November 05, 2014, BY Paula Cogan Myers

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On Sept. 28, 2014, thousands of people began to block roads in Hong Kong's financial district with the goal of pushing the Beijing and Hong Kong governments to implement full universal suffrage (the right to vote for adult citizens) in Hong Kong's next elections. Occupy Central was initiated by student and university faculty activists, drawing the world's attention to the relationship between Hong Kong and Beijing.

Professor Zhiqun Zhu, political science and international relations, and director of the China Institute at Bucknell, discusses the drivers and future implications of the protests.

Question: What are the Occupy Central protests about?

Answer: On the surface, the protests are about the difference over how elections should be conducted in Hong Kong. Hong Kong existed as a British colony for 155 years before the 1997 handover to China, which was laid out through the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration. The agreement established Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China while allowing it to maintain its economic, social and political systems. This structure, known as "one country, two systems," was to remain in place for 50 years after the handover. Since then, the issue of how elections are run in Hong Kong has emerged numerous times, most recently in relation to the Occupy Central protests.

On Aug. 30, 2014, the Standing Committee of China's national legislature, the National People's Congress (NPC), issued its proposal for universal suffrage in Hong Kong's next elections for its chief executive and the legislative council. According to the plan, the two or three final candidates for the chief executive election need to be approved by the majority of a 1,200-member nominating committee before they stand for popular vote. Beijing's reasoning is that such controlled elections would ensure that the new chief executive will "love Hong Kong and love China."

In reality, these protests reveal growing tensions between Hong Kong and the mainland. Many residents of Hong Kong, highly educated and heavily influenced by the West, are frustrated that China remains an authoritarian regime after decades of rapid growth. The political and cultural gaps between Hong Kong and the mainland are widening. On the one hand, some Hong Kong residents are offended by "uncivilized" behaviors of mainland tourists and fear that Hong Kong's unique identity is disappearing as mainlanders swarm into Hong Kong. Many Hong Kongers also worry about Hong Kong's future prosperity as its competitive advantages are being eclipsed by Singapore and Shanghai. On the other hand, the Chinese government is concerned that protests in Hong Kong may spill over to the mainland and directly challenge the party leadership and lead to instability.

Question: What are the protesters hoping to achieve?

Answer: The NPC proposal has disappointed some in Hong Kong, who demand a completely free election in 2017. In the past, Chinese officials such as Zhao Ziyang, premier during the Sino-U.K. negotiations in the 1980s, and Lu Ping, former director of the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, promised that Hong Kong would become a democracy in the future, but they did not set a deadline.

Some Hong Kong residents hope to achieve genuine democracy as soon as possible. For example, Emily Lau, chairwoman of the Hong Kong Democratic Party, believes those previous promises must be honored, and universal suffrage should mean voters be given a choice of candidates from different political persuasions; otherwise, Hong Kong's elections will be just like those in Iran or North Korea. However, not everyone agrees.

Question: What is your opinion about what should happen next?

Answer: The universal suffrage proposed by the NPC for the 2017 Chief Executive election is a big stride forward and should be welcomed by those who care about Hong Kong's future and are realistic and understand the complexity of local and Chinese politics. A democratic transition is more likely to succeed if it takes place incrementally.

Though the short-term crisis seems over, in the medium to long term, democracy in Hong Kong including completely free elections for Hong Kong's chief executive should be a major political objective. The Hong Kong government and protest representatives should engage in serious dialogue to find a way to best promote democracy and good governance in Hong Kong.

The Beijing government must listen to the voices of peaceful dissent in Hong Kong and elsewhere. Young people's pursuit of democracy must be respected and recognized. It is vital for Hong Kong's democratic development to be successful, since it has a demonstrable effect on the rest of China. The Chinese leadership should be confident that no matter how the future chief executive is elected, this individual will almost certainly be "pro-Beijing," since he or she will have to build a good and close working relationship with the central government. Without the support and cooperation of the mainland, how can Hong Kong function as a global center of business in an increasingly competitive world?