I’ve struggled to find the words to speak on the situation in Hong Kong. But on this my birthday, 70th Anniversary of the founding of the PRC, and 17th straight week of protest in the city, I wanted to clearly say what's at stake here.
I lived in the city for a time and traveled there often over the 10 years I lived in neighboring Guangzhou. My family’s there. My friends are there. I watch live streams hoping I don’t see anyone I know getting gassed, beaten, arrested, or blinded. My partner has watched the riots in Central from her office window and her black shirt has been something of a potential health risk on her jogs through Victoria Park. She knows the smell of tear gas now, and I hate that. I know and love the city, I know and love the people, and it looks like they’re going to lose.
For those of us who haven’t been fearfully glued to the news lately let me catch you up. This whole thing started back in February with Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s introduction of the “Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill,” since known as the Extradition Bill. The bill was proposed in light of the high-profile apparent murder of Poon Hiu-Wing in Taiwan by Chan Tong-Kai (her boyfriend) who seemingly fled back to Hong Kong to safety. Proponents of the bill argued that within “China,” authorities needed the right to prosecute offenders regardless of which special administrative region they cross in to – a reversal of the 1987 territorial principle governing jurisdiction. Opponents said the bill was a poorly concealed attempt to allow Mainland China to try Hong Kong citizens allowing for more effective control of protesters and so-called rioters.
The public response was swift and unprecedented with 12,000 protesters on March 31st, 130,000 on April 28th, and the largest ever protest in Hong Kong (at least since the handover) more than a million on June 9th. Protests quickly gained momentum and it became clear that unlike the previous Umbrella Revolution, this protest had support across a broad swath of society from the usual college student community, to politicians, lawyers, and businesspeople.
By this time the main demands circulated were the complete withdrawal of the Extradition Bill and Carrie Lam’s resignation. But after several instances of reported police brutality in violation of international human rights and law standards, demands were added to retract the characterization of the protesters as “rioters” (labeling them criminals worthy of prosecution) and an independent commission to conduct an inquiry into police brutality.
Most people tuned in somewhere around here and witnessed a back and forth of escalating protester boldness committing vandalism and destruction of property, police violence with tear gas, water hoses, and good old fashion Billy clubs. Carrie Lam took her time and chose her words saying the bill was “dead,” “done,” and “gone” while refusing to use the word “withdrawn.” Meanwhile, protesters began to mix in the call for protection of democratic rights within Hong Kong (a huge reversal from current norms of direct Beijing influence).
Things got weird when mysterious “white shirts” got involved in mob violence in Yuen Long appearing to target the black shirt protesters on the subway beating them with metal rods. Some say that the prevalence and localization of the attacks suggest triad violence by local group Wo Shing Wo. Theories have gone wild with purported photos and reports of police collusion. Carrie Lam and her administration of course condemned the attacks, but many protesters remain convinced that authorities are going all out at quelling the protesters by any means necessary.
While Beijing has remained relatively hands off throughout the period, they have made noted statements supporting Carrie Lam and her administration, fanning flames further and leading many to call her a bald-faced puppet of Beijing. Add to that the laughably one-sided story mainland Chinese people are getting in the mainland about the ongoing conflicts, and there’s fertile ground for conspiracy theories about “The Man” and his plots.
Regardless of the truth of such allegations, many Hong Kong citizens are vocally expressing outright fear of the police and a lack of legal protections under the law. Many are saying that Hong Kong is under attack. Western countries have proclaimed widespread support for the HK protesters. But the conflict seems to have turned into a contest of endurance. Protesters and authorities both refuse to step down and while the status quo continues, the stakes continue to get higher and higher with no end in sight.
The financial sector has been hard hit during the crisis, FDI is in steep decline, and businesses have begun to wonder aloud whether Hong Kong is a safe place to set up shop (even after the protests are finished). Unlike 1989 (Tian An Men) overt violence and military action is unlikely as it is expected to bring with it the scorn of the international community crippling the city economically and gifting President Xi with the greatest PR problem of his career (and he’s already had a few). With Hong Kong scheduled to “fully return” to mainland China in 2047, there’s deep uncertainty about what legal landscape we’ll find in the city at that time. It’s possible that HK and Beijing will grant certain token concessions to the protesters in efforts to appease them. But with the standoff we’ve seen so far, it’s unlikely either side will budge any time soon forcing increasingly dramatic escalations.
In the chaos many now fear that the conflict will spread to neighboring Guangdong – a province that speaks the same legally suppressed native language as Hong Kong. Across the HK border, the public still watches Beijing approved versions of the news (unless they have a VPN), but sympathy appears to be growing for the cause. Nevertheless, that sympathy is still clearly a minority sentiment in the mainland and vitriol against “ungrateful Hong Kong people forgetful of their roots” “eager to bend over for the Western Imperialist Pigs” can be heard on a host of social media platforms both blocked and unblocked in China. Taiwan is understandably sympathetic towards Hong Kong and has openly supported the protesters for some time now. If Hong Kong protesters succeeded, democratic hopefuls whisper about what it would mean for a region dominated by Beijing for decades.
Yet such hopes are sadly unrealistic for a number of reasons. Hong Kong protesters face the full might of the strongest authoritarian government in history and already face strong disadvantages in receiving meaningful representation in Hong Kong. Violence and legal action as we’ve seen can mobilize the masses, but it can also shift the demographics as laypeople consider exactly what they have to lose. Protests have been put down again and again in Hong Kong with Beijing making steady progress to erode the region’s constitutional, financial, cultural, and border protections. But more importantly, the most western countries appear to be willing to contribute is sympathy. Even as 29 cities and 12 countries showed their support for Hong Kong today, how much of their action will translate into shifts in diplomatic relations? With western countries embroiled in trade wars, political crises, and impeachment proceedings the chances of a unified censure of Beijing is unlikely.
Mainland China is in strong a position.
So let me pull my crystal ball out of my ass to give you a completely unqualified perspective of what’s to come: More protests, more police violence, increased numbers of death and injuries, token pressures from foreign governments for the HK government and Beijing to back down, increasing confusion and misinformation about the state of affairs in Hong Kong, a forceful quelling of the protesters, some public condemnation from neighboring countries, some half-hearted excuses from HK authorities and Beijing, and a bad case of attention deficit disorder as the world turns its attention towards “more worthy concerns.” After that, Beijing will continue the colonization of the region it has been enacting for decades.
Even without leaving China we’ve got Uighur concentration camps in Xinjiang (“Re-education Camps” in Beijing newspapers, trade war with the US, military escalation in the South China Sea, soft pressure to elicit cooperation from Kim Zhong-il, epidemic levels of pollution, and what scares Westerners most about China – that it will soon be King of the Hill. Who cares about the plight of Hong Kong-ers in an admittedly complicated domestic affair? Who would vote for an American president who’s tough on Beijing?
What started as a protest over a specific bill has now absorbed the voices of many calling for Independence, Democracy, and an end to tyranny. But Hong Kong is analogous to a city state and an un-unified one at that. Already the global community is getting tired of hearing about the city in the daily news cycle.
Today police shot their first protester with a live bullet, and it is unlikely to be the last. But realistically, how much do you suppose that will change things?
In college, I wrote a final paper discussing the extent to which the upcoming 2008 Olympics would herald in meaningful democratic changes to China as it did during the South Korean Olympics two decades earlier. I correctly concluded there would be none. At that time China was in the midst of international pressure over supporting the Janja Weed in the genocide of Darfur, over arrests and violence against Tibetan Liberation Activists, and widespread reports of harvesting the organs of political dissidents. China proved itself then as it does now, remarkably unphased by the world clucking their teeth. After 1989, Beijing has seen just how tolerant the world can be about its domestic injustices.
At the same time, public support of the centralized government remains high. The country continues to experience an unprecedented rise in global influence and power. Middle class Chinese people have disposable income for the first time to travel, buy goods, and fill their apartments with cheap goods from Taobao (Basically Chinese Amazon). Many feel Xi Jinping is personally responsible for the “dragon at last standing up.” Some even remember the foreign invasions of WW2 and happily lap up the stories of those who would come and corrupt good red-blooded Han Chinese. To them, Hong Kong protesters are spoiled traitors in need of a good beat down.
Dear readers I wish I had better news for you, but the state of China is one of the reasons I left the country. It is tragic and does not deserve to be sugar-coated. We are wary of reports of the rampant human rights abuses within the country because it seems we’re always hearing about them. But they will continue as long as the global community remains apathetic.
I’m proud to say that I stand with the Hong Kong protesters and wish for them every victory over their circumstances on the road to self-determination and political autonomy. I don’t claim that protesters are faultless or that there aren’t well-meaning police. But I don’t believe it “savvy” not to pick sides in the news when the people are quite literally dying for their constitutionally protected rights.
Allow me to make my birthday wish – that we find our boldness to stand up for others being abused; that we care especially when we are tired of caring; that we believe in our ability to change the world and then go try and do so.
I’ve blown out my candles. Did my wish come true?
What do you see as the future of Hong Kong and the region? Why?
What are the greatest human rights abuses in China and elsewhere deserving of our attention?
What do you hope for as this chapter in Hong Kong history eventually comes to a close?