Sunday, September 28, 2014

One Country

Earlier this year, the Chinese government decided that from now on, candidates for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive would have to be pre-approved in Beijing. This outraged more than a few people in Hong Kong, even though the Chief Executive has never been elected by the people. He is elected by a committee of people who are appointed and elected by other committees, almost like the American Electoral College.

A lot of people have been trying to get democratic elections in Hong Kong for some time now, and this new policy only makes that pretty much impossible. Previous Chief Executives could have theoretically been in favor of democracy and tried to pull Hong Kong away from China. Now that Beijing has to approve all candidates, that is far less likely to ever happen.

People are supposedly going to be able to vote directly for candidates in 2017, but all of those candidates have to be selected by Beijing. So China is giving Hong Kong the right to vote, but not the right to vote for whoever they want.

The protests started pretty much right away, but they were small in the beginning. Chinese people are used to being told what to do by their government and it takes a while for any indignation to set in. But Hong Kong has freedom unlike any other Chinese city, and the people of Hong Kong are very sensitive when it comes to China trying to take any of that freedom away.

After about a week of student protests, it all came together on Friday. Student groups and other protesters set up camp outside the Central Government office on Connaught Road and vowed to stay there until their demands were met. Barricades and temporary fences were set up to keep the protesters from interfering with business as usual. That did not last long. When more people showed up on Saturday, Hong Kong police came out in full force with riot gear and rubber bullets.

This only enraged the protesters more, and probably made more moderate Hong Kongers sympathetic to the protests. Someone is always protesting something in Hong Kong, but riot police on the streets are a very rare sight.

By Sunday, there were far more people. I don’t know how many people filled the streets, and I’m sure each side will claim a different number. The protesting groups will aim too high while the government aims too low. But there were a lot of people on the streets outside those government offices and the thought of them shutting down the city on Monday led the police to action.

No one expected the tear gas. This is Hong Kong, after all, not Missouri. That only outraged people even more. Hong Kong police generally keep their distance when people protest. This new active role has a lot of people wondering if this is the shape of things to come.

I had to work Saturday night and Sunday during the day, so I could not go and check it all out until Sunday night. I got there after the tear gas incident, so I never saw any of that. What I saw was a very large crowd of people completely covering the street. Connaught Road is pretty big and there are wide open spaces in front of the government buildings. It was all filled with people.

What struck me was how civilized it all was. If this was any city in the United States, there would be a lot of bodies on the ground right about now. Protesters were chanting, but no one seemed to hold any animosity toward the police. The protests were against the government in Beijing, not the police officers from Hong Kong. Likewise, the police were exceptionally restrained considering how many people were out there. The police were seriously outnumbered by the protesters, yet none of them panicked and started shooting, American style. I don’t think anyone even had any guns without rubber bullets. Hong Kong riot police seem to operate on the belief that people will generally obey the law. This is a highly unusual city.

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