Expert Commentary

Protests in Hong Kong: Research review on issues of freedom and democracy

2014 review of academic papers that help put the recent outbreak of civil disobedience and popular protests in Hong Kong into a deeper context.

When Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997, there were fears that the city’s residents, long accustomed to open media, free speech and frequent protests, would suddenly find themselves stifled by China’s heavy hand. Many things did change — in particular, Hong Kong’s elected legislature was abolished, replaced by an assembly of legislators appointed by Beijing — but in large part the city’s lively political and social life continued, enabled by the rights provided by the city’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China.

Among other things, Hong Kong isn’t behind China’s Great Firewall — in fact, Google moved its Chinese search engine to the city in 2011 to escape censorship. They also have considerable economic freedom, all part of the city’s role as a low-tax, free-trade zone within China. An implicit part of the exchange was that any serious requests for political representation were off the table — and up to now, the bargain has worked.

That changed in September 2014 when large-scale protests erupted, with tens of thousands taking to the city’s streets to demand open elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Following the hard line favored by Chinese president Xi Jinping, the city’s police used tear gas in an attempt to disperse protesters, but the result has been a marked increase in resistance. Images of Hong Kong students using the now-iconic “hands up” gesture — echoing protesters in Ferguson, Mo. — has show how an open media can enable images and ideas to quickly move around the world and take on new meanings.

Even before the current outburst of civil disobedience, China’s authorities had been slowly tightening their grip on the city’s media. The organization Reporters without Borders found that in 2014, Hong Kong’s press freedom had declined relative to earlier years. China has also been reaching beyond its borders in an attempt to control its image — for example, denying visas to reporters who were asking too many questions about high-level corruption. The country was even linked to apparent attacks on the New York Times website.

The following research papers can furnish deeper perspective on issues of autonomy, democracy and protest in Hong Kong.


“’One Country, Two Systems’ and Hong Kong-China National Integration: A Crisis-Transformation Perspective”
So, Alvin Y. Journal of Contemporary Asia, Vol. 41, Issue 1, 2011. doi: 10.1080/00472336.2011.530039.

Excerpt: “Tracing the various crises in Hong Kong over the past three decades, this paper has shown that the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy has transformed in two ways: either moving toward the direction of ‘One Country’ or moving toward the direction of ‘Two Systems.’ Over the past three decades, Hong Kong leaders and democrats were seen constantly negotiating and bargaining with Beijing to push the policy towards the direction of ‘Two Systems,’ while Beijing leaders were seen constantly adjusting their position towards the direction of ‘One Country.’ The various crises reported above can be seen as the socio-political dynamics that swing the pendulum back and forth between the two poles of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy. In the crises, actors struggle with each other to restore the delicate balance in the policy; none of them, however, wants to completely reject the framework of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy.”


“Generational Transmission of Collective Memory about Tiananmen in Hong Kong: How Young Rally Participants Learn about and Understand 4 June”
Lee, Francis L. F.; Chan, Joseph Man. Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 22, Issue 84, 2013. doi: 10.1080/10670564.2013.795311.

Abstract: “This article addresses the problem of generational transmission of collective memory in Hong Kong about the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident. It focuses on the young participants in the annual 4 June commemoration rallies and examines the process of mnemonic socialization that brought them into the community of 4 June commemoration. Drawing upon a rally onsite survey and in-depth interviews, this study found that many young people went through a dynamic process of gradual discovery in which various social institutions — school, family and media — played complementary roles. Their understanding of Tiananmen tended to be simplified and essentialized. Yet the loss of details through essentialization has arguably allowed them to uphold a clear-cut moral judgment regarding the event and dismiss certain memory-blurring discourses straightforwardly.”


“The Primacy of Local Interests and Press Freedom in Hong Kong: A Survey Study of Professional Journalists”
Chan, Joseph M. Journalism, 2011, Vol. 12, No. 1. doi: 10.1177/1464884910385189.

Abstract: “Premised on the argument that articulating, representing and defending local interests is one of the normative roles for the news media, this study examines what we call the primacy of local interests to the Hong Kong media and how concern with local interests relates to the politics of press freedom in the city. More specifically, on issues involving conflict of interests between the local society and its sovereign country, most Hong Kong media have demonstrated their willingness to stand by the local society even though it could mean a need to directly confront China. This study further draws on a representative journalist survey to illustrate how, in terms of Hong Kong journalists’ belief system, an orientation toward local interests is tied to liberal political attitudes, beliefs in the media’s adversarial role, and perceptions of media self-censorship. The analysis suggests how various kinds of attitudes and beliefs may cluster together to serve as an important force counteracting the pressure to conform to the power center. Implications of the findings and the generality of the notion of the primacy of local interests are discussed.”


The Development of Post-Modernist Social Movements in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region”
So, Alvin Y. In East Asian Social Movements, 2011, eds. J. Broadbent, V. Brockman, 365-378.

Abstract: “When Hong Kong was handed over to mainland China in 1997, its status changed from British colony to Chinese Special Administrative District. With this regime change, a surprisingly strong new post-modernist mode of social movement has emerged with distinct characteristics. Compared to previous forms of mobilization, this new type of movement relies more on media and social networks supported by information technology (Chan 2005, 1). It exhibits post-modernist qualities in its goals, participants, organization, strategies and patterns of mobilization. This paper argues that the July 1, 2003 protest, the largest indigenous social movement in Hong Kong history, and subsequent movements illustrate these post-modernist qualities and explain the conditions for their emergence.”


“Visualizing Protest Culture in China’s Hong Kong: Recent Tensions over Integration”
Garrett, Daniel. Visual Communication, 2013, 12:35. doi: 10.1177/1470357212447910.

Excerpt: “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People’s Republic of China was established on 1 July 1997 after more than 150 years of colonial rule by the U.K. Unlike the rest of China, the Hong Kong SAR exists within a special enclave created under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy where it enjoys limited democracy and many liberal freedoms such as freedom of speech and the press, and freedom to protest. Hong Kong also remains the only place within communist China where multi-party democratic elections, commemorations over the Tiananmen incident, and open protests for greater democracy and against the local and mainland governments can freely occur. So vibrant is Hong Kong’s protest culture that in the past it has been referred to as the ‘City of Protests.’ However, unlike many other places, demonstrations in the SAR are almost always nonviolent and non-aggressive. They are so placid, in fact, they are often a family affair as it is not uncommon to spot young children in the middle of a procession — on their parents’ shoulders, strapped to their chests or backs, or being pushed in a stroller adorned with slogans or signs.”


“The Perceptual Bases of Collective Efficacy and Protest Participation: The Case of Pro-Democracy Protests in Hong Kong”
Lee, Francis L.F. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 2010. doi: 10.1093/ijpor/edq023.

Abstract: “Political efficacy constitutes an important component in various rationalist social psychological models of protest participation which treated the latter as the result of cost-benefit calculations based on people’s existing beliefs, norms and values. This study attempts to contribute to this literature by further explicating the formation and influence of collective efficacy on protest participation. Collective efficacy refers to an individual’s perception of whether a collective actor to which the individual belongs is capable of achieving desired outcomes. Theoretically, collective efficacy is treated as a form of cognitive judgments people make by drawing upon and integrating existing information, observations and perceptions. The empirical analysis, which focuses on a recent wave of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, illustrates how people’s perceptions of the political environment contribute to the formation of collective efficacy beliefs. The analysis also examines whether perceptions of the possibility of movement success would mediate and moderate the impact of collective efficacy on protest participation. The results provide an elaboration of the distinctiveness of collective efficacy and its role in protest mobilization.”


“The Role of a Political Interest Group in Democratization of China and Hong Kong: the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China”
Lo, Sonny Shiu-Hing. Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 22, Issue 84, 2013. doi: 10.1080/10670564.2013.795308.

Abstract: “The Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China (HKASPDM) is a cross-border political interest group advocating for democratization in both mainland China and Hong Kong. It was involved in the bold rescue of mainland democrats out of the PRC shortly after the June 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; it constantly exerts pressure on the PRC government to release its political prisoners; it has been influencing the Hong Kong government on the scope and pace of democratization; it communicates with and subsidizes overseas Chinese groups supportive of democratic reforms in China; it is persistently educating the younger generations of Hong Kong and most importantly mainland visitors to Hong Kong on the 1989 Tiananmen tragedy; and its supporters have attempted to cross the border of Hong Kong to Macao to influence the policy of the Chinese government toward political prisoners. As a political interest group based in Hong Kong with cross-border influences on both the mainland and Macao, the Alliance has been making full use of the available political space and freedom of assembly in Hong Kong to achieve their ultimate objective of having a ‘democratic China.’ Its existence in the HKSAR is an indication of a certain degree of political tolerance by both the Hong Kong government and Beijing, which have to be very careful of the need to maintain an image of the feasible formula of ‘one country, two systems’ in Hong Kong.”


Remaking Chinese Identity: Hegemonic Struggles over National Education in Post-colonial Hong Kong”
Tse, Thomas Kwan Choi. International Studies in Sociology of Education. Vol. 17, Issue 3, 2007. doi: 10.1080/09620210701543908.

Excerpt: “Nationalism is one of the powerful ideologies of modern times and also one of the most crucial building blocks of hegemony. With the national education project of post-colonial Hong Kong as a case study, this article has illustrated its cultural politics at work. The advocacy for national or patriotic education made by the pro-Beijing camp was backed up with the provision of resources, administrative support and the publicity machine of the central and local Governments. With official endorsement and support from the state, the national education discourse and practices have dominated other alternatives. The primary use of ethno-cultural Chinese nationalism seems to have some effect in enhancing their political identification with the PRC, sometimes in a subtle and implicit way. The general public and many young people have become less resistant to national education and Hong Kong’s integration with China as time has gone on.”


Keywords: Asia, China, popular protest, resistance movements, democratization, censorship, Great Firewall, research roundup, Tiananmen Square massacre, June 4, 1989

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