Hong Kong's citizens remain determined to achieve democratic values for their city. Photo: Anthony Kwan/Stringer/Getty Images
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The fight for democracy and liberty in Hong Kong

Chinese pressure on the city's government is pushing the situation into dangerous territory.

Since the official handover from Britain in 1997, Hong Kong has been under Chinese influence once more. However, the “one country, two systems” mantra enshrined in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 dictates that the city’s capitalist system and way of life should remain unchanged for at least 50 years.

The city’s people are increasingly demanding democracy, but they aren’t getting it. Most want the city’s chief executive, a position currently held by Leung Chun-ying, to be elected by universal suffrage. Instead, moves are being made to ensure that occupiers of the post are endorsed by Beijing, a system which gives the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) significant control over the city.

Leung made a report to the CCP’s National People Congress on 15 July, stating that Hong Kong should enjoy universal suffrage, but should only choose between a range of candidates proposed by a nominating committee loyal to Beijing. This has been criticised by the currently flourishing pro-democracy movement as a pretence.

To further complicate the issue, on 19 July high-ranking CCP official Zhang Dejiang visited the city and expressed support for Leung’s proposals. His opinions suggested that “Beijing would not tighten its power over Hong Kong” but that full-blown “civic nomination... was illegal.” His CCP seniors have reacted negatively to his comments.

Finally, the pro-democracy campaign in Hong Kong is itself divided. A group called Occupy Central has proposed staging civil disobedience in the main financial hub of the city. This has been met with widespread criticism. The Alliance for Peace and Democracy condemns the proposal for fear of violence and damage to the economy, and claims to have collected well over 900,000 signatures against it. But the idea is by no means defeated. Student groups in particular have urged pro-democratic civil disobedience so that their opponents will “see how serious Hong Kong people are treating democracy”.

This unfolding drama has gone largely unnoticed by the Western media, with attention focused on the chaos in the Middle East and Ukraine. However, the threat to freedom and security evolving in Hong Kong should not be underestimated. The details of the proposals for universal suffrage may seem pedantic, but civil disobedience’s presence as a talking point indicates the potential for these tensions to escalate fast. For instance, it’s possible that the People’s Liberation Army could make its presence known in the city.

Michael DeGolyer, a leading pollster in Hong Kong, commented that “if [the pro-democracy groups] overplay their hand... the state comes down on them”. He drew pointed comparison to Tiananmen Square not long after the 25th anniversary of the massacre. The state-run Global Times ran an editorial claiming that “sharp political confrontation does nobody any good”.

Moreover, Beijing is undertaking a gradual suppression of the Hong Kong press, exerting pressure on pro-democratic outlets. The news site House News shut over the weekend, citing political pressure. One of the site’s founders said that “to act like a normal citizen, a normal media outlet... is not easy, it’s even terrifying”. The site had opposed plans in 2012 to introduce mandatory pro-China “patriotic lessons”, plans which were eventually shelved.

Mark Milke notes that the right to vote has by no means been a necessary condition for “peace and prosperity”, since Hong Kong has enjoyed both of those for many years without suffrage. But democracy matters to them for reasons beyond the instrumental. They feel that self-determination, at least in choosing the city’s government, is intrinsically important, important enough that many would risk violence and reactionary measures from Beijing itself. This risk should accord international attention, and Hong Kong could do with help from voices from elsewhere.

Moreover, all of this implicates Britain in an awkward clash with China. Britain has faced calls for it to express diplomatic concerns and vocally defend pro-democrats in Hong Kong. But disagreements with China aren’t high on the Foreign Office’s agenda. Britain’s allies, chiefly the United States, will also be keen to avoid any flashpoint scenarios. For now, unless the pro-democracy movement can quell its more violent urges, the situation will escalate and Beijing’s sinister moves against liberty in the city will continue.

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Inside Big Ben: why the world’s most famous clock will soon lose its bong

Every now and then, even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care.

London is soon going to lose one of its most familiar sounds when the world-famous Big Ben falls silent for repairs. The “bonging” chimes that have marked the passing of time for Londoners since 1859 will fall silent for months beginning in 2017 as part of a three-year £29m conservation project.

Of course, “Big Ben” is the nickname of the Great Bell and the bell itself is not in bad shape – even though it does have a huge crack in it.

The bell weighs nearly 14 tonnes and it cracked in 1859 when it was first bonged with a hammer that was way too heavy.

The crack was never repaired. Instead the bell was rotated one eighth of a turn and a lighter (200kg) hammer was installed. The cracked bell has a characteristic sound which we have all grown to love.

Big Ben strikes. UK Parliament.

Instead, it is the Elizabeth Tower (1859) and the clock mechanism (1854), designed by Denison and Airy, that need attention.

Any building or machine needs regular maintenance – we paint our doors and windows when they need it and we repair or replace our cars quite routinely. It is convenient to choose a day when we’re out of the house to paint the doors, or when we don’t need the car to repair the brakes. But a clock just doesn’t stop – especially not a clock as iconic as the Great Clock at the Palace of Westminster.

Repairs to the tower are long overdue. There is corrosion damage to the cast iron roof and to the belfry structure which keeps the bells in place. There is water damage to the masonry and condensation problems will be addressed, too. There are plumbing and electrical works to be done for a lift to be installed in one of the ventilation shafts, toilet facilities and the fitting of low-energy lighting.

Marvel of engineering

The clock mechanism itself is remarkable. In its 162-year history it has only had one major breakdown. In 1976 the speed regulator for the chimes broke and the mechanism sped up to destruction. The resulting damage took months to repair.

The weights that drive the clock are, like the bells and hammers, unimaginably huge. The “drive train” that keeps the pendulum swinging and that turns the hands is driven by a weight of about 100kg. Two other weights that ring the bells are each over a tonne. If any of these weights falls out of control (as in the 1976 incident), they could do a lot of damage.

The pendulum suspension spring is especially critical because it holds up the huge pendulum bob which weighs 321kg. The swinging pendulum releases the “escapement” every two seconds which then turns the hands on the clock’s four faces. If you look very closely, you will see that the minute hand doesn’t move smoothly but it sits still most of the time, only moving on each tick by 1.5cm.

The pendulum swings back and forth 21,600 times a day. That’s nearly 8m times a year, bending the pendulum spring. Like any metal, it has the potential to suffer from fatigue. The pendulum needs to be lifted out of the clock so that the spring can be closely inspected.

The clock derives its remarkable accuracy in part from the temperature compensation which is built into the construction of the pendulum. This was yet another of John Harrison’s genius ideas (you probably know him from longitude fame). He came up with the solution of using metals of differing temperature expansion coefficient so that the pendulum doesn’t change in length as the temperature changes with the seasons.

In the Westminster clock, the pendulum shaft is made of concentric tubes of steel and zinc. A similar construction is described for the clock in Trinity College Cambridge and near perfect temperature compensation can be achieved. But zinc is a ductile metal and the tube deforms with time under the heavy load of the 321kg pendulum bob. This “creeping” will cause the temperature compensation to jam up and become less effective.

So stopping the clock will also be a good opportunity to dismantle the pendulum completely and to check that the zinc tube is sliding freely. This in itself is a few days' work.

What makes it tick

But the truly clever bit of this clock is the escapement. All clocks have one - it’s what makes the clock tick, quite literally. Denison developed his new gravity escapement especially for the Westminster clock. It decouples the driving force of the falling weight from the periodic force that maintains the motion of the pendulum. To this day, the best tower clocks in England use the gravity escapement leading to remarkable accuracy – better even than that of your quartz crystal wrist watch.

In Denison’s gravity escapement, the “tick” is the impact of the “legs” of the escapement colliding with hardened steel seats. Each collision causes microscopic damage which, accumulated over millions of collisions per year, causes wear and tear affecting the accuracy of the clock. It is impossible to inspect the escapement without stopping the clock. Part of the maintenance proposed during this stoppage is a thorough overhaul of the escapement and the other workings of the clock.

The Westminster clock is a remarkable icon for London and for England. For more than 150 years it has reminded us of each hour, tirelessly. That’s what I love about clocks – they seem to carry on without a fuss. But every now and then even the most famous of clocks need a bit of care. After this period of pampering, “Big Ben” ought to be set for another 100 or so years of trouble-free running.

The Conversation

Hugh Hunt is a Reader in Engineering Dynamics and Vibration at the University of Cambridge.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.