In the autumn of 2014, umbrellas instead of traffic filled the main streets of Hong Kong. The Occupy Central movement that lasted for 79 days was a testimony to how much Hong Kong people, mostly youths, were growing frustrated with Beijing’s increasing bossiness. After Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, Hong Kong has been under the ‘one country, two systems’ doctrine and therefore enjoyed semi-autonomy; it had its own mini-constitution and legislative council, which was partially democratically elected. What’s more, Beijing even promised at the time that in 2017, it would allow Hong Kong to democratically elect its top leader, Hong Kong chief executive (HKCE). But of course, until then, the HKCE was to be elected by a pro-Beijing committee.
If only it were true. In August 2014, Beijing severely restricted the democratic nature of the 2017 election by saying that only a select number of candidates approved by a special committee could run. The news, unsurprisingly, was not met very well. The Occupy Central movement opposed this authoritarian behavior of the Beijing government and through peaceful protests and sit-ins the protestors demanded that Hong Kong is allowed a ‘truly’ democratic election. Despite all this, Beijing remained resolute and Occupy Central gradually dissolved without any real achievement.
However, the seeds of protest and radical political reform have already been sown. After Occupy Central, the core youth leaders of the movement became a new political force, namely the ‘localists.’ The results of 2016 Legislative Council (LegCo) election on 4th of September reflected their growing popularity, with localists/radicals taking 8 seats, out of which three are from the youth localists political groups (Youngspirational and Demosisto) that stemmed from the Occupy Central movement. The youngest of the three, Nathan Law, is only 23 years old.
“Freedom and individuality are inseparable.”
Why did Hong Kong youths suddenly jump into the political arena? Is it simply an emerging ‘popular trend’ that youths have taken a temporary liking to? Or is it a genuine start of what some candidates call ‘revolution’?
To understand why Hong Kong youths have suddenly become a headache for the Beijing government, we first need to know the region’s identity. Despite its current status (as a part of mainland China), Hong Kong people have always differentiated themselves from the Mainland Chinese. For one, they speak Cantonese, not Mandarin, and they enjoy more political freedom than the Mainland Chinese people. After all, less than 20 years have passed since Hong Kong was officially returned to China- not enough time has yet passed for Chinese culture to tint the region completely red.
This is why a crackdown on Hawkers, cheap local restaurants unique to Hong Kong, has caused so much anger and violence from the youths. For them, an attack on Hawkers symbolizes an attack on Hong Kong’s local identity. In their eyes, Mainland China is a threat to their identity, because Beijing government wants to ‘absorb’ the region and assimilate it to the more mainstream Mainland culture. This angers the Hong Kong people because they do not in fact fully identify with Mainland culture; they do not want their own local culture to perish because they feel that they are not ‘Chinese,’ but ‘Hong Kong-ers.’
Freedom and individuality are inseparable. Without freedom, there can be no individuality; in the end, it is only when you can determine for yourself what you wish to be that you can confidently say that you are an ‘individual,’ not a pre-programmed android. What Hong Kong youths demand is not a nominal democracy, but the freedom to choose their identity. This is why when you look through their lens, Beijing is inevitably seen as an oppressor- it is taking away their liberty to be who they are. It is not a choice between democracy and communism; it is a choice between keeping and losing their unique identity.
*Photo Credit: CNN, (2014). Hong Kong Occupy Central. [image] Available at: http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnnnext/dam/assets/140611050938-hong-kong-white-paper-horizontal-large-gallery.jpg [Accessed 15 Sep. 2016].