The massive civil disobedience campaign currently gripping Hong Kong is the largest show of resistance against the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) since 1989. 25 years ago, tanks rolled into Beijing, killing hundreds — some say thousands — of unarmed pro-democracy protestors occupying Tiananmen Square, the historic and symbolic heart of China. The human cost of the Tiananmen Massacre has had incalculable negative consequences on Chinese society that continue today. If it were not for Hong Kong’s status as a global city, or for the attention of international media, many believe that the Chinese army would have already moved in. That certainly would have been the case if Hong Kong were an isolated region, such as Tibet or Inner Mongolia, where foreign journalists, like the most of China, are banned.
Hong Kong, a former British colony that enjoys protected rights such as free speech and religious freedom, unique from the rest China, was promised the ability to elect its own leader as part of its “handover” in 1997. With a free press, a strong sense of law and free flowing capital, Hong Kong has been an incredibly successful experiment in neoliberalism. However, in the span of a year, a notoriously apolitical city has suddenly become political. This culminated last Sunday with the start of an unprecedented civil disobedience movement that is currently shutting down large swathes of the city until it is given true democracy. Its scale and direct confrontation with the CCP is historic.
The Umbrella Revolution — named after the now ubiquitous umbrellas used by protestors to defend themselves against tear gas and pepper spray — quickly became a popular movement just weeks after the CCP confirmed it would not be giving Hong Kong real democracy in 2017. The organizers, Christians (including a Catholic Cardinal) who now share a celebrated lineage of Christian civil disobedience leaders, had long threatened to bring the city to a standstill after all moderate avenues of discussion and compromise were ignored by the CCP. This movement was not created in a vacuum, but instead borrows from a rich and continuously growing tradition of peaceful civil disobedience around the world. Non-violent civil disobedience has proved itself successful in tackling seemingly insurmountable injustices with MLK, Gandhi and Mandela. It is also a tradition that is continuously maturing. Protestors in Hong Kong have learned to treat pepper spray with milk from protestors in Gaza and Palestine. They have adopted the powerful symbol of raising one’s arms while engaging riot police from Ferguson, Missouri. In a year where separatist movements in Ukraine and Syria have used terrible violence for their own gain, non-violence is once again demonstratively more apt for a civilized and educated world.
The Umbrella Revolution is not an isolated reaction only spurred by the CCP’s refusal to give Hong Kongers the democracy they promised. It is a David versus Goliath moment responding to years of increasing injustice. In the past seventeen years of Chinese rule, Hong Kongers have seen their freedoms and unique way of life helplessly eroded. Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous government is no longer made out of people chosen for their ability, but simply on their adherence to the Communist Party. A small, vested elite holds responsibility over the biggest economic inequality gap in the world and for driving up property prices to unattainable heights. Hong Kong’s once-celebrated freedom of press has plummeted in the past year, with newspapers rife with self-censorship and intimidation. The societal cost has been extreme, and until the Umbrella Revolution started on a Sunday morning, hope for the city’s future society had been reduced to almost nothing with one in five citizens considering emigrating. The vast majority Hong Kongers are people whose great-grandparents had fled from the terrors of Communist China: Hong Kongers are afraid that these terrors are now coming to them.
However, peaceful civil disobedience has suddenly given Hong Kongers an unexpected new hope. Through sheer numbers, — reportedly in the hundreds of thousands — and a persistent dedication to non-violence, Hong Kong’s citizens have discovered a surprising leverage against the world’s most powerful political party without the use of deceit or blood.
With the city — a global financial hub — essentially shut down with a great cost to their economy, China is now faced with two very uneasy choices. They can fulfill their legal promise of democracy to Hong Kongers, inevitably ushering China into an era of reform and greater freedoms. With many speculating China’s economy to overtake America’s in the next decade and one in seven people Chinese, the positive ramifications of a Chinese social renaissance could very well affect billions of lives. Or they could squander this rare opportunity and face the repercussions of another violent crackdown for another 25 years.