HUFFINGTON POST
10/04/2014 11:08 am ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

What Do Hong Kong's Protests Mean For China?

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Every week, The WorldPost asks an expert to shed light on a topic driving headlines around the world. Today, we speak with Professor Mary Gallagher on the massive protests in Hong Kong.

The student-led mass protests in Hong Kong' central financial district are entering their second week. Calling for more democracy and the right to choose the city's top political executive in the 2017 elections without interference from the Chinese government, the demonstrators show no signs of dissipating.

The protesters are at loggerheads with the central government in Beijing, setting up a tense standoff in which neither side seems willing to budge. The WorldPost spoke with Professor Mary Gallagher, Director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan about the possible effects of the Hong Kong unrest on the world's most populous nation.

What has led to the current level of protests?

There’s a number of factors. An important historical factor is Hong Kong's long experience with protests. The Hong Kong people have protested every year since 1989 both to commemorate the student movement of that year and to to protest against various aspects of their status in the People's Republic of China. That experience is one of the reasons why there are pretty good levels of coordination among the protesters and why the protests have remained without much violence.

Many of the protest leaders and activists are extremely young.

The students have certainly come out ahead of the older activists. As Hong Kong's economy has become much more dependent on the mainland, people's identity has actually become increasingly unique. Hong Kong wants to maintain a separate identity, and that conviction has increased over time -- probably as a response to feeling economically overwhelmed by the mainland.

Could the demonstrations spread to mainland China?

I would argue in the short term no. We’ll see dissidents, intellectuals and maybe a small number of students showing sympathy for the protests, but they don’t have the level of coordination and they don’t have the political space to marshal a large number of people onto the street. It would be dangerous and it would be quickly put down.

In the very short term, I don’t think there’s a lot of sympathy from people in the mainland. Relations between the mainland and Hong Kong have not been great on a societal level for a number of years and I don’t think there’s a lot of love lost between these two societies.

However, I think in the longer term, just allowing Hong Kong to vote for their chief executive at all will have a contagion effect in the mainland. People will ask "Why should someone rich and educated in Shanghai not have the same rights as someone in Hong Kong?"

How will Beijing respond to the protests?

Beijing will not back down on this. They will see this as a crucial test of their leadership and authority over Hong Kong and it's highly unlikely that they'll budge on the big issues. They may show some kind of compromise on how the nominations will happen. However, as of right now, they’re not going to use coercion and force against the protesters either.

There were some predictions earlier on of a possible crackdown. So far, that hasn't come to pass. How do you explain that?

The Chinese government is not averse to using brute force and coercion. It uses it every day on the mainland when people protest or when they go on strike, but Hong Kong is a very different situation.

A crackdown would come at huge international legitimacy costs. A lot of the coercion and repression that happens in the mainland is not seen by the western media. Anything that happens in Hong Kong, on the other hand, is going to be videotaped and recorded.

Should we be viewing these events in a pessimistic way in terms of potential for democratic change?

I’m not among the people who think that China will be a democracy tomorrow or even within five years. But in terms of longer term contagion possibilities, if we go through to 2017 and people are allowed to vote for those candidates it will be the first time Hong Kongers elect their chief executive. It will be a huge challenge to the government to contain that democratic change only to Hong Kong.

Most Chinese people say they are worried about key issues of quality of life, like pollution and food safety and corruption. If Hong Kong manages those issues better because they’re more democratic, Chinese people will want the more abstract concept of democracy. Not because of idealism, but because they think it will help them solve concrete problems.

This interview took place on Oct 3. 2014. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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