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Why won't China let Hong Kong have free elections? Has Hong Kong ever had free elections? What is Hong Kong even? Why can't China just lay off? What's going on here? Why can't the world JUST BE STABLE!?

Thank you to Hong Kong Nerdfighters for helping keep me informed, and my research-helper people who have elected to remain unnamed despite the fact that they are some of the world's foremost experts on China and totally just let me call them and chat.

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Good morning John!
Last Sunday, tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest. The police reactions to these protests were, surprisingly, intense - resulting in, get this, far more people joining the protest! 
This somewhat surprising result is only one of the things that can be explained through a better understanding of what Hong Kong is, what those people are protesting about, and what is motivating China. 
A brief history! - 
1847: Hong Kong, a sparsely populated island off the southern coast of China, is ceded to the United Kingdom after the Opium War. 
1898: China and Hong Kong agree to a 99 year lease of Hong Kong to the British Empire to be a British Colony. 
99 years! That's, that's plenty of time to figure out - NOPE.
In the 90's, with the switch impending, the appointed - NOT elected - Governor of Hong Kong started to talk about how it would be really great if Hong Kong were a democracy. 
This is kinda hilarious after 150 years of colonial rule. 
China finds this, not just hilarious, but also really annoying because China would like to have Hong Kong's extraordinarily economically important cake and also eat it. 
1997: after 150 years of British rule, Hong Kong becomes part of China. Kind of. 
After 150 years, Hong Kong has its own dialect, and judiciary, and taxes, and postal service, and money, and culture! People from Hong Kong are ethnically Chinese, and they feel connected to the Chinese people, but they don't consider themselves Chinese.
To get an idea of how weird this is, if you wanted to go from China, to China, but you happened to be crossing the Hong Kong border, you have to get your passport stamped and go through immigration. 
To get a better idea of how weird this is, during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, both China and Hong Kong had separate teams... Same country!
At the root of it, this is all because what Hong Kong is now is really great for China. Not only would it be extremely difficult to have Hong Kong run by the same system as China, which would be COMPLETELY different from the entire culture of Hong Kong, it would also be bad for China! China wants Hong Kong to be the thing that it is. 
It's a capitalist powerhouse that was created as a bridge between China and the capitalist world. 
Hong Kong houses the third largest stock exchange in the world; the Hong Kong dollar is the eighth most traded currency in the world! 
For all that to keep working, Hong Kong kinda has to be a thing that China finds really uncomfortable - Free. 
They call it, "one country, two systems."
Alright, this might be a little bit of a difficult thing to understand. In America, we make fun of a politician on TV. That's not just okay, it's also, like, if that politician can handle it, it's kind of a good thing for them - it makes them seem more powerful. 
In China, where everything is very tightly controlled, that kind of criticism would make a politician seem extremely weak. 
So you have to imagine China as being run by a culture that does not accept any kind of derision or appearance of weakness. 
They're crazy with the control.
China's national day was this week and they let loose ten thousand doves in Tienanmen Square - they cavity searched EVERY dove to make sure there were no explosives inside of them. That is what you think it is.
China's government attitude is a mixture of immense pride in what they have done and vulnerability - just fear of it falling apart. And that might be somewhat warranted, because there are lots of China that don't want to be areas of China! 
And with a weakening economy and the number of protests in China growing, politicians are worried about losing stability - and they REALLY like stability. 
Now add, to all of this, that the current president of China, Xi Jinping, just did a massive crackdown on corruption. This made him a lot of enemies of the Chinese officials who were benefiting from corruption. 
You have a situation where the leadership in Beijing really wants to appear strong and in control and not at all weak, and is thus not in any way interested to conceding to the protests in Hong Kong, or even allowing them to continue! 
The protest, itself, does probably hurt Beijing - though maybe not as much as they imagine because people in Hong Kong and people in China don't actually get along that well anymore for reasons that, surprisingly, involve shopping excursions. 
Now I've gotten a long way into this and I haven't even talked about the reason why people started protesting last Sunday. And that's kind of because, with all this background, it starts to feel... inevitable. Like it's just a thing that was gonna happen. 
But here's the specifics - since the hand-off of Hong Kong to China, it has been run, not by a Governor or a mayor, but a Chief Executive if it wasn't capitalist enough for you. 
The Chief Executive is elected by a kind of, like, weird electoral college composed mostly of, like, business tycoons that represent different constituencies, mostly corporate constituencies. 
Now, Hong Kong's constitution, which isn't really a constitution, eventually calls for the election of the chief executive by the people, and not by a group of twelve hundred people who have the exact same interests as Beijing. 
But, Beijing interprets that law a little bit differently, saying that, yes, the citizens of Hong Kong can elect their Chief Executive, but they have to choose from a pool of candidates that Beijing pre-selects for them. And that, of course, is not a democracy. 
Now maybe even more importantly, since the 1989 massacre at Tienanmen Square, the people of Hong Kong have had a proud and strong history of demonstration and protest. And the intense response from the Hong Kong police was maybe even more scary to the people of Hong Kong than was the prospect of not being able to elect their own leaders - because the people of Hong Kong have never been able to elect their own leaders but they HAVE been able to freely protest. 
Some people hope that, as Hong Kong was a testing ground for China's unique form of capitalism, it might also become a testing ground for actual Chinese democracy. But the cultural gap between the structure and control of China and the freedom of Hong Kong may be too big to bridge. 
But while the protests are bad for the image of Chinese leaders, quashing them would be bad for the continued economic prosperity of Hong Kong. And the protesters know that they shouldn't mess too much with Beijing, that's why they're directing most of their ire at the Chief Executive. 
China's state media, meanwhile, does report on the protests in Hong Kong, just like they reported on the protests of the Arab Spring. But, as they did with the Arab Spring, they focus on the chaos and inconvenience that these protests bring. 
And, really, what China needs is to stick together and be stable. Yay, stability!
And with the protesters in Hong Kong protesting in very calm and stable ways, there seems to be a certain amount of agreement that stability is good. There aren't very many voices calling for Hong Kong to secede from China, though China may be afraid that, with continued cultural changes, that may eventually be the case. 
But mostly, Hong Kong just wants to be Hong Kong - and exceptional, unique place where lots of amazing things happen. Just, ideally, a Hong Kong with a little bit more control over its own destiny for, really, the first time in its entire existence. 
But in the country where they check the butts' of pigeons for explosives, having an entire seven million person part of the country not controlled by the central government, is maybe not  just scary, it might just be a completely foreign concept. 
But just as China found ways to allow actual capitalism to occur within its borders, maybe there's a way for actual democracy to occur within its borders. That would be pretty amazing, and that would be a pretty fantastic outcome to this very, very weird story. 
I guess we'll see. 
John, I'll see you on Tuesday.