For the past couple of days, tens of thousands of Hong Kong citizens have taken to the streets to protest recent decisions by the central Chinese government to limit voting reforms in the city and to allow only communist-vetted candidates stand for the city’s upcoming municipal elections. Several dozen protestors have suffered injuries in clashes with the city’s police, who wield the all-too-familiar implements of “non-lethal” crowd control: tear gas, pepper spray, and assorted riot gear. Buildings are occupied, professional organizations like the Bar Association on strike, classes boycotted, and commerce at a standstill.
At just seventeen years old, the impassioned student leader Joshua Wong and his organization Scholasticism have inspired thousands of previously unengaged Hong Kong citizens to join the protests. Two years ago, Wong already won public renown for his resistance to the Chinese government’s attempt to introduce nationalist and pro-communist subject matter into Hong Kong’s school curriculum. His youth, extraordinary energy, and deceptively slight stature make him a symbolic figure in this popular fight of an embattled city against the supposedly oppressive overreach of the central government. He brings to mind the student radicals of the 1960s like Mario Savio, Rudi Dutschke, and Danny “The Red” Cohn-Bendit.
Another organization at the protests’ front lines calls itself Occupy Central with Peace and Love — again, reminiscent of the 1960s but also drawing its poetry from the global Occupy movement that began in 2011. “Central” refers to the governmental district at the heart of Hong Kong. But unlike other movements of the “99%,” this one does not appear to have a social message. Signs read “pro-democracy” and “civil disobedience,” but not a word about social inequality, corporate exploitation, anti-austerity, or anti-capitalism. New icons like the “humble umbrella” also serve to distinguish this movement from its Occupy namesakes. Several extremely wealthy Chinese businessmen, like the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, have voiced their support for Occupy Central and its pro-democracy message — not adding that they also support deregulation, liberalization, and a completely “free” market.
How to explain this lack of social content in perhaps the largest Chinese protests since Tienanmen Square in 1989? Aside from circumstances particular to Hong Kong’s return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 and its relatively low unemployment, the purely political tenor of the protests — pro-democracy, universal suffrage, etc. — owes much to the Chinese Communist Party’s monopolization of social discourse. The workers’ and peasants’ Republic officially already has perfect social equality, the exploiting classes having been liquidated decades ago. Any capitalist enclaves that still exist in China (Hong Kong included) are subject to strict monitoring and regulation by the people’s government. And even if the Communist Party elite seems to enrich itself at the expense of the people, that is only because it allegedly represents the historical vanguard and thus the most advanced section of the populace. In other words, the “99%” already governs in the People’s Republic of China.
Western news reports on the protests have rightly focused on the sit-ins and violent clashes with the police. But the large pro-China, pro-communist, and not-so-silent “silent majority” counter-protests have received less attention. Many Chinese compare the student and Occupy protests to the Tienanmen Square events of 1989. They do bear a certain resemblance, but so far the agents of oppression remain Hong Kong’s municipal police force rather than the Chinese Army. In a sense, the protests resemble more the events of 1989 in East Central Europe, when originally democratic-socialist calls to reform the system from within transformed into pro-Western demands for liberal democracy. There too — in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, etc. — the official communist governments had monopolized social discourse to such an extent that only a purely political rhetoric remained open and “unoccupied” for the people. Initially a populist rally against corrupt communist elites, the “velvet revolution” of 1989 quickly turned into a liberal pro-capitalist movement.
The relatively wealthy citizens of Hong Kong who experience no shortage of consumer goods and whose highest-ranking political official carries the title “chief executive” will likely not go the same route as the people of Leipzig, East Berlin, Prague, and Warsaw. Unlike the former subjects of the Soviet bloc, they already take capitalism for granted. But will Hong Kong’s movement for democracy limit itself to reforming elections and protecting the city’s quasi-independence? The Chinese government fears that if the city manages to secure universal suffrage and free elections, other Chinese cities may demand the same: the PRC social regime thus reckons with a political threat to its system. The business elite of Hong Kong that opposes the protests, on the other hand, fears a social threat to its privileged position. It remains for the students and Occupiers to find a non-communist language to express, alongside their political demands, truly social ones: better wages, corporate transparency, equitable distribution, and popular control.