Stocks have been on a rollercoaster ride recently, and geopolitical events aren’t helping. Last week it was the campaign against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. On Monday it was Hong Kong, where demonstrators are demanding that future elections be free from Beijing’s interference.
Here’s what you need to know about the movement, commonly referred to as Occupy Central.
The thousands of demonstrators — mostly students — don’t want Bejing to vet their political candidates. Hong Kong was slated to gain universal suffrage and hold its first fully democratic election for chief executive in 2017.
Chinese president Xi Jinping reportedly reasserted his stance on the issue in a meeting with business leaders from the region. Protesters began gathering in Hong Kong’s business district Wednesday, clogging roads, closing schools and businesses and canceling civic events.
What’s the history behind it?
Hong Kong used to be a British territory, returning to Chinese control in 1997. A document called Basic Law was ratified during the transition, guaranteeing certain freedoms and eventually democratic elections to Hong Kong under the ethos “one country, two systems.”
“There are things you can talk about, there are books you can buy in Hong Kong, even though it’s part of the People’s Republic of China, that are off limits in other parts of the People’s Republic of China,” says Jeff Wasserstrom, who studies protest movements in China.
This isn’t the first time Hong Kong has pushed back against policies from mainland China to keep their semi-autonomy. New national security laws and education efforts have been points of protest, and Hong Kong is still the only place where people can legally hold vigils for the 1989 massacre near Tiananmen Square.
What’s Hong Kong’s role in the economy?
Hong Kong has freer capital flows than mainland China, as well as more financial regulations and legal freedoms. All that is attractive to businesses.
“On the surface, Hong Kong’s economy is tiny,” says IHS chief economist Nariman Behravesh. “But … you’ve got a lot of Western banks having big operations there. You’ve got a lot of Chinese banks. So Hong Kong plays a very important role financially in Asia, but especially with respect to financial flows and capital flows in and out of China.”
Hong Kong is often called a gateway to China. An American or European manufacturer might set up a plant in mainland China to lower labor costs. But the company could also set up shop in Hong Kong, where’s it’s easier to raise capital in the Asian markets.
The protests may cause short-term market disruptions, but Johns Hopkins economist Heiwai Tang says Western businesses will have to grapple with Hong Kong’s integration with China over the next several years, especially if China’s in charge.
How has the government responded?
About 40 people have been injured in the protests, which have largely been peaceful. Riot police deployed tear gas over the weekend, but were less confrontational Monday while still urging the crowd to disperse.
Occupy Central presents a test for President Jinping, the New York Times reported, who has positioned himself as a political strongman, drawing a hard line against dissent in the mainland. Making concessions to the protesters would be a sign of weakness, but a show of force large enough to dispel these protests could bring back dark memories of Tiananmen Square
Wasserstorm told Vox the protests could end with Hong Kong’s current chief executive stepping down, which wouldn’t likely change election policies for the time being but could be a small victory for pro-democracy groups nonetheless.
What’s the role of social media in this?
As with many, many recent protests around the world, social media has played an important role, especially since the Internet is censored in mainland China. The government reportedly blocked Instagram over the weekend, and state-owned messaging service Sina Weibo saw a record number of posts deleted. A number of journalists have been providing live coverage on Twitter, which is blocked in mainland China.
Protesters have begun organizing through the chatroom app FireChat, which saw 100,000 new users sign up over the weekend and 33,000 people using it simultaneously in Hong Kong. FireChat is particularly useful to protesters because it’s difficult to censor or shut down. However, FireChat doesn’t allow private chat and it’s not encrypted, limiting its utility for protesters.
— OpenGarden (@OpenGarden) September 28, 2014
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