FPI Fact Sheet on Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution”

October 7, 2014

Hong Kong protesters lifted their sit-in around the government’s headquarters building this week and plan to begin formal talks in the coming days. Though the crowd size has dwindled to a few thousand people from last week’s estimated highs of 200,000, Hong Kong’s struggle to maintain its unique political and legal culture against mainland encroachment continues.

The Foreign Policy Initiative is closely monitoring the situation in Hong Kong, and believes the following fact sheet will be helpful for policymakers, lawmakers, and the general public to understand the rapidly changing events in the city.

I.  Key Background on Hong Kong’s Enduring Fight for Democracy

  • Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, is ruled by China under a policy that former Chinese ruler Deng Xiaoping called “one country, two systems.” This approach grants Hong Kong basic civil liberties that the mainland lacks. According to its constitutional document, known as the Basic Law, Hong Kong can “exercise a high degree of autonomy and enjoy executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication.”
  • Currently, a committee loyal to Beijing appoints Hong Kong’s chief executive, but the regime promised in 2007 to change this policy in accordance with the Basic Law, which calls universal suffrage the “ultimate aim.” As The New York Times reported, “The current chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, was elected in 2012 with 689 votes from an election committee of fewer than 1,200 people. In 2007, the People’s Congress ruled that in 2017, the chief executive could be chosen by universal suffrage—one person, one vote.”
  • In January 2013, University of Hong Kong law professor Benny Tai founded a civil disobedience movement demanding universal suffrage in accordance with Beijing’s 2007 pledge. The manifesto of the group, Occupy Central with Love and Peace (OCLP), states, “The electoral system of Hong Kong must satisfy the international standards in relation to universal suffrage. They consist of the political rights to equal number of vote, equal weight for each vote and no unreasonable restrictions on the right to stand for election.”
  • In June 2013, nearly 800,000 Hong Kong residents—more than a fifth of the territory’s 3.5 million registered voters—participated in an informal referendum calling for universal suffrage. As The New York Times reported, “an overwhelming majority of participants wants Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to reject any electoral reform proposal from the government that does not meet the international standards demanded by pro-democratic groups.”
  • In August 2014, Beijing announced that the same committee responsible for appointing Hong Kong’s current leaders would, in future elections, select two or three candidates for consideration in a popular vote. Beijing’s approach would effectively ensure the selection only of regime loyalists. Benny Tai compared the new process to the way Iran selects its president.
  • Pro-democracy officials in Hong Kong have the ability to block the Chinese government’s decision. As The New York Times reported on September 22, “The 27 pro-democracy members of the 70-member Legislative Council have the power to veto any election changes, if they remain united. Chinese officials, however, have said the election plan is all or nothing, and a veto would also foreclose the possibility of electing the chief executive by popular vote.”

II.  Key Background on the Demonstrations

  • In the aftermath of Beijing’s repressive decision, the people of Hong Kong responded with massive protests. Protests began on September 22, when Hong Kong college students boycotted class to rally against the Chinese government’s decision. Approximately 13,000 of the city’s 78,000 undergraduates attended the demonstration.  As OCLP said in a statement in early September, “We Hongkongers won’t accept failure in our road to democracy.”
  • Hong Kong protesters represent a broad segment of the territory’s society.  Maria Stephan, a Senior Policy Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, wrote in Foreign Policy October 6:  “The mass protests in Hong Kong have featured tens of thousands—maybe even hundreds of thousands—of participants, spanning young and old, men and women, Christian, Taoist and Buddhist, white and blue collar workers.” Organizers have ranged from Occupy Central leader Benny Tai, to church leaders, and even a 17-year old high school student.

  • The size of the pro-democracy demonstrations grew dramatically last week. Organizers estimated that as many as 80,000 demonstrators participated in protests in and around the city’s government headquarters on September 29. However, by October 2, as many as 200,000 reportedly took to the streets.
  • Hong Kong residents support the goals of the protesters. An April 2014 survey from the Hong Kong Transition Project found, “Support for directly electing the Chief Executive is at the highest level ever recorded,  with  89% supporting, 6% opposed.” Also, according to a September 2014 poll from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, “While 54 percent of Hong Kong’s Cantonese-speaking residents said the city’s Legislative Council should veto electoral changes if they excluded candidates whose political positions differed from the Chinese government’s, that percentage went up to 76 among people ages 15 to 24.”
  • Mainland China has forcefully responded to the protests. Beijing has censored words associated with the Hong Kong protests on Chinese search engines, attempted to hack the phones of protesters to monitor their communications, and imprisoned mainland supporters of the pro-democracy demonstrators.

III.  U.S. Policy toward Hong Kong

  • In 1992, Congress passed the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act, which makes America legally obligated to support the city’s democratization. As the legislation states, “Support for democratization is a fundamental principle of United States foreign policy. As such, it naturally applies to United States policy toward Hong Kong.”
  • The United States and Hong Kong maintain a robust economic partnership. According to a State Department fact sheet, “The United States enjoys substantial economic and social ties with Hong Kong. U.S. companies have a generally favorable view of Hong Kong's business environment, including its legal system and the free flow of information, low taxation, and infrastructure. There are some 1,400 U.S. firms, including 822 regional operations (316 regional headquarters and 506 regional offices), and over 60,000 American residents in Hong Kong.”
  • The Obama administration response to the current Hong Kong protests has been called “gallilngly timid” by the Washington Post. While the White House did issue a statement expressing support for Hong Kong’s protests against Beijing, it has largely disengaged from the issue. The United States should speak out in support of democracy for Hong Kong at every opportunity and rally international partners to pressure Beijing to reverse its repressive policies.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
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