Why is Beijing so worried about the Hong Kong protests? Because they know that the movement, now in its twentieth week, could become a symbol of democratic resistance that all disenfranchised people in the region could rally behind.
As the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrates seventy years of rule this week, protests in the semiautonomous city of Hong Kong continue to intensify. On Tuesday, Hong Kong police shot a teenage protester in the chest with a live round, the first such incident since protests exploded in June. Originally directed at a single anti–civil liberties bill, the demonstrations have since morphed into a broader anti-establishment movement, with many in Hong Kong seeing it as a last-ditch effort to prevent the steady erosion of political freedom in this special administrative region of China.
The Hong Kong authorities’ response — heavily shaped by the Chinese government — should be seen as a warning to democratic forces in neighboring countries, particularly Taiwan, whose citizens will go to the polls in January with the choice between accommodation or resistance to further CCP influence. But the movement also shows that powerful, repressive governments can be forced to walk back draconian measures in the face of popular mobilization.
Beginnings and Turning Points
The Beijing-backed administration of Carrie Lam and the leaderless protest movement have now been deadlocked since the end of August. Lam’s latest attempt at dialogue has been met with anger and renewed calls for an independent investigation into police brutality.
The movement originally erupted with two historic marches on June 9 and 16, drawing, respectively, an estimated 1 million and 2.3 million people (a quarter of the city’s population). Demonstrators spilled into the streets in response to Lam’s controversial extradition bill, which protesters charge would undermine civil liberties and the principle of “one country, two systems” established after Britain returned its former colony to China in 1997.
July was no less pivotal. Three convulsive moments shaped the movement’s course, all tied to police repression and subterfuge.
The first came on July 1, when an estimated five hundred thousand people marched to commemorate the anniversary of the 1997 handover and the unfulfilled promise of universal suffrage (Hong Kong citizens lack the right to freely elect their leader and much of the legislature). At night, some protesters occupied and vandalized the Hong Kong legislature. Many suspected the young protesters had been set up by police, who mysteriously vacated the premises, allowing the protesters to break through unopposed. Some have speculated that it was an intentional ploy by Lam’s administration to sow division in the protesters’ ranks.
The second critical point occurred eight days later, when Lam declared the bill “dead” but refused to formally withdraw it. Infuriated protesters insisted that the bill be shelved indefinitely. The frustration with her half-hearted response boiled into the first major confrontation between police and protesters on July 15, when police stormed a shopping mall and injured twenty-two.
Things escalated until another critical moment, on July 21. Mobs of white-clad, masked men indiscriminately assaulted protesters and civilian commuters in a public transit station in Yuen Long, a town in the New Territories north of Hong Kong Island. The attack left forty-five people injured and one in critical condition. The attackers were widely believed to be members of the Triads, Hong Kong criminal organizations, backed up by the police (who took more than twenty minutes to respond to the call).
The cascade of repression fostered sympathy for the student-dominated protest movement among many professional sectors. On August 2, civil servants staged a silent walkout, defying the order of “loyalty at all costs.” On August 7, more than three thousand lawyers demonstrated in solidarity with protesters. On August 18, an estimated 1.7 million people marched peacefully through the city. In response, the Chinese government began moving troops near the border and talked openly about a “military solution.”
As a small island geographically surrounded by China, ruled by a pro-Beijing administration, and lacking an independent military, Hong Kong’s main asset has been its financial and economic strength. But the protests have caused Hong Kong stocks to plummet — and with it, some of protesters’ leverage. If China can chip away at Hong Kong’s economic independence, the chances of the anti-extradition protests winning a long-term victory are slim. The result instead might be a weaker, internationally isolated Hong Kong.
The Movement’s Shortcomings
On August 5, protesters pulled off the first general strike in Hong Kong in half a century, effectively bring the city to a screeching halt. But the mass action also revealed the movement’s shortcomings: namely, its lack of labor demands, including those that could bring in migrant workers.
An estimated four hundred thousand migrant workers are currently employed in Hong Kong, mostly of South Asian and Southeast Asian descent. Their service as manual workers and housekeepers has allowed Hong Kong’s ultra-capitalist economy to keep humming along for decades and the city to function over the summer despite the rolling protests. But while support for the protest movement has spread beyond its original base of students, it has failed to win over migrant workers. Even worse, one small but vocal part of the movement (the “localist,” or “nativist” factions) demonize migrant workers and mainland Chinese (as opposed to Cantonese-speaking Hong Kong natives).
The relative weakness of the movement’s transnational and international solidarity networks is a product of its blind spot around racial and class inequalities — inequalities that have marked the Hong Kong system since the days of the British Empire. The movement’s failure in this respect was on full display during the headline-grabbing shutdown of the Hong Kong international airport on August 10–13. A deliberate attempt to garner attention from European and North American audiences, it showed that many Hong Kong protesters identify themselves more with European and American governments than with the struggles of the Global South.
This is a grave strategic mistake. European governments are unlikely to risk jeopardizing their investments in the Belt and Road initiative or a potential strategic partnership with China. And while the United States may be currently locked in a trade war with Beijing, Trump is unlikely to prioritize Hong Kong democracy over relations with Xi Jinping.
The current back-and-forth — pitting the ex-British colony’s wish for self-determination against the PRC’s desire for integration — is the fourth such episode since the 1997 hand-off. In 2003, the PRC tried to introduce legislation forbidding acts of treason, also known as Article 23. Half a million people took to the streets and managed to halt the bill. In 2007, China postponed implementing universal suffrage until after 2017. In 2014, Beijing announced that candidates in the promised 2017 elections would be subject to pre-screening by Mainland authorities, sparking the Umbrella Movement’s seventy-nine days of occupation. The bill was once again scrapped, but Beijing handpicked Carrie Lam as chief the following year.
What will China do this time? Most likely, it will not be another Tiananmen Square. Last month, with protests escalating, Chinese president Xi Jinping allowed Lam to completely withdraw the bill, a significant symbolic victory for the protesters.
China wants to avoid using brute force to quell the Hong Kong protests for two reasons: first, the perception that meting out violence against such a high-profile target — as opposed to the Uygur-majority Xinjiang, or the Hui minority — would hurt its international image as a ”responsible Great Power”; second, the concern that a military crackdown could spark further radicalization in Hong Kong. China wants a defeated, docile population in Hong Kong, not a rebel enclave.
At the same time, the troop mobilization should be taken as a clear signal that, while far from the preferred option, China could still turn to repression to pull closer into its orbit Hong Kong. In the eyes of the CCP, a resentful Hong Kong under Chinese military control would be preferable to a defiant, independent Hong Kong gravitating towards the Western hemisphere.
The increasingly blatant propaganda from Beijing in recent weeks is another sign that its patience is waning. One video compares Hong Kong student protesters to child suicide bombers employed by Taliban troops in Afghanistan — clearly an attempt to prepare domestic and, to a lesser extent, international audiences for more drastic measures. This has been accompanied by another quiet build-up of troops. According to Reuters, among the twelve thousand Chinese troops in Hong Kong are members of the People’s Armed Police, a paramilitary corps that responds directly to President Xi.
Lessons for Taiwan
Inside of the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall in Taipei, Taiwan, there is a 1953 letter sent by United States president Dwight Eisenhower to the then president of the Republic of China on the state of mutual security arrangements during the Korean War. “Unity and common purpose,” Eisenhower wrote, “must inevitably imply certain sacrifices and certain limitations on freedom of action on the part of all partners in a common effort.”
According to the modus operandi of US Cold War alliances, Chang Kai-Shek and his ruling party, the Kuomintang (Chinese Nationalist Party), were allowed to rule Taiwan under martial law for thirty-eight years, from 1949 to 1987, in exchange for Chang’s unquestioned loyalty to the Western bloc. It was thus the Taiwanese people who paid the price of “unity and common purpose” for the Americans’ anticommunist crusade.
In the years since, Taiwan has developed into one of East Asia’s most robust electoral democracies. The country’s leader is the pro-independence Tsai Ing-Wen, who was elected in 2016 on the wave of the 2014 Sunflower movement, a student-led protest sparked by a controversial trade agreement with China. She is up for reelection in January. To the left of Tsai Ing-Wen’s Democratic Progressive Party is the New Power Party, a pro-independence, moderate social-democratic party that came out of the Sunflower movement.
In Taipei, the push for greater integration with China is spearheaded by corporate interests who crave greater access and greater profits in the vast Mainland market (and who find their political representation, ironically, in Chiang Kai-Shek’s former party). These calls for reunification are a dangerous game amid the steady restriction of political rights in Hong Kong.
In many ways, January’s presidential and parliamentary election will be a test of the strength of Taiwanese democracy.
Rethinking Strategies, Fostering Solidarity
If China is playing the long game, so too must the forces of democracy in Hong Kong and in the region.
Going forward, it will be crucial for the younger generation in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and elsewhere to move beyond the false dichotomy of China versus the United States — neither country’s ruling class has a material or ideological incentive to promote self-determination and democracy in the region. The key will be to develop a long-term strategy that recognizes democratization can only be achieved by paying close attention to the balance of power between the two countries and exploiting its inevitable openings. But for such a strategy to work, the youth of Hong Kong and Taiwan will have to recognize that their natural allies are not Western governments, but pro-democracy activists in Mainland China, Thailand, Vietnam, and beyond.
The threat that Hong Kong and Taiwan pose to China is not a material one, but an ideological one. Beijing knows all too well that Hong Kong can become the symbol of democratic resistance behind which all disenfranchised people in the region can rally. Beijing’s biggest weakness lies in its inability to comprehend why young people in Hong Kong would fight for their political rights.
So long as the CCP and ordinary Hong Kongers disagree on the basic worth of civil liberties and other democratic rights, the spirit of the anti-extradition protests will remain alive. But the protest movement will fall short of its progressive potential unless it also embraces a politics of equality and anti-xenophobia — and places international solidarity at the heart of its challenge to Beijing.