Is Hong Kong its own country

A tough test for China's leaders

Umbrella man

IT IS a most unusual sight on Chinese soil, and most unsettling for leaders in Beijing. On September 28th and 29th tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded government offices and filled major thoroughfares around Hong Kong, braving rounds of tear gas from riot police to call for democracy and demand the resignation of Leung Chun-ying, the territory's Beijing-backed chief executive. One image broadcast and shared around the world, of a lone protester holding his umbrella aloft in a cloud of tear gas (pictured above), has given the non-violent protests a poetic echo of “tank man” from the crackdown at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

It also captures precisely what Communist Party leaders in Beijing fear from Hong Kong and its special status under the “one country, two systems” arrangement it has enjoyed since the territory’s handover from Britain in 1997. Not only are its people willing (and allowed by law) to challenge their government openly, but they also could become an inspiration for protests elsewhere in China. The spread of news and images of the protests has been blocked or heavily censored on the mainland, but as the protests carry on, the risk of contagion rises.Umbrella man In that sense this marks one of the most difficult tests of Chinese rule since Tiananmen.

Compounding the difficulty is the lack of a middle ground. The protesters’ main demand is that the people of Hong Kong be allowed to vote for any candidate of their choosing in elections for the post of chief executive in 2017 (the first in which citizens would have such a vote). President Xi Jinping has made clear he will have nothing resembling full Western democracy within China’s borders. The current election plan, put forward by the central government on August 31st, gives the central government an effective veto over nominees to ensure that Hong Kong remains firmly under its control.

Several protest movements have converged to challenge that control. Until recently the best-known movement had been Occupy Central with Love and Peace, which is modelled on Occupy Wall Street and named after an important business district at the heart of Hong Kong. But even Occupy’s leaders wondered whether they could muster meaningful numbers.

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