World

Will Hong Kong's Democracy Protests Change Anything?

Known as Occupy Central, the protest movement is calling for meaningful political reform from Beijing.

Will Hong Kong's Democracy Protests Change Anything?
Getty Images / Anthony Kwan

Thousands of student protesters descended on Hong Kong's financial district Monday. Here's what they want.

At the heart of their protest movement — known as Occupy Central — is a debate about democracy that's been building for years. (Video via Euronews

When Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, the deal was Hong Kong would get to pick its new leader.

But last month, China dashed hopes of true universal suffrage when it ruled candidates for Hong Kong's highest office must first be prescreened by a Beijing-friendly nominating panel. And that's where Occupy Central comes in.  

As you might imagine, the protesters say they've drawn inspiration from New York City's Occupy Wall Street movement. Both are people-powered campaigns, but that's about where the similarities end.

Unlike Occupy Wall Street, protesters in Hong Kong aren't fighting against an ambiguous corporate enemy. They're targeting the Communist government in mainland China. (Video via Straits Times

Which has, unsurprisingly, characterized the protests as "illegal." Chinese media have dubbed the Occupy Central leaders "political puppets ... of Western powers."

So given Beijing's already-strained relationship with Hong Kong, what kind of response do the protesters realistically expect?

After all, even the group's organizers say they're aware "democratic reform seems unlikely in the coming years."

That said, there is a precedent for protest movements producing modest change in Hong Kong.

After half a million protesters flooded the streets in 2003, Hong Kong's Beijing-backed leader shelved a controversial security bill that would have limited free speech. 

And a massive demonstration in 2012 forced Hong Kong to drop plans to require schoolchildren take so-called Chinese patriotism classes. 

It's impossible to talk of protests without mentioning the massacre that unfolded at Tiananmen Square in 1989. China's deadly response to the protests was met with worldwide condemnation. (Video via BBC

Occupy Central organizers have taken out editorials in major newspapers calling on Beijing to avoid another "Tiananmen crackdown."

Hong Kong is the only Chinese territory where large-scale protests are permitted. Occupy Central's organizers say their protests will be nonviolent.