So. The youth of Hong Kong, just like their Middle Eastern counterparts before them, have demanded democracy, or more specifically, electoral freedom in protests known as the Umbrella Revolution. Currently, Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of China which, since its return to China from Britain in 1997, is governed by a Chief Executive. This Chief Executive is elected from an electoral college of 1200 members called the Election Committee. Many of this committee’s members are connected to the mainland Chinese government, leading to accusations that the election of the executive is controlled by Beijing. However, in 2007, the Chinese government declared that the 2017 elections will be democratic. So then why are there protests for democratic elections if it is already planned to occur in 2017?
In August, Beijing decided that 2017 candidates could only be nominated if they were approved by another 1200 member Nomination Committee similar to the existing Election Committee, whose members would represent various businesses, industries, and sectors of society. This was seen by many college and high school students as another method for Beijing to control the election process; any candidates unsatisfactory to the Communist Party would not be nominated by the new Nomination Committee, which would also be biased in favor of the richer business sectors of Hong Kong. So, beginning on September 22nd, demonstrations broke out in front of Hong Kong’s congress and soon reached their peak as they moved into public parks and Central, the main business district of Hong Kong. Police violence against the generally peaceful protesters escalated, with the spray painted umbrellas used to deflect police attacks of pepper spray and tear gas canisters giving the protests their name. Since then, actual protest numbers have declined from the thousands to a few hundreds as more formal talks between the opposing parties began, including the televised debate between one protest organization, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, and the government on October 21st.
Since Deng Xiaoping’s reforms of the 1980s, China has evolved to an important world power and economy whose billion-person market is coveted by nearly every company on earth. However, there is still great wealth inequality between the post-Cultural Revolution nouveau riche and poorer migrant workers and peasants. Hong Kong, especially, has a significant wealth gap. Around 1.3 million people, or one fifth of Hong Kong’s population, were below the poverty line in 2012, according to a government report. Yet, the four richest men in Asia live in Hong Kong. Another 2011 government report found that the poorest 10%’s gross household income fell 16% since 2001, compared to a 12% rise in the richest 10%. The Chief Executive’s daughter boasted on Facebook that all her expensive purchases were “funded by all you HK taxpayers.” and her father remarked that direct elections of executives would give the poor too much power. These two examples, coming from the supposed First Family of Hong Kong, embody the elitist mindset within Hong Kong that also contributed to the protesters’ anger.
Still, the current youth of the Middle Kingdom are richer, more privileged, and freer than any of their counterparts in the past century. The same applies to those Hong Kong students who comprised the majority of the protesters. There is a stereotype of many such youth as materialistic consumers who worship the name brand and Western culture; their political freedom is unimportant to them as long as they can have their iPhones and Gucci bags.
It seems the Umbrella Revolution and its backing by many mainland Chinese youth is a sign of a paradigm shift within this generation. They obtained all the material possessions of a free society, yet smartphones and high fashion do not a democracy make. So perhaps these Hong Kong protests show that this generation desires more than merchandise – they have opened their eyes to a better life and government and are willing to fight for it.