Tuesday marked Hong Kong’s annual democracy march. The march takes place each year on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s July 1, 1997 return to Chinese rule. Some form of protest has taken place every year since 1998, but the marches gained fame in 2003, when hundred of thousands joined in to protest plans for a new anti-subversion law known as Article 23.
This year’s July 1 rally and march has attracted special attention because of its connection to demands by some Hongkongers for universal suffrage in the 2017 elections. In particular, the Occupy Central movement pledged to use the July 1 rally as a jumping off point for a sit-in protest in Hong Kong’s Central district. Earlier this month, Occupy Central sponsored an unofficial referendum on different proposals for future Hong Kong elections. Reports indicate that close to 800,000 Hongkongers participated in the referendum, with over 87 percent saying that Hong Kong should reject any set-up for future elections that doesn’t conform to international standards for democracy.
Estimates on the number of people who joined the July 1 march varied widely, as always. Police estimated the number of marchers at 92,000, according to South China Morning Post, while Bloomberg cited the protest organizers as saying at least 300,000 had participated. Meanwhile, the New York Times said that the march “appeared to rival in size” the historic 2003 march, which attracted 350,000 according to police estimates and 500,000 according to the protest organizers. SCMP reported that it took over seven hours for the entire march to proceed from Victoria Park to Admiralty, a distance of about four kilometers.
So far, the rally and ensuing march have remained largely peaceful, dispelling concerns that the protestors would turn violent (or that Beijing would crack down hard on the march). However, a small group of protestors, mostly students, has promised to camp out in Hong Kong’s Central district until Wednesday morning. A police spokesperson remained concerned about the possibility of chaos at the tail end of the march, where most of the more radical groups were gathered. The spokesperson promised that police would “take action decisively” if the protests began to pose a “threat to public safety and order.”
The protestors in Hong Kong are likely buoyed by the fact that previous mass movements have proved successful in preventing or at least delaying controversial government policies. The famous march in 2003 was largely a reaction to the proposed Article 23, an anti-subversion and national security law that many Hongkongers feared would effectively destroy their freedom of speech. After hundreds of thousands turned out for the July 1, 2003 marches, the Hong Kong government sidelined Article 23, effectively giving in to the protestors’ demands.
More recently, in 2012 demonstrations against a plan for mandatory “moral and national education” in Hong Kong schools helped force the Hong Kong government to soften the policy. Hongkongers had been concerned that the “national education” movement was thinly veiled pro-Beijing propaganda; opponents of the program called it a form of “brainwashing.” After the protests, Hong Kong once again backed down, removing a 2015 deadline for all schools to begin teaching the material.
The major problem today is that Hongkonger’s demand for universal suffrage, and for the ability to directly nominate candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive, will be decided not by the Hong Kong government, but by Beijing. As was made abundantly clear in the recent white paper on Hong Kong and the “one country, two systems” policy, Beijing (specifically, the National People’s Congress Standing Committee) claims “the power of decision on revising the selection methods of the chief executive and the Legislative Council.” And the white paper also left no room for doubt that Beijing continues to insist that all candidates for Hong Kong’s chief executive must be vetted in advance to ensure that they love both Hong Kong and mainland China.
The white paper, with its firm claim to ultimate control over Hong Kong, has only further inflamed anger among Hong Kong residents. Many of the protestors interviewed by New York Times and Bloomberg specifically cited the white paper as their motivation for joining the July 1 march. But in this case, public anger is unlikely to do any good. While there was room for compromise on issues like national education and Article 23, Beijing does not consider its interpretation of “one country, two systems” to be negotiable.
That’s not to say that the protests are worthless, of course. As J. Michael Cole recently pointed out, using the example of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement, actually forcing policy change is only one measure of success for a protest movement. There are also other forms of success, including gaining media attention (both domestically and abroad) and simply keeping an issue alive in the public consciousness. Occupy Central and the July 1 march have done well on both those fronts. They have also been more successful than previous movements at attracting a sizeable proportion of young participants, who increasingly claim a distinct Hong Kong identity for themselves. If nothing else, the protests are useful in nurturing and shaping the expression of this identity, which helps combat the the deep-seated fear that the region will eventually lose its uniqueness and be entirely subsumed into mainland China.