Liau Chung-ren / Reuters

Hong Kong: Why are the protests happening?

Al Jazeera has compiled this explainer to understand the basic issues of what is happening there now and why

Ten of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong to demand open elections in the semi-autonomous city. China took control of Hong Kong in 1997 after 156 years of British rule and agreed to implement a policy known as “one country, two systems,” which allowed the region to keep control of much of its own affairs through a separate legislature, executive and judiciary. Al Jazeera has compiled this explainer to understand the basic issues of what underlies the historic protests.

Why are there protests? 

The demonstrations center around the nomination of candidates for Hong Kong’s first-ever elections to select a chief executive. Earlier this year, China endorsed the 2017 vote, but rejected calls to allow citizens the ability to directly nominate the candidates. China, instead, said that candidates would be picked by a pro-Beijing committee made up of 1,200 members — a decision some pro-democracy commentators said would render the vote “meaningless.” The decision is something protesters view as a violation of the city’s constitution, or “Basic Law,” which says Hong Kong would ultimately get “universal suffrage.”

The protests aren't just political; they're also economic and cultural. Hong Kong has a wealth inequality gap greater than some sub-Saharan African countries, and many feel that government policies are disproportionately benefiting the elite. A more democratic government, activists say, could hold politicians more accountable. Cultural differences also play a role. Recent campaigns against mainland Chinese people, which refer to Hong Kong's northern neighbors as "locusts," have highlighted local anger toward mainland Chinese people for pushing up property values, buying up the region's baby formula and generally being seen as not having acceptable manners.

Who are the protesters? 

The pro-democracy activists are diverse group, from high-school aged activists to the elderly. A significant number of the protest leaders are young — one leading voice, Joshua Wong, is only 17 years old. While student demonstrators jumpstarted the protests with a boycott of their classes last week, organizers also include a group called Occupy Central with Love and Peace as well as university professors and a set of pro-democracy lawmakers.

The protesters, angered by income inequality and China’s growing influence on Hong Kong’s affairs, came out by the tens of thousands on Saturday. “We don’t want everyone else to decide our future; we want the right to decide our future for this generation and the next generation,” 28-year-old teacher Jo Tai told The Associated Press on Saturday as she was preparing to be arrested.

What do the protesters want? 

The protesters are calling for universal suffrage, including the ability to select their own election candidates, and some want current Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, also known as C.Y. Leung, who has close ties to Beijing and has been calling for a halt to the protests, to step down because they say he doesn’t adequately represent them.

Leung has called on the protests to stop, making an appeal on behalf of Hong Kong’s image and stability. He said in August that Beijing’s decision to subject candidates to the approval process a “major step forward in the development of Hong Kong’s society.”

What is the opinion of residents of Hong Kong?

Polls from last week indicate that more residents oppose the demonstrations than support it. According to an opinion survey from the Chinese University of Hong Kong, 46 percent of Hong Kongers do not support the pro-democracy protest movement while 31 percent do support it. Hong Kong's youth, however, are much more likely to back the movement; 47 percent under 24 support it compared to about 21 percent of those between the ages of 40 and 59.

Pro-Beijing groups and many business representatives say the protest movement could pose problems for Hong Kong, including harming its reputation as a safe business environment, which would hurt its economy. 

Public opinion polls undertaken by Hong Kong University in September 2014 reveal that their is widespread fears over the future of Hong Kong's governance. Over 47 percent of Hong Kongers said they were “not confident in Hong Kong’s future” and over 56 percent were “not confident in 'own country, two systems.'”

What are the calculations for Beijing’s leadership? 

China endorsed the response by the Hong Kong government, which has included tear gas and riot police. The Associated Press pointed out that since current Chinese President Xi Jinping took office in 2013, China has increased constraints on dissent and put in place tougher prison sentences on activists seen as a threat to Communist Party rule. China may be worried that protests in Hong Kong could embolden other anti-Beijing movements. Carl Minzner, an expert on Chinese law and governance and professor at Fordham University, says the risk of a heavy-handed intervention by Chinese forces is heightened given the difficulty of a compromise Beijing would consider “politically acceptable” and “still satisfy the demands of the protesters.” 

Is China’s stance legal under the “Basic Law?” 

The Basic Law states only that "The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures." And as Minzer pointed out, in 2007 the Chinese government specified that the "election of the fifth Chief Executive of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region in the year 2017 may be implemented by the method of universal suffrage." Chinese authorities argue, Minzer said, that their announced plan technically fulfills those promises, though many protesters reject the notion. Quoting Wang Zhenmin, dean of the Tsinghua University law school, Minzer said, "As long as every person is guaranteed to have the right to vote at the second stage, that is universal suffrage."


Related News

China, Hong Kong

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter


China, Hong Kong

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter