Youth Movements Pose New Problems for China, Yet Won’t Change Status Quo

By Sinclaire Prowse

People of Hong Kong march in favor of universal suffrage on July 1, 2014, the anniversary of their designation as a special administrative region in China. Source: Pasuay @ incendo's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

People of Hong Kong march in favor of universal suffrage on July 1, 2014, the anniversary of their designation as a special administrative region in China. Source: Pasuay @ incendo’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

A gradual change has been taking shape in Hong Kong and Taiwan during 2014, presenting new problems for China, yet despite the emerging protests Beijing is unlikely to change its political approach.

Hong Kong’s Occupy Central and Taiwan’s Sunflower movements have mobilized large numbers of activists, mostly young people, in mass protest throughout the year. Activists in Hong Kong and Taiwan may be asking for different things, but they are providing a common headache for Beijing.

The crux of the anger held by Hong Kong’s Occupy Central is directed towards an alleged broken promise made by China during the 1997 handover, which assured that the island would be allowed a level of autonomy in its political system. Protesters in Hong Kong believe that China has broken that commitment, especially when it comes to media freedoms and the process of choosing a chief executive, which is poised to continue to be done by Beijing. This level of protest in Hong Kong has not been seen since a handover protest in 2003, which drew 500,000 people. The University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme estimates this year drew close to 100,000 people during the main day of protest on August 17.

The Sunflower movement in Taiwan also gathered a significant crowd of protesters earlier this year. On March 30, the biggest day of protest, approximately 350,000 Taiwanese gathered around the legislative and executive offices in Taipei, in opposition to the passage of the Cross Strait Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) with China. The protesters wanted a greater say in the decision to pass the agreement and believed that the trade pact would leave them vulnerable to political and economic pressure from Beijing. The legislative offices were continuously occupied from March 18 to April 10, when hundreds of students managed to infiltrate the chamber in opposition to proposed changes. The name of the Sunflower movement was inspired by the ‘Wild Lily Movement’ of 1990, which drew a much smaller crowd of 22,000 protesters in support of Taiwanese democracy. The numbers of activists taking to the streets in 2014 have been widely considered out of the ordinary for such demonstrations in Taiwan.

These movements are important because they are placing new pressure on Beijing.

The Chinese Communist Party is having to work harder to sell the changes to Hong Kong. The Deputy Secretary General of China’s top legislative body recently traveled to Hong Kong to explain the new decision to the public. China is also going to have to work to ensure the TISA is lucrative enough for Taiwan to ensure future disruptions like the Sunflower movement sit-in don’t become regular occurrences.

The size of Occupy Central and the Sunflower movement may force Beijing to take social forces more seriously into consideration in the future. In recent times, anti-mainland political activism had largely been considered a fringe activity in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The number of people who have come out in 2014 in opposition to the mainland will renew China’s sense of the need to reign in dissenters.

One key facet of the protests in Taiwan and Hong Kong this year has been the extent of co-operation between protesters on each of the islands. There is reason to believe that the successes of Occupy Central and the Sunflower movement spurred each other on. Social media provided new and innovative ways of promoting the views and activities of protesters, and Hong Kong protesters even travelled to Taipei to join the sit-in. Bulletin board style apps have been used in both protests to track the location of protesters and helped promote their activity.

Some have argued that these two movements have the ability to succeed if they can convince young, capable individuals to get involved in politics. But this view discounts the strength of Xi Jinping’s agenda for the future. In order to make strong political and economic reforms, Xi has emphasized the need for all parts of China to be working together. This includes reigning in Hong Kong and not conceding ground on Taiwan. Xi will inevitably push back hard against a pro-democratic Hong Kong and less integration with Taiwan because he believes that a more unified China will bring greater economic stability and prosperity.

Protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan provide a unique headache for China, but are not likely to activate any serious change in China’s plans for the future.

Ms. Sinclaire Prowse is a Non-Resident WSD Handa Fellow at CSIS Pacific Forum. She holds a Masters Degree in United States Studies from the University of Sydney, Australia and speaks Chinese. She has interned at the Lowy Institute for International Policy and the US House of Representatives. Follow her on twitter @Sinclairerose.



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