I spent July in Hong Kong. It’s a regular part of my year as director of an international program for undergraduates. But this summer the city was immersed in protests. And I witnessed something inspirational, disquieting, and foreboding. I saw a people fighting for the character of their country.
Hongkongers have been protesting since the introduction of an extradition bill which would have enabled citizens, residents, and potentially visitors to be sent to mainland China for trial. The reaction was as immediate as the implications were recognizable. Dissenters could be handed over to a regime which dubiously defines crimes and where prisoners are made to commit suicide.
In the face of such a reality, two million of Hong Kong’s seven million came out in protest. Though the bill has been suspended, protests have continued for 11 straight weeks. In part this is because there is an important distinction between “suspended” and “withdrawn.” A suspended bill can be ushered through more rapidly than new legislation subject to normal procedures. Anyone who studies politics knows this is how things are done: wait until people become complacent, and then pass legislation in the quiet of the night. But the protests have become about more than the extradition bill. Hongkongers are fighting for self-government.
Hong Kong Vs. China
Many locals explain the reason for the protests simply: “We do not want to be China.” In 1997, British rule of Hong Kong ended and Beijing agreed in taking power to guarantee Hong Kong’s economic and political systems for 50 years, including a separate judiciary. Hong Kong has long had its own institutions, which have cultivated a culture distinct from that of mainland China. The two do not even speak the same language.
The tension between the peoples is palpable, especially as there has been an influx of mainlanders to Hong Kong. Many undergraduates maintain isolated social circles. Mainland students frequent neighboring restaurants where owners communicate only in Mandarin, rather than the local Cantonese, while Hongkongers grow more concerned their language is being subverted.
Mainland China also interferes in and influences elections in Hong Kong. This leaves Hongkongers feeling as if they are forcibly governed by a foreign entity. The extradition bill would have intertwined Hong Kong’s judiciary with Beijing’s, which obeys the party’s whim rather than law and procedure. The Hong Kong people refuse to allow their judicial system to be diminished like their electoral system. Beijing is threatening Hong Kong’s animating principle: the rule of law.
Who Are The Protesters?
On a sunny afternoon in Hong Kong, I observed people of all ages gathering in protest. Mothers were carrying their children, and the shops lining the street were open. Drifting from a loudspeaker was the protesters’ mantra: “Do You Hear the People Sing.” The opening lines reverberated through the streets like a pulse: “Do you hear the people sing? Singing a song of angry men? It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again!”
The atmosphere was energetic, lively, and serious. As darkness descends, the crowds become dominated by young people. They are bolder and have less to lose. Some say previous generations favor stability over democracy. However, the more mature are showing their support in other ways.
Anecdotes featuring elderly heroes are swirling around Hong Kong. A restaurant owner invited protesters to guise themselves as customers to dodge police. More financially secure, the middle-aged are leaving clothes at train stations so young people can shed their identifiable black attire before going home. These clothes are placed alongside money and train tickets which enable a quick exit without the use of personal and traceable cards.
It is unclear where the public opinion of older generations will ultimately fall as they continue to watch their children being tear gassed. The actions of protesters also give insight into their character. On July 1, the anniversary of when Hong Kong was handed over to China, protesters stormed the Legislative Council and vandalized the building. Yet they left money for drinks they consumed, refusing to be petty looters. They also did not touch the priceless art housed in the building. The protesters protect what is most valuable to Hong Kong.
In large part, the marches are nonviolent. Of course, there are instances deserving of blame. That’s not surprising for a leaderless movement of at least 2 million people. The government has also not responded to their demands, causing the protesters to become more desperate. If the very character of your regime was at stake, where would you draw the line?
Police conduct has metastasized in the protests. Officers have been using tear gas and rubber bullets liberally. And the day protesters targeted the Legislative Council, the police curiously withdrew. Many in Hong Kong speculate this was a trap, that the police were hoping protesters would finally cross the line and subsequently lose the support of public opinion.
The most critical shift in the dynamic between the police, protesters, and the public happened on July 21. Protesters, in what was taken as a challenge to Beijing, spray-painted the Chinese Liaison Office and threw paint over the building’s emblem, a symbol of Beijing’s power over Hong Kong.
The response was swift. Hours later dozens of alleged Triad gang members clad in white appeared in Yuen Long station, located in the region closest to mainland China. Armed with steel bars and wooden rods, they targeted those clad in back but also indiscriminately assaulted passengers in the station. The police were absent, did not respond to emergency calls, and even shut their doors as the violence ensued.
Many Hongkongers, in disbelief, voiced sadness at being abandoned by their protectors. Others reacted with the anger felt toward those who have betrayed their own people. When I asked locals the reason for the police behavior, most just shook their heads mournfully, at a loss for words. The best explanation I received was that Beijing learned from the Umbrella Movement of 2014, sit-ins which promoted democracy, and began propagandizing the training of Hong Kong police.
The police claimed their resources had been depleted by earlier protests. Hongkongers balked at this justification because the Hong Kong police force is formidable and well-organized. On a night when protesters changed direction and were scattered in multiple locations, in approximately an hour I observed more than 30 police buses/vans a block away from protests. When the police are able to deploy that level of force but could not muster a presence in Yuen Long, it indicates some disconnect.
In the days that followed, protesters brazenly announced marches in Yuen Long and near the Liaison Office. A plastic cover appeared over China’s emblem and two-meter-high water barriers barred the doors. The same barriers cropped up at entrances to police stations throughout the city. The lines have been drawn.
Since Yuen Long, clashes between the police and protesters have escalated. The police are contemplating deploying water cannons with tinted water so protesters can be identified long after they have been sprayed. Meanwhile, protesters are vying for the attention of the international community. Yesterday, departing and arriving flights were canceled as protesters descended on the airport.
But the protesters face an opponent more formidable than the police. China is tightening its grip on a valuable region. Beijing has recalcitrantly reaffirmed its support for the police and its unpopular Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. It has also reminded the world it is within its authority to deploy the People’s Liberation Army to Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is a bastion not only of economic freedom but human freedom in Asia. I am not qualified to recommend the best means for supporting Hongkongers. Yet echoing in my mind is a line from the protesters’ mantra: “Who will be strong and stand with me?”
Brenda Hafera is the director of an international program for undergraduate students, based in Hong Kong.
Note to Readers: Issues & Insights is a new site launched by the seasoned journalists behind the legendary IBD Editorials page. Our mission is to use our decades of experience to provide timely, fact-based reporting and deeply informed analysis on the news of the day.
We’re doing this on a voluntary basis because we think our approach to commentary is sorely lacking both in today’s mainstream media and on the internet. If you like what you see, feel free to click the Tip Jar over on the right sidebar. And be sure to tell your friends!