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The Failed Revolution: How the Hong Kong Protest Reflects Contemporary Chinese Policies At Home and Abraod

Ruishi Zhang '16

Overview of the Hong Kong protest and current situation

It has been more than two month since protesters first flooded the streets of central Hong Kong in the “Occupy Central Movement, defying new legislations which would introduce universal suffrage by 2017 under the condition that candidates be approved by both the Hong Kong Representative Committee and the Chinese Central Government. In the wake of mass gatherings, many anticipated another “June 4th” (a pro-democracy student protest in 1989 that ended in bloodshed). Press and governments across the world watched tensely as hundreds of thousands of people occupied the Hong Kong central business districts. Rumors spread that tanks rolled into the streets and gunshots were fired on the crowd, which were later proved false; at the same time, conspiracy theories flooded the social networks both Chinese and foreign. People were waiting for the one spark that would theoretically set China ablaze.

During the past few weeks, however, the situation has drastically changed. Turn out has decreased from hundreds of thousands in the beginning of October to a meager few hundred; public support has sharply dwindled, international media coverage has decreased and western support has gradually disappeared. In the most recent talks at APEC, president Obama has affirmed that the U.S. “had no involvement in fostering the protests there” and no longer openly supported the protestors as he had in October. Internally, the protesters suffered from severe lack of organization as two of its three initial founders (Professor Benny Tai and Dr. Chan Kin Man) left the protest and returned to their former jobs less than half way through, leaving most of the work to their heir, the 18-year-old student leader Joshua Wong, who was recently arrested. Mong Kok, the main gathering area has been completely cleared of obstacles by police, leaving the protesters only two other minor rallying points. It seems that what set out to be a grand revolution is slowly suffocating, disappearing and becoming nothing more than a lengthy period of illegal civil disobedience that’s engendering none of its intended changes.

Reasons the protest is failing and their implications

The truth is, Occupy Central was from the start doomed for failure. Not so much due the lack of organization, but because this is only a series of protests that has been occurring ever since the handover as a British Colony in 1997, and the Chinese government is very proficient in dealing with similar crisis. Every year on June 4th, tens of thousands would flood the streets in commemoration of the pro-democracy protest that occurred in 1989. The past few protests however, have shown higher turn out rates, ranging in the hundred of thousands. Due to this fact, the Chinese government has strengthened its grip on the Hong Kong administration; the National People’s Congress Executive Committee, arguably the most powerful branch in the government, issued a corollary to the Basic Law of Hong Kong based on a report by the incumbent Hong Kong Executive CY-Leung. The corollary replaced election by a selected elite representative committee with universal suffrage, but under the condition that the Chinese government must approve the candidates. Through this new law, the Chinese government is able to aptly eliminate candidates with over-pro western sentiments, solidify its control over Hong Kong and move a step forward towards the 2047 complete assimilation of Hong Kong into the People’s Republic. This has certainly stirred commotion among social activists, but not enough in the general public, and it’s certainly not the original document the Occupy Central movement was intended to protest against. The Occupy Central Movement was in reality founded in 2013, with the goal of changing the election process used then, which was election by a selected group of elite representatives. However, most Hong Kong citizens find this restrictive form of universal suffrage find considerably more appealing, and don’t feel the necessity to protest; most protesters are more concerned over the social-economical inequalities that are present, and the fact that prominent businessmen and Mainland officials dominate the Hong Kong government. Thus the Occupy Central is split between two varying groups: one advocating more freedom in election (mainly students), and the other urging socio-economical equality. This disparity in goals, adding to the rash initiation of the protest in the first place, meant a hidden danger from the start. As soon as people began to see how Occupy Central was negatively affecting local businesses and schools, they began to turn against it. In the end, mainly students and the poor were left, the original goal was blurred and all that’s left is blind violence, which is receiving condemnation from across the city. This change in public attitude gave the government a chance to act, which led to what we’re seeing today: the police cleansing the streets while citizens cheer them on.

Student protesters crowding streets of Hong Kong, boycotting school and blocking city traffic

Student protesters crowding streets of Hong Kong, boycotting school and blocking city traffic

But how this “revolution” failed is not nearly as interesting as how Beijing responded to this crisis both internally and externally, and how it reflects the new Chinese policies as an emerging global superpower.

China’s New Internal Policy: “a Nation Guarded by Law and Regulations” with a Democratic Blanket

Since his inauguration, the Chinese president Xi Jin Ping has been pushing for policies advocating a “nation guarded by law” and “Chinese style socialist reforms”, in essence, stricter internal regulations and control. Unlike his predecessors, Xi is not bluffing. In the two years since he stepped to power president Xi has launched the most comprehensive anti-corruption campaign since Mao Ze Dong, China’s first leader. Following a strategy of what he calls “capturing the flies and the tigers”, Xi targeted some of the most powerful people in China including the vice chairman of the Central Military Committee, and Secretary of the Legal Commission, who’s in charge of all Chinese military police forces; some of the largest state owned corporations have also been under inspection, including Sinopec, China Unicom and China International News Corporation. On the other hand, the “flies” or low ranking village and city officials have also fallen under the net, with hundreds under inspection and numerous being relieved of duty daily. Furthermore, the government has been seeking to bring back corrupt officials who are hiding abroad through various means. “Operation Fox Hunt 2014”, a program through which oversea criminals could turn themselves in, has recently ended retrieving hundreds of corrupt officials and criminals. Although “Operation Fox Hunt 2014” was only able to bring back mostly low-level criminals and officials, the Chinese government is determined to make foreign countries, what were once safe havens for corrupt individuals, as dangerous as Mainland China; and it doesn’t intend to act alone. At APEC 2014, hosted in Beijing, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs drafted the “Beijing Declaration on Fighting Corruption” and actively demanded extradition agreements with major countries such as the U.S., Canada and Australia. It is clear that through these measures, President Xi is determined not only to clear the nation of internal corruption and dissentions, but also to keep all internal affairs within the nation. It is likely that as the government slowly reels in Hong Kong and Macau, their officials will also be subjected to an all out inspection, and those with strong pro-western sentiments could be brought down in the same fashion as Mainland officials are; after which the special administrative regions would be completely under the ruling Party.

Zhou Yong Kang, China's ex-security chief, was among the most high profile office holders to fall in history

Zhou Yong Kang, China’s ex-security chief, was among the most high profile office holders to fall in history

A second major undertaking by president Xi is censorship of the web, which is not a new operation but an elevation in scale compared to previous measures. During the initial unrest in Hong Kong, major social networks such as Wechat and Instagram were completely shutdown, leaving millions of Mainlanders with little or no knowledge of the situation in Hong Kong until official reports days later. This may seem like an iconic Chinese gesture, but in truth it reflects something much more profound. In the past, the Chinese government has mainly controlled contents on Mainland servers, which aimed to cut of transmission rather than stop the source. In the past few months, efforts toward censorship have been greatly increased, and the government has hired tens of thousands to clear the web of any malicious contents, including pornography, politically biased contents etc. This time however, the crack down not only affects the mainland, but also Hong Kong and Macau. Take Wechat for example, it is the most popular messaging app for Mainlanders but also for many living in Special Administrative Regions such as Hong Kong, serving around 400 million users. In the first days of its creation it was one of the least regulated apps, and has become a platform where all sorts of information are shared, including political opinions and first hand news coverage. Due to wide usage, it has been considered as a bridge between Mainland and the outside world. But during the Hong Kong protests, Wechat was at times completely shut down, and all sensitive posts were promptly taken down. This speedy reaction by the Chinese government may have come as a shock for Hong Kong protesters trying to send their message, but it is no chance event. Under pressure from Bejing, Wechat closed 20 million or 5% of all its accounts in June 2014 due for alleged association to spreading “illegal information” and advocating prostitution. Ever since then, the company has been under heavy oversight and regulation like other Mainland social networks. When the first waves of protests hit in September, workers at Wechat were able to effectively filter out any information deemed harmful to public safety: those that could arouse sympathy or lead to possible unrest on the Mainland, which is what the government feared most. Luckily for Beijing, the situation is firmly under its control, and the protest is slowly burning out.

Wechat, China's most popular messaging app, has been under heavy survillance and controll recently

Wechat, China’s most popular messaging app, has been under heavy survillance and controll recently

Anti-corruption campaigns and tighter cyber regulations are all reflections of the renewed Chinese internal affairs strategies: a nation guarded by law and regulation. Regulations give the central government the necessary powers but have also, unlike many previous measures, received wide support from the people. This is because unlike previous attempts to tighten regulations, this new wave of reinforcements is covered with a more internationally accepted and in many ways democratic shell. People can now report corruption through a national hotline, and new legislations such as loosening of the “one child policy” or smoking restrictions have definitely rounded significant public support. To the outside world, China is no longer a autocratic country where the oligarchy rules with brute force.

The government has learned much of the western methods in dealing with social issues to its own advantage; the Hong Kong protest is a perfect embodiment of the new strategies.  Contrary to what occurred in Beijing in 1989, government forces did not roll in tanks or fire live rounds in to the crowd. Instead, conventional Hong Kong police forces were dispatched, with astounding, even unusually civilized behaviors such as holding up signs saying “please disperse, tear gas will be used in this area soon” before administering tear gas or pepper spray. Beijing knows very well that if lethal force or even signs of lethal forces were present, the Party’s reputation would be utterly sullied among the citizens and in the west. The last thing they needed was pro-Hong Kong sentiments in the mainland, and open western support, which would render the situation out of control. So Beijing played a game of exhaustion; they were willing to could afford to sacrifice temporary economic loss for relative social stability. Rather than taking the protesters head on Beijing at first seemed to pay no attention whatsoever, but this was all deliberately planned. Soon, seeing no reaction from the government, many protesters left; parents were angry at school boycotts and business were taking the toll. Occupy Central soon lost its momentum, and the leaders left one by one to return to their jobs. All this while, Chinese media was reporting back to mainland damages that the protesters are causing, and speculations of secret western sabotage were widely discussed. This aroused a wave of nationalism even some anti-western sentiment on Mainland China as people across the country criticized the irresponsible actions and tens of thousands of mainlanders and Hong Kong residents assembled to counter the Occupy Central Movement. Finally, when most of the Hong Kong public was openly against Occupy Central, and the remaining protesters were considered political extremists, Beijing delivered its final blow with full authorization from the people. Authorities sent in “authorized personnel” wearing red caps and peaceful “I Love HK” T-shirts to take down the obstacles, while crowds of citizens cheered them on. Where were the police in all of this? They were standing close by to “protect the safety of obstacle deconstruction personnel and retain public order” or arresting anyone that got in the way. The whole operation took two days but in the end authorities were able to take down all barricades in the major rallying site. Now, the Occupy Central participants are left with only two minor gathering spots that will also be soon taken down, and their reputation is continuing to deteriorate. Thus in the end, without firing a single shot, in the name of the people, Beijing was able to defuse what seemed to be an eminent massacre.  This proficiency, patience and techniques with which Beijing settled this crisis indicates that China has very much adapted to contemporary international politics, and knows fairly well what to do to dissentions and how to turn the people in its favor.

China’s New International Policy: Assertiveness on the Global Stage

In recent years, with increasing economic prosperity and stability, China has been increasingly active and assertive on the global stage; as much as many western nations would like to curb this trend, they are constantly forced to yield due to their economic ties with China. President Xi has increasingly stated that China should develop its own style of diplomacy as a superpower; Xi’s key points included “independence”, “unyielding core interests” and “non-interference in external affairs”, the statements are as much as goals for China as they are warnings for the west and reassurance to its allies. China is much different from what it was a decade ago; today, as the second largest economy and an essential trading partner with major countries across the world, it has become considerably powerful on the international stage. The first thing that China wants as an emerging superpower is complete independence: Independence in internal affairs and freedom to replace America’s traditional role in Southeast Asia.

In the past, western countries have been especially critical regarding China’s social disparities and internal politics. Countries like the U.S. have been openly supportive of those who are against the Chinese government such as the Dalai Lama and Liu Xiao Bo, it has also intervened in China’s internal politics, most notably of which is the Taiwan territorial dispute; in one famous episode, U.S. aircraft carriers actually entered waters between Taiwan and China to successfully urge Chinese forces back from possible invasion of Taiwan. Beijing has always abhorred these gestures but was unable to change the western attitude in the past. Now however, things have dramatically changed, and a clear indication of this can ben found in the Hong Kong protest. During the first days of protest, president Obama openly stated that the U.S. “sympathizes with the Hong Kong protesters”. Beijing was upset, and news corporations across China began speculating that the U.S. was secretly funding the Hong Kong protesters through the Hong Kong U.S. Center. APEC was the perfect chance to express China’s views on the issue. In a joint press release with president Obama, Xi adamantly pronounced that “the Hong Kong issue is entirely Chinese internal affairs, and western nations should not intervene in anyway whatsoever.” Obama was quick to explain, “the U.S. was not involved in the protest.” The tone with which Xi asserted his position is extremely rare among his predecessors, and the U.S. retraction of its previous support is also astonishing. Indeed, the Obama administration had more issues to deal with at the time such as disappointing midterm election and unrest in Ferguson, but at the same time, economic deals and the necessity of cooperation in Southeast Asia has prompted the Whitehouse to step down a notch. In Europe, the British Parliament wanted to send in a inspection delegation to assess the situation in Hong Kong; this act outraged the Chinese government, who promptly issued statements strongly condemning the British proposals, reaffirmed that “Hong Kong is no longer a British colony, and rights to the area are reserved solely to the Chinese government”, in a recent press release Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Hua Chun Ying also hinted that the Chinese government would not be issuing any visa to British parliament members intending to travel to Hong Kong.

U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jin Ping issuing a press release at APEC 2014 held in Beijing, China.

U.S. president Barack Obama and Chinese president Xi Jin Ping issuing a press release at APEC 2014 held in Beijing, China.

On top of non-intervention from the west, China is also evolving from its traditional role of quasi-superpower (one that’s only economically influential), to a full out regional dominator politically and militarily. Earlier this year, the Chinese government issued a new military budget that increased 12.2%, bringing the total to $132 billion, ranking 2nd in the world. The new budget’s purpose is to “invest in high-tech weaponry”, which currently points to more advanced fourth generation stealth jetfighters (J-22, J-31) and ships, including aircraft carriers. In 2012 the Chinese military launched its first refitted Soviet aircraft carrier “Liaoning”, and reports have since shown that more carriers are likely under construction. The sudden increase in military activity is part of the strategy to protect Chinese territory and reclaim disputed territories mainly in the South China Sea. China is currently tangled in major territorial disputes in the South China Sea with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. These three countries control what were once Chinese islands, but due to China’s inability to protect them in the 20th century, neighboring nations have carved and actively controlled a number of the islands for decades. It’s definitely not easy for China to take them back now through pure negotiations, so Beijing needs to be ready to “protect its core interests by force if necessary”. There are already decisive actions such as establishment of an air identification zone, and deployment of patrol vessels in disputed waters. These movements have certainly gotten its neighbors nervous, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe for instance have repeatedly attempted to rewrite parts of its constitution regarding establishing a military force. China, meanwhile is trying to isolate the west, especially the U.S. from its Southeast Asia allies. Beijing’s goal is clear; it wants to become the new leader in Southeast Asia, a role that the U.S. has more or less held in the past decades by maintaining firm relationships with South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. But now, with public support low, funding tight and internal issues rampant, the U.S. is gradually decreasing its focus on the Pacific, it also has to consider the economic ties with China, which could be damaged through over intervention. China is using this opportunity to slowly rise as the new regional leader, by establishing benign economic relationships, and also for the first time, asserting its powers militarily and politically.

Chinese Coast Guard ships patrolling the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

Chinese Coast Guard ships patrolling the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands

To other nations around the world, Beijing is sending a welcoming message. President Xi has repeated stressed that China, as an emerging superpower would not take the path of traditional superpowers and “would not infringe on any national interests nor intervene in any internal affairs.” This is very enticing to many developing and underdeveloped countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia who’ve been subjected to blatant intervention by western nations for years.

Many nations are also benefiting from what Xi refers to as “the 21st century silk road”, a reference to the trade route across Asia during China’s most prosperous dynasties. The Chinese government has established a $40 billion Silk Road Fund to assist developing countries across Asia and North Africa monetarily and infrastructural. In Africa, Beijing is the strongest supporter of national governments in infrastructure and trade, and Chinese businesses in many places have replaced western corporations to become main suppliers. Furthermore, the Chinese government is not involved in any of the political entanglements that western countries are in. For example, the U.S. does not associate with Zimbabwe and sanctioned its president/dictator Robert Mugabe; China on the other hand is happy to take advantage of this unique opportunity and provides the Zimbabwean government with much infrastructural funding. Through the relatively non-biased assistance, China is gaining trust and huge much support from developing nations who are increasingly suspicious of western intents and would rather rely on and learn from another country that’s willing and able to provide assistance, especially a nation that started off much worse than many of the country they are giving money to today. In return, developing countries back China on the international stage and on its own internal issues such as the reunification of Taiwan and the Hong Kong protests.

FAW, China's leading automaker, has an influential share in South Africa's auto-industry

FAW, China’s leading automaker, has an influential share in South Africa’s auto-industry

Finally, with its largest neighbor, Russia, Beijing is extending a life saving hand in one of its most difficult times. When the western world is sanctioning Russia over Ukraine, Beijing is signing billion dollar oil deals with the Kremlin. In return the Russians are forging a stronger military and political alliance with China. One of the most revealing events is China’s increased military joint exercises with Russia. The arms trade between the two nations is also to shown to have increased; a recent Russian news report indicated that the Russian military might have already reached a deal selling its most advanced missile defense system-S400 to China. If the reports are legitimate, it would make China the first country to which Russia is willing to sell the missile system, and could mean a new level of military cooperation between the two nations.


As the Hong Kong protests subside, it is beginning to turn out that Beijing is the real winner. Though there are considerable economical setbacks, Beijing has overall maintained Mainland social stability, turned the Hong Kong majority against Occupy Central, successfully isolated any western involvement and stirred a wave of nationalism. But what the event truly reflects are China’s increasingly versatile internal policies, and its new moves as an emerging regional leader and global superpower. It is clear that Xi Jin Ping, with increasingly firm grip on internal politics, and a hand on the second richest nation on earth, is ready to make his move to make China Asia’s new dominator.

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