The end of September marked the 65th anniversary of the Communist Party in China. The mood on the streets of Hong Kong, however, was anything but celebratory. The streets were, and continue to be, awash with tens of thousands of student protesters angered by recent changes to the electoral policy of Hong Kong. Whilst everyone on the island will still be able to vote in the next election in 2017, in the future there will be far fewer candidates up for election: just two or three as opposed to the standard five or six, all of whom would need a stamp of approval from a Chinese national committee. Essentially, this all but guarantees that the next leader of Hong Kong will have strong links to mainland China. The problem here doesn’t end with the undermining of Hong Kong’s sovereignty, it also has implications for Universal Suffrage in Hong Kong, which was part of the handover agreement between the UK and Beijing in 1997, which is unlikely to be granted given the hardline backlash from Beijing authorities.
Initially, sympathy from the residents of Hong Kong lay with the student protestors. The fight for democracy isn’t just a passion of the young, it has benefits everyone could get behind. Pressure has built up as time has gone on, but demands have been ignored, and patience has worn thin with the protestors as the once peaceful protests have turned violent. As of October 5th, the official figure for arrests stood at 38.
It could be possible to argue that the demonstrators are in fact risking the civic cohesion of Hong Kong by ignoring the instructions of their security personnel, and in some cases using violence against them. However, the blatant infringement and undermining of the democratic rights of the people of a sovereign nation threatens the long-term stability of a population. The use of violence, by any side, always sours a popular public protest, no matter the topic or geographical location. The UK tuition fees protests back in 2010 also suffered from the same setbacks; initial public support helped to maintain the protests but as the debate reached a stalemate, the demonstrations turned violent. This was largely triggered not by protesters, but by opportunists. The petty acts of violence undermined the legitimate demonstrations and very quickly the imagery of the events changed, and they were no longer student protests; they were student riots.
Just as public opinion changed so quickly with the students in London, so has the reaction in Hong Kong. A poll by the Wall Street Journal puts public opinion at roughly 50% in support of the students, last week it stood at 58%. It’s no coincidence, then, that in the same week that public opinion of the protesters has dropped, the number of protesters being arrested for violence has risen, and currently stands at close to 70.
It’s no illusion that the right to a fair and transparent democracy is fundamental. Violence, however, is to be avoided. It only serves to delegitimise and undermine your message. The fact that the government in Hong Kong have already rejected the key demands of the protesters only serves to prove this. The violence in Hong Kong has also blocked potential backlash towards the Government and police. Videos of police brutality carry relatively little sway, and don’t cause the same bad publicity, when your own protestors are filmed beating police officers. Democracy may be a fundamental right, but the threat of violence should not be used to obtain it.