Protests in Hong Kong hit home for exchange, study abroad students at SU

The Umbrella Movement began in Hong Kong in late September, as a response to changes to the electoral process there.

Tying yellow ribbons on the street fences in Hong Kong as a symbol of democracy, student activists launched the Umbrella Movement in late September to fight for the universal suffrage in the district. This protest movement now has continued for more than one month.

Activists began protesting outside the government headquarters in Admiralty, Hong Kong, after China's Standing Committee announced changes to the electoral process that will affect the 2017 chief executive election in Hong Kong. This revealed that the Beijing government will have the authority to disapprove whichever official is elected by the 1200-member committee in Hong Kong. In addition to demonstrations outside the government headquarters, protesters, who are primarily college students and members from Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism, have occupied several major city central districts in Hong Kong.

“The gap between wealthy and poor is growing." -- Terry Lautz

Through a cultural exchange between Syracuse University and Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement hits home for some SU students. Many students from China and Hong Kong study in Syracuse, for example, and any SU student may study abroad at the City University of Hong Kong through SU Abroad’s Hong Kong Center.

Tristan Ruzic, a marketing and entrepreneurship and emerging enterprises junior, is studying abroad at the City University of Hong Kong this semester. Located in Kowloon, the university is not at the heart of the protest movement, she said in an email, but a few of the movement leaders teach at the university. These leaders have organized some rallies and sit-in discussions on campus, said Ruzic, who is from Newtown, Penn.

Although she said she isn’t strongly affected by the protests at City University, she thinks the protestors are doing great things. She compared the protests to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the U.S.

“It's important to stand up for something, even if they know the results will not be favorable,” she said. “If they sit back and just accept things as they are, nothing will ever be changed.”

The democracy issue in question in Hong Kong stems, in part, from a complicated relationship with China. Since China took over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong has belonged to China but maintained its own political system and independent legal, economic and financial affairs, including external relations with foreign countries. This is known as “One Country, Two Systems.” The Chinese government’s recent decision states that for the 2017 election, the government in Beijing will select an election committee of 1,200 Hong Kong citizens, who will in turn nominate two to three candidates for the chief executive, in accordance with democratic procedure. All eligible voters in the region then have the right to select one of the candidates. But only the Central People's Government in mainland China may appoint the chief executive in the end.

“The protestors are objecting to the idea that these 1,200 members will be decided by the Beijing’s government, which is not a completely open election,” said Terry Lautz, Moynihan Research Fellow and Interim Director of East Asia Program at SU. “The candidates for chief executive would not necessarily represent Hong Kong.”

In the past, Hong Kong citizens did not have the right to select their own leader under Britain’s control, but there were a few protests in Hong Kong. Dimitar Gueorguiev, assistant professor of Chinese Politics at SU, said this prompted criticism made in mainland China in the last several weeks as to why Hong Kong people now are pursuing an open election.

Wang Li, an exchange student from City University of Hong Kong who is studying at SU this semester, said he also is critical of the students’ actions. Holding rallies and occupying central districts in Hong Kong constantly is not necessary, he said.  “In this way, they will hardly achieve their goals but hurt themselves and the relationship with mainland China,” he said.

But I appreciate their courage and persistence,” he added.

Although students are dissatisfied with the decision, they are maintaining composure and patience during the protest, he said. If people look closely at the protest, Li said, it is clear that standoff between students and the government is quite different from other protests in China. This movement ought to be commended because such a relatively peaceful and disciplined protest is rare in the history of China, he said.

However, Weiran Liu, a junior from Beijing, China, said she was concerned about conditions in the protests after reading some news stories from BBC.

“Protestors believe their human rights are violated because of the electoral reform, so they launch the Umbrella Movement,” said Liu, an internationals relation and television, radio and film junior. “This action caused a serious tension between protesters and Beijing government.”

However, universal suffrage is not the only reason for the protests. Gueorguiev said the protestors are also worrying about their future, given that Hong Kong’s economy is heavily dependable on mainland China.

“There is something going on in Hong Kong, which is not entirely political. It is socially economics,” he said. “The fact that inequality in China and Hong Kong is growing, and a lot of people, especially young people, do not have the same opportunities as their parents had under Britain’s control.”

Young people do not have the same opportunities to open small stores, to run their own businesses or to fulfill their ambitions in the same way their parents could, Gueorguiev explained.

“The gap between wealthy and poor is growing. Young people express concern about their ability to find jobs, to buy an apartment in the future. They worry they will not have a good life in the future. I think they have serious economic concerns,” Lautz added.

Similarly, Nan Ding, a senior from Shanghai, China, said she sees economics and politics as factors in the protests. “In order to control the economy, Beijing government has given Hong Kong people too many rights, so the rich class is controlling the lifeblood of Hong Kong economy,” she said. “Gradually, lower class people have become dissatisfied with their life qualities and argued for democracy.” 

Recently, the leaders of the protest have asked the Beijing government to change the decision on the executive chief election process. As of yet, the Beijing government has not had a dramatic reaction to the movement, Gueorguiev said.

In addition, it is not clear how much this movement will affect Hong Kong. But in a longer term, Lautz said, this protest may destabilize the Hong Kong government.

“I hope the government and protestors continue to dialogue to find a small room for negotiations, he said.

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