Why We’re Here: Exploring the Causes of Hong Kong’s Protests

By Denzel Zhu
Sophomore, Rutgers University

Last Friday, November 14, marked the seventh week of Occupy Central: the protests in the Hong Kong that were sparked by electoral reforms proposed by the Chinese Standing Committee of the Communist Party of China. The Standing Committee is the 7-membered group of China’s most senior government officials: governors, chief justices, leaders of government bureaucracies and shadowy figures from influential government-owned corporations all hold membership. It has the power to not only write and interpret laws, but also execute the policies of the Chinese Government.

A Brief History of Hong Kong

On August 31, the Standing Committee published its decision on the future of Hong Kong (H.K.)’s political system. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region’s political future had been in a state of limbo for almost the past twenty years due to treaties signed over a century ago.

In the nineteenth century, the Chinese Empire under the Qing Dynasty lost H.K. island after its defeat by the British Empire during the First and Second Opium Wars. During the Third Opium War, the British Empire won a 99 year lease over the “New Territories,” the large expanse of land in the Chinese mainland, north of H.K. Island.

By 1997 when the lease expired, H.K. had been transformed from a small fishing village to a global financial center. The Chinese government refused the United Kingdom’s attempt to extend its lease of the New Territories, and the U.K. was forced to transfer sovereignty of all its territories gained during the Opium Wars to the Chinese government.

The “Ultimate Aim” of Universal Suffrage

While sovereignty over H.K. was transferred, the style of rule was not. As a part of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the treaty that formalized the transfer, China agreed to govern H.K. using the “one-country two-systems” approach. While China retained sovereignty over H.K. and was able to appoint the head of government, it also agreed to adopt a British-based constitution, known as the Basic Law. Fortunately, this provided an independent judiciary, a free press and the right to assemble. Best of all, the Basic Law came with the implication that universal suffrage would eventually be granted:

The method for selecting the Chief Executive [the head of the government] shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress. The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures. emphasis added; Chap. 4, Art. 45

The implication that the “ultimate aim” is “universal suffrage” is a point of contention between the Chinese government, who wishes to maintain control over H.K., and most H.K. residents. Currently, the head of government and the majority of legislative seats are elected by a 1,200 member election committee, which are chosen by Chinese special-interest groups and political elites. In order to comply with the letter of the Basic Law, the Standing Committee proposed that while H.K. residents may have universal suffrage, the election committee would still control who became candidates.

These reforms have been criticized by pro-democracy advocates and international democracy monitors, since the Chinese government could still choose all of the candidates for head of government. This results in the mere illusion of suffrage: whomever is elected would still be beholden to the Chinese government for nominating them into office.

Organizers of the protest, from the left Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, Dr Benny Tai Yiu-ting, and Chan Kin-man at a press conference on 27 March 2013.


Seven weeks ago, advocates and citizens began to assemble, calling out for the resignation of the current head of government, C.Y. Leung, and for the disbanding of the election committee. The protests, led initially by student groups and Tai Yiu-ting, a law professor of the University of H.K., grew in size after the South China Morning Post had reported the police had used tear gas to disperse the protestors. An estimated 100,000 protestors participated during the October 28 march, and recent protest events have attracted hundreds of protestors.

The Real Reason Behind the Protests?

These protests have become the defining political event for H.K. in 2014. Why exactly the protests grew so large and has dominated the political discussion in H.K., is not so clear. While the electoral reforms made by the Standing Committee were clearly inadequate, it did represent a step towards universal suffrage, since the election committee would only nominate candidates, instead of directly electing them.

For many Hong Kongnese, however, these protests represent a method of causing political change that may lead to policies that favor wealth re-distribution. H.K. is now a plutocracy – the members of the 1,200 person election committee are business leaders and politically-connected individuals.  This committee sets the economic policies that H.K. follows, policies which usually benefit the upper class. H.K. has no tariffs, no taxes on investment gains (the primary source of income for very wealthy individuals) and an income tax that is capped at 20%. Compare this to the United States in 2013 where the highest tax bracket for the head of household was 39.6%.

Growth of a Plutocracy

In the 100 years after the Third Opium War, the British turned H.K. into a thriving financial center. Its position in southern China and its proximity to India meant that the goods of the British Empire, Indian opium and Lancashire textiles, first flowed through H.K. before arriving in Chinese markets. These factors meant that it became the bridge between China and the rest of the world. H.K. was a city where foreign policymakers and businesspeople could meet their Chinese counterparts.

H.K.’s status as the “bridge” quickly became apparent after the Chinese leadership decided to liberalize its economy during the 1980s, reforming its economic system from a planned to a capitalist economy. H.K. was the only city through which China could do business with the rest of the world. From the 1980s until the early 2000s, most of the wealth of China flowed through H.K., enriching many of its residents and forming China’s first group of economic elite.

Since the late 1990s, H.K.’s importance has diminished. Large cities in China, such as Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing, have attracted foreign investment and opportunities away from H.K.; while younger, cheaper cities, such as Shenzhen, are now where factories and manufacturing facilities are being built. H.K. college and high school graduates now must compete for the same jobs as other Chinese graduates. While an older generation was able to live comfortably in the middle class, many of the younger generation is finding this increasingly difficult.

Will the Protests Work?

File:Occupy Central with Love and Peace logo.svgIf the protestors achieve universal suffrage, then the power of H.K.’s elite will diminish. Lower to middle-class people and the politically un-connected will suddenly have the ability to fundamentally change how power is distributed in H.K. The non-elite can elect legislators and executives that would set taxation and spending policies in their favor: for instance, increasing the tax on the yield from investment vehicles and property, which most lower to middle class people don’t own, and spending that money on services that improve quality of life or access to education.

However, I think the protests are unlikely to succeed in the end. Senior officials in the H.K. government have leaked to the press that they plan to wait out the protests, which signals an expectation that the momentum from the protests will die out. Furthermore, the Chinese Communist Party, fearful that a successful democracy movement in H.K. could provide inspiration for a similar movement in the much more oppressive mainland China, is unlikely to yield to the protestors’ demands.

The protestors, however, do not seem to show any signs of leaving. In a recent Forbes article, a reporter spoke to several protestors at the occupy site. One protestor, a 26 year old media professional named Eric, came from a poor family who achieved a middle class life after living in H.K. for several years. Eric, however, was discovering that maintaining the same middle class life was becoming difficult: “[Y]ou can only get a good job if you know the right family or have a business connection,” he explained.

Why was he protesting?

“We have no hope. That’s why we’re here.”

Denzel Zhu (Rutgers University)
IMG_1463Denzel Zhu is a undergraduate microbial biotechnology and biochemistry student at Rutgers University. He currently is a research assistant under Dr. Paul R. Meers of the Department of Plant Biology and Pathology, and is an editor of the Rutgers Journal of Bioethics. His interests include political history, the history of science, graphic design, science writing and running. He plans on becoming a medical scientist after college.

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