One-nation, two-systems: the political reintegration of Hong Kong into China after a century of being a British colony has recently proved problematic, as the people of Hong Kong have taken to the streets to demand further democratic development. The 1997 Agreement placed the former British colony in a semi-autonomous position, where basic civil and political rights were granted to its citizens. However, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) remains in control over an essential power that has kept the leash rather tight: the control over election procedures and candidates. The Hong Kong protests, often referred to as the Occupy Central Movement, have mobilized in recent months in an attempt to secure a representative democracy. Since the protests began in late September, coverage of the movement has varied between sources both within China and internationally. Similar to the Tiananmen Square protests, an “Enlightenment” picture has been painted in the West, while Chinese state-sponsored media has portrayed an entirely different situation. The media, both in the West and in Mainland China, tell two opposing narratives, and also demonstrate the political maneuvering in which the protests are rooted. The politics behind the protests have sparked a political movement that has accurately caught the world’s attention, and has shaken the stronghold that the Chinese government maintains over Hong Kong.
The 1997 agreement ended 156 years of British rule over the city of Hong Kong and established the current relationship between the city and the PRC. Basic freedoms were granted, and a semi-democratic structure was created; however, much of the media and election process remains controlled by the Mainland. The protests this summer came as a result of an election reform proposed by Beijing in an attempt to vet candidates and maintain its influence over the process. The candidates for the 2017 Chief Executive position must be approved by half of the Beijing’s National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee. Only two or three candidates would be authorized to run and they would have to gain the support of the predominantly pro-Beijing committee. This came after the people of Hong Kong were promised direct elections in the 2017 race.
The Basic Law is a set of policies agreed upon by the British government and the PRC prior to Hong Kong’s handover in 1990. The Law serves as a regional constitution with full legal status, outlining a concrete governmental framework and provisions granting some freedoms to Hong Kong residents. Some of the protestors call for universal suffrage with no interference, a right granted by the Basic Law. Article 45 of the document reads, “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.” The right to freedom of the press is also enshrined in Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law; however, Beijing’s ownership of key media management positions has brought to question how free the press is in Hong Kong, as well as the authenticity of the information people are receiving on the Mainland.
In the 2012 World Press Freedom Index, Hong Kong dropped twenty points in the annual report, ending up 54th on the list. This ranking came as a result of, “arrests, assaults and harassment worsen[ing] working conditions for journalists to an extent not seen previously, a sign of a worrying change in government policy.” China has developed increasingly prominent influence on Hong Kong’s economy since the handover. Prior to the 1997 agreement, Chinese companies began buying out key media outlets, which publish at the discretion of the owner. In 2014, the Hong Kong Journalists Association (HKJA) said in a report that the past year had been ‘the darkest for press freedom’ in several decades.  This economic influence appears to have tainted certain media outlets. However, sources like Apple Daily have published extensive anti-Beijing commentary since the protests began in early September. Although Chinese companies do maintain a stronghold on certain outlets in Hong Kong, the actions of Apple Daily are in alignment with the provisions regarding freedom of the press in the Basic Law. The politics behind media coverage in Hong Kong exemplify one of the aims the protests are hoping to achieve: ending China’s involvement in the Hong Kong media and election processes.
The limitations placed on media coverage in Mainland China are often recognized as the PRC’s attempt to assure their governance is not cast in a negative light. The manner in which the Chinese media is depicting the Hong Kong protests is quite allusive. Initially China’s approach was to downplay the movement: “the story has been buried deep inside most newspapers and TV broadcasts, and is framed in a way that makes it uninteresting and unintelligible to average Chinese.” However, in recent weeks Mainland media outlets have taken a much more critical stance, referring to the protests as illegal and illegitimate. Craftily shaping how the Chinese populace is exposed to the protests could be an attempt to suppress potential sequences on the Mainland. Zhao Chu, a journalist based in Shanghai, told the Associated Press, “They don’t see it as a local affair but a fuse that can take down their world.” Following the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, which inspired the 2011 pro-democracy protests in China, the Chinese government had a similar response of restricting access to information. However, unlike the protests of 2011, the Chinese government does not have the power to directly restrict information in Hong Kong to the same extent as in the mainland. It appears as if the next best thing is preventing the protests from inspiring those within Beijing’s direct sphere of influence.
Contrary to China’s media response, American news outlets have illustrated these protests as being reminiscent of Tiananmen Square, adversely depicting China while promoting a traditional democratic stance. China has simultaneously accused the United States of fueling the protests. At the press conference between US President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jingping on November 12th, the Chinese leader made several snide remarks, alluding to America’s participation in backing the Hong Kong protests. “When a car breaks down in the road, perhaps we need to get off the car to see where the problem lies . … In Chinese, we have a saying: The party which has created the problem, should be the one to help resolve it.” President Xi went on to say that journalists need to follow and respect Chinese law. Western media has applauded the intent of the protests, celebrating the democratic aura they have adopted. However, the Chinese have acknowledged this bias and have actively spoken against it. Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam told Lianhe Zaobao, the Singapore-based Chinese language newspaper, “Western media reports have made Beijing out to be ‘denying democracy’ and acting to infringe on freedoms that have made Hong Kong so successful.” While covering the protests, several US media sources have used the protests as an outlet to criticize Chinese policy toward Hong Kong. The United States rarely refrains from commenting on Chinese national policies, and the pro-democracy protests have provided an opportunity for American media to do just that. “This past week in international media, which have painted the story as a David-and-Goliath struggle between local Hong Kongers and a powerful but distant authoritarian master in Beijing.” Despite their exploitation of the protests to send a broader message to China, both the West and China have shown their people what they want to the protests to be, rather than what they actually are.
Whether or not the protests or their media coverage will affect Beijing’s stronghold on Hong Kong or on Mainlanders is arguable. However, the PRC is taking precautionary steps in order to eliminate the threat. Beijing is in a predicament because of the exposure the protests have received internationally and due to the PRC’s inability to formulate an official response. The protests’ development has brought to question how the push for democracy will influence mainlanders and individuals in Taiwan. According to Mary Gallagher, a professor at University of Michigan, “In the longer term, just allowing Hong Kong to vote for their chief executive at all will have a contagion effect in the mainland.” Although it’s unlikely that the protests will spark an instant response in China, they could trigger similar revolutionary sentiments if the protesters in Hong Kong achieve democratic development.
The momentous international exposure the protests have received has resulted in conflicting media discourses, exposing the political and ideological divergence between the West and China. Hong Kong’s media exposes a hybrid of the two stances as different news sources provide different perspectives on the Occupy Central Movement and its aims. Examining Beijing’s media response to the movement demonstrates the ways in which it regulates criticism of the government and uses the protests as a way to delegitimize the protesters’ intent and the West. The U.S. also takes a rather instigative approach to the broadcasting of the protests, embracing the opportunity to challenge China’s policies as they relate to Hong Kong and in general. The fundamental ideological differences between the two hegemons materialize in these media responses and perpetuate a divergence between their political stances. Although China has undermined the protests as illegitimate, they could prove to diminish the stronghold that China maintains over Hong Kong and spark movements in other parts of mainland China.
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