite a focused set of objectives — whether they’re realizable or not, of course, is a different issue — and the fact that they’ve challenged directly the Hong Kong leadership, and then implicitly the directors from Beijing, I think is quite striking.

GAZETTE: Hong Kong’s chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, appears to be a major target of the demonstrators’ ire. Why do they want him to step down?

SAICH: He’s seen as the front person for Beijing, and tactically it would be very problematic for them to criticize Beijing directly, even though there have been some ruffles and comments about that. It would be dangerous for them to take on Beijing. C.Y. Leung has really come to symbolize the problem. He’s not been a popular chief executive from the beginning. In fact, it seems there were even disputes within the small group that chooses the chief executive whether he was the most appropriate or not. I think what has fed into this over the weekend was the police actions where they used tear gas, and there was the thought that perhaps if there was an aggressive response from the police, the demonstrations would fade away. But it seems to have galvanized even more people to come out onto the streets. He’s really seen as a figurehead and for the demonstrators a target that’s achievable to remove — from their perspective, anyway.

GAZETTE: What most worries Beijing about this unrest, and how far is the government likely to let this go on before intervening?

SAICH: This is a very tough issue for Beijing. First, I think Beijing was caught off guard, as I think we all were, by the depth of feelings and the strength of the demonstrations. Perhaps they were getting poor intelligence from their own offices in Hong Kong and from the Hong Kong government. What worries them about it is they don’t like any direct challenge. President Xi [Jinping] has amassed considerable power into his own hands and had very much portrayed himself as a can-do leader. And yet now he’s facing significant opposition from parts of his periphery, not just Hong Kong, but there’s been a lot of unrest in Xinjiang in the northwest of China. So from his perspective, any backing down around either of those issues would cause concern and might open up the way for people within China who’ve been opposed to some of his policies to see it as an opening to attack him in other areas.

Then, what most people are focused on is the question of democracy in Hong Kong and what would the consequences of that be for the mainland. The primary objective of the Communist Party is to stay in power, and it’s always been suspicious of anything that provides a challenge within that context. It’s always sought to repress, domestically, people who tried to set up movements or parties that might even in a minimal way compete with the Communist Party. The idea that democracy can be unpredictable and can produce chaos, from their perspective, means that it needs to be controlled. I think they probably felt that people in Hong Kong would go along with the idea that “You’ll still get universal suffrage, but you’ll get it within a cage,” the cage being the limited choice of candidates. So I think there’s that fear of unpredictable democracy and possible consequences of whether that might lead to people on the mainland calling for more effective representation.

GAZETTE: Is the protest movement likely to change Beijing’s view, and if not, is there a resolution both sides could live with?

SAICH: I think it’s hard to see what the resolution is. I don’t think Beijing will back down on the decision that was made earlier. The demonstrators say that they have a number of core objectives, one of which is to rescind that decision, but also for [Leung] to step down. I don’t think they’re going to get the first. They may, through some maneuverings, get the second. Because the only tactic for Beijing, short of greater oppression, is to distance themselves and not say their decision was wrong, but to say that [Leung] and the senior Hong Kong leadership have implemented their control around the demonstrations poorly, and that they haven’t explained this sufficiently to the Hong Kong people, that they haven’t allowed sufficient negotiation — that might be one area of wiggle room for them. The only other hope is that if there’s not continued repression of the demonstrations, over time the enthusiasm might just fade away, and that might allow for a calming period where some kind of discussion could take place. But I think it’s very problematic for Beijing. In a sense, they are really losing a generation. You have a group of young people — college students, high school students — who’ve clearly expressed extreme dissatisfaction with the way Hong Kong is being managed. It’s hard to see what Beijing could do that would win back trust from that group, which is not a very promising situation for the future.

GAZETTE: Does this have any potential to ignite other protests in mainland China?

SAICH: I don’t really think at the moment there’s much threat of similar kinds of demonstrations in China. The bottom line is the culture, the history, and the situation in Hong Kong is so different from that in the mainland. Despite what people see as some increasing constraints, there is still much greater freedom in Hong Kong. Demonstrations have been consistently allowed in Hong Kong since 1997. So in that sense, it’s a very different environment. [Therefore] it’s hard to see whether it would translate exactly to the situation on the mainland.

GAZETTE: Is the erosion of democratic principles in Hong Kong, which were at the heart of the “one country, two systems” formula, a worst-case scenario for those who feared the 1997 handover? Is it evidence that this duality is unworkable under China’s current political regime?

SAICH: The duality has not worked so badly on the whole. There is frustration, there is grumbling in Hong Kong, but there was no democratic system in 1997. What has been mapped out over the transition period is a move to greater democracy. One could argue that the potential candidates for the chief executive will be selected by a small group, but everybody then will be able to vote, so there would be some choice. That is more democracy than Hong Kong has had previously, certainly under the British and certainly to date. So you could argue there’s an extension of democratic voting rights in Hong Kong. And I think the hope was if that was stage one, and Beijing felt comfortable with that, they might relax the issues around who would select the candidates for a subsequent election. It’s a complex issue: It’s not that easy to say, “This is a closing down of democracy in Hong Kong.” There’s still a relatively robust press, there’s still a relatively robust academic community, and there’s a still a set of international connections and ease of access to information that doesn’t exist on the mainland. I think this was a catalyst for a general sense of unease you’re talking about: Is Beijing beginning to take more control in more areas, whether it’s economic, whether it’s social, whether it’s large numbers of mainland Chinese coming down to Hong Kong? That was then sparked by particular events.

GAZETTE: If Beijing prevails, what does it mean for Hong Kong’s future as a commercial and artistic center? Are we likely to see a significant “brain drain” as a result?

SAICH: That’s an interesting question, and I think that is the fear. Beijing sees Hong Kong as being an important commercial and trading center. A lot of the leaders’ children make their money out of Hong Kong, and it’s one place where China recognizes proper rule of law as effective in the business community. So I think it’s always kind of hoped that the rule of law within the commercial sector would go ahead, but that they could still control the politics. Although huge numbers of people with money and access are leaving the mainland and settling in Australia, Canada, America, Europe, or wherever, the ease of exit is much better out of Hong Kong. A lot of the elite there speak English well. They’ve often been well integrated into global communities. And so I think there is a fear that, if this turns sour and the atmosphere harshens in Hong Kong, you will have an exodus of the most qualified.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.