The recent uprising in Hong Kong over civil liberties and political representation stands as one of the most important social movements of this century. Although the protests in downtown Hong Kong began in September over governmental constraints, they are not entirely political. Citizens of Hong Kong have expressed frustration with economic inequalities and strains on local cultures as well. This movement is about something larger than just a more politically-free Hong Kong. The words behind the massive Hong Kong sit-ins are evidence of a shift toward a more democratic and independent set of ideals.
In 1997, the People’s Republic of China welcomed Hong Kong back into its national borders with open arms. After 100 years of being leased to Britain, the semi-autonomous Hong Kong region became part of its mainland relative. Leadership in Beijing promised that open elections would be granted to the people of Hong Kong in 2017. However, in August of this year it was announced that the 2017 candidates would be evaluated by Beijing government officials before the citizens of Hong Kong can vote.
From an American point of view, it is understandable that this created a buzz in Hong Kong, especially among the younger populations. Many “baby boomers” can recall the free speech movement in Berkeley, California or the civil rights marches in the South during the politically heated 1960s. But in the United States, the rights to free speech and the democratic process are inalienable; they need not be fought for—merely reenforced. Hong Kong is fighting for these freedoms Americans take for granted. Protestors in Hong Kong are opposing a fundamental component of Chinese leadership: its socialist ideals.
Economic reforms are at the heart of much of this change in Hong Kong. Many of the economic powerhouses of Southeast Asia have adopted neoliberal policies that include free markets, incentives for trade and the removal of government spending. But with the rise of economic prosperity, equal distribution of wealth has lagged behind. In Hong Kong, the inequality gap has been among the largest in the world and the people are starting to fight it. Reminiscent of the Occupy movement of 2011 in the United States, students have protested in the streets of Hong Kong for weeks. But these students are making a statement that is larger than just asking for equality and democracy; they are rejecting the communist rule of China.
As an economic powerhouse with an emerging political presence, China cannot quell these movements as easily as it once did. The movement has achieved its aim in forcing China to reconsider its stringent social policies, and it has also done something more. It has dealt another blow to the still-crumbling ideologies of communism and the legacy of the 20th century socialists. Twenty five years removed from the infamous killing of protesters in Beijing, it appears Hong Kong is ready to embrace a new set of expanded freedoms, despite the cost.