Weber: Will Hong Kong lose more freedoms?

· 3 min read

Weber: Will Hong Kong lose more freedoms?

Joseph Weber

As he follows reports of a government crackdown on protests in Hong Kong, UNL journalism associate professor Joseph Weber wonders what’s in store for that sophisticated city.

Weber visited Hong Kong in 2011 during a semester he spent teaching Chinese students at Tsinghua University in Beijing. He found a western-oriented cosmopolis that was very different from mainland China.

“I absolutely loved the place,” he said.

Returned to Chinese jurisdiction in 1997 after more than 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong retained its status as China’s gateway to the west. Governed as a special administrative region, it kept its own currency, its own passports and press and political freedom not enjoyed elsewhere in China.

“China has for many years tolerated the independence of Hong Kong,” Weber said. “Chinese leaders tolerated a lot more westernization and a lot more freedom than they would anywhere else. That’s now breaking down.”

Over the weekend, downtown Hong Kong turned into a battleground as riot police deployed tear gas against students calling for free local elections. Tens of thousands more took to the street to object to the police action.

In a conflict that’s been brewing for years, the protesters call for democratic elections to select city leaders. Beijing has proposed a public vote for the city’s chief executive beginning in 2017, but candidates without the backing of the Chinese government would screened out.

“People by the tens of thousands are protesting these restrictions,” Weber said. “It’s going to be very intriguing to see how this plays out. Chinese President Xi Jinping cannot afford to lose face by scaling back. If he backtracks on this in a major way, that’s a major setback for him. I can’t imagine he’s going to do that.

“On the other hand, are they (Hong Kong residents) just going to see a steady erosion of their westernization and their style of politics and their freedom of speech? Is there some compromise possible? I don’t know. I do know that Beijing is not going to tolerate these protests very long. They’re just not.”

He said comparisons to the Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing 25 years ago seem inescapable.

“The best and the brightest of China were leading that drive and they just got brutally crushed,” he said. “Twenty-five years later, with the Tiananmen folks now in their 40s, we see a whole new crop in Hong Kong doing the same thing. Will Beijing make the same mistakes as the prior administration? Or will they find a way out of it?”

Weber continues to study Chinese journalism students’ attitudes toward freedom of the press and censorship. Surveying 120 journalism students at eight colleges across China last fall, he and a colleague at Shantou University found that 75 percent of the budding journalists think the Chinese media is too heavily censored. Some of his preliminary findings were published in a Washington Post blog article marking the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was notified Monday that Human Rights Quarterly had agreed to publish his research. In addition, Weber and Bryan Wang, an assistant professor of advertising, are planning a study abroad trip to Beijing and Shanghai for 20 students in May.

Recent News