Although her students have been following the news about the protests that have been roiling Hong Kong, Visiting Assistant Professor of Government Sarah Mak said that she had observed only a few had a solid grasp of the background behind the street demonstrations.
And it is quite a background, one that encompasses imperialism, colonialism, opium — even tea.
To broaden students’ understanding of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution, Mak organized a “teach-in” last week. She and Assistant Professor of History Leah Zuo each gave short talks on Hong Kong’s history and politics in a classroom packed with students, as well as some staff and faculty. Two other professors in the German and history departments also spoke about occurrences of civil disobedience elsewhere in the world.
After pointing out the value of Hong Kong’s deep-water port (which has made it a hotly contested area for a long while), Zuo, an expert in middle-to-late imperial Chinese history, began her history lesson with the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912).
In the 18th century, China set off a reign of expansionism, pushing its borders thousands of miles across the steppes, deserts, jungles and mountains of Asia. The turning point for this dynastic rule came in the mid-19th century with the First Opium War. Great Britain at this time was trading opium for its beloved export, tea, which was creating problems of addiction and social delinquency in China. When the emperor tried to force British merchants to surrender their opium and halt the drug trade, Britain refused, leading to the first, and quite short, Opium War. China lost, and one of its concessions was to hand over Hong Kong island to England.
Then, Zuo continued, a spate of wars — including the Sino-French War and Sino-Japanese War — and the subsequent carving up of China, demoralized the Chinese, leading to the first stirrings of nationalism around the turn of the 20th century.
At this point, Mak took over the story. When Hong Kong was turned over to China in 1997, the Chinese conducted a lavish ceremony. But the people of Hong Kong harbored trepidation about the transfer of power. “They saw themselves as Hong Kongers,” Mak said. “There was a lot of fear when this happened. They wondered what their rights would be and whether things would remain the same.”
China at first was lenient. The administration established that Hong Kong, for 50 years, would live under a policy of “one country, two systems.” This meant the region would have some degree of political autonomy, and could maintain its own currency, stock market, police, legislature, judicial system and free press. What was unclear, however, was how Hong Kong would be ruled, who its leaders would be and how they would be elected. “One could argue that the [Basic Law] was purposefully written in a vague way,” Mak said. The Basic Law serves as a kind of constitution for the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.
Meanwhile, Hong Kongers were growing increasingly discontent about social problems, such as a widening gap between the rich and poor, the growing costs of the city, and declining education standards. Mak said that Hong Kongers felt that “if they were able to select a head of government, then maybe they could hold someone accountable or have someone who would take these issues seriously.”
This August, China agreed to give Hong Kongers the right, beginning in 2017, to elect their top official — but only from a group of pre-selected candidates. This prompted university and high school students on September 22 to boycott classes across Hong Kong and take to the streets to demand open elections and an untampered democracy. They were soon joined by a wider demographic of protestors.
The following two speakers, Assistant Professor of German Jens Klenner and Visiting Instructor of History Tristan Grunow, spoke about civil protests in Germany and Japan. Klenner said the peacefulness of the 1989 protests that brought down the Berlin Wall and unified Germany was a reaction, in part, against the brutal suppression of demonstrators in the Tiananmen Square protest. This protest had taken place just a few months prior. A popular slogan of Germans was “No Violence! No New China.” And the state listened, issuing an order for its police to refrain from force and to not respond with violence to peaceful protests, according to Klenner.
Grunow then spoke about the history of civil disobedience in Japan. “Even in Japan, a conformist society, there is a long history of civil disobedience,” he said. Grunow recounted a story about farmers protesting the expansion of Narita International Airport. Today, the airport’s runways snake around fields of crops. “It is possible for one person to affect a difference,” Grunow concluded. “The power of one farmer who owned property put a hold in the government plans.”