Are The Protesters Really Speaking For The People?


Eric X. Li criticizes Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests for going after the wrong target, arguing that the territory is more democratic today than ever before and that economic stagnation and inequality are the public’s real concerns:

Empirical data demonstrates the nature of public discontent, and it is fundamentally different from what is being portrayed by the protesting activists. Over the past several years, polling conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong has consistently shown that well over 80 percent of Hong Kongers’ top concerns are livelihood and economic issues, with those who are concerned with political problems in the low double digits at the most.

When the Occupy Central movement was gathering steam over the summer, the protesters garnered 800,000 votes in an unofficial poll supporting the movement. Yet less than two months later an anti-Occupy campaign collected 1.3 million signatures (from Hong Kong’s 7 million population) opposing the movement. The same University of Hong Kong program has conducted five public opinion surveys since April 2013, when protesters first began to create the movement. All but one showed that more than half of Hong Kongers opposed it, and support was in the low double digits.

But Alvin Y.H. Cheung emphasizes that the movement is about much more than the economy:

Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.”  Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests. …

The Umbrella Revolution is the result of this. It is a warning of the comprehensive breakdown of confidence in Hong Kong’s governing institutions – it reflects growing public disillusion with the institutional means of making their voices heard.  The momentum of the protests reflects that disenchantment.

Meanwhile, Christian Caryl wonders why the protest leaders’ Christianity hasn’t gotten more press:

This is myopic. In its origins, Christianity is a product of the Middle East, making it just as “western” as Judaism and Islam. Modern-day Christianity is thoroughly global. The Catholic Church may have its headquarters in Rome, but nowadays the vast majority of Catholics live outside of Europe and North America. Evangelical Protestantism is expanding rapidly in Latin America and Africa — and Christians there see themselves as servants of God, not as “agents of the West.”

The same goes for China. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number of Protestant Christians in China at 58 million in 2010 — greater than the number in Brazil (40 million). The scholar Fenggang Yang calculates that China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian country by 2025. Western journalists may not be paying much attention, but that’s one mistake the Chinese Communist Party isn’t about to make. The Party regards religion, and Christianity in particular, as its greatest rival. It’s probably right to do so.

Peter Rutland scrutinizes the movement through the lens of nationalism and identity politics:

Since Hong Kong joined the People’s Republic 17 years ago, young people have been taught Mandarin in school (in contrast to the Cantonese spoken by most residents of Hong Kong) and have had much more direct exposure to Mainlanders, who travel to Hong Kong as tourists in huge numbers. This experience seems to be reinforcing the sense that Hong Kong citizens have a distinct identity and not just a different political system. In recent years polling data have shown a steady rise among those who see themselves first and foremost as “Hong Kong citizens” rather than as Chinese. As one demonstrator, Ashley Au, recently told a journalist: “We don’t feel like we’re a part of China, and I don’t feel Chinese.” This fact is now colliding with frustration over Beijing’s efforts to tamp down the space for political participation.

And Anne Applebaum mulls Beijing’s impulse to paint the protests as part of an American conspiracy:

To the truly authoritarian mind, “spontaneity” is impossible. The state can and should control all organizations. There is no such thing as a self-organized crowd. If people are sleeping in tents in Hong Kong’s central business district or Kiev’s Maidan, somebody must be paying them and directing them, and if it isn’t our state, then it must be someone else’s. I don’t know whether those who talk like this necessarily believe it (for the record, I’m guessing Vladimir Putin does but Hong Kong’s leaders don’t). The vision of foreign conspiracy is self-serving: If there is a foreign power directing the protest, then the government can legitimately destroy it. The conspiracy narrative has an explanatory purpose, too. If the Hong Kong protests are an American plot, then mainland Chinese can safely ignore it.

Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.

(Photo: A pro-democracy protester takes part in a protest in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on October 6, 2014. Exhausted demonstrators debated the next step in their pro-democracy campaign as their numbers dwindled after a week of rallies, and the city returned to work despite road closures and traffic gridlock. By Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)