Nick Tang is a writer and organizer based out of Hong Kong.
At this time last year, the prevailing mood in Hong Kong was red-hot anger – the powerful, gut-burning kind that can only be felt when a promise is broken, again and again. In the muggy summer heat, protesters – more than a million, according to organizers – cut a thick, white-shirted swath through the heart of the city to denounce an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kongers to be tried in mainland China, which threatened to quash dissent.
In the streets we raged at issues beyond that bill, such as how elected legislators were removed from office under Beijing’s pressure. We fumed at the “disappearance” of the Causeway Bay Books operators who traded materials banned in mainland China. We seethed about Beijing making a mockery of our demands for universal suffrage, only to propose a take-it-or-leave-it alternative in which only Beijing-approved candidates could run for the job of Hong Kong chief executive.
But one year after that day when we took to the streets to send the message that we would not be bullied into submission – when there was still palpable hope that the promise of “one country, two systems” could be restored, notwithstanding the separatists and anarchists on the fringes of the movement who likely thought otherwise – the last vestiges of optimism have been extinguished.
There was the death of student protester Alex Chow Tsz-lok and the two-week siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. There were the police’s kettling, tear gas and pepper spray tactics and mistreatment of activists in custody. There was the Immigration Department’s deportation of migrant worker and citizen journalist Yuli Riswati and the Home Affairs Department’s disruption of the operations of pro-democracy district councillors who swept last year’s local elections.
The latest assault: China’s sweeping national-security law is now in effect, and experts say its vague language and harsh punishments could persecute anything or anyone that threatens the Communist Party’s legitimacy and territorial claims. There have already been arrests made under the new law, and some members of the pro-democracy movement have fled Hong Kong.
This has led many to realize what activists have known for decades: The promise is empty and easily taken apart. Hong Kongers have been here before: We have long protested the violation of our rights and rallied against social injustices, only to be met with half-hearted concessions, branded as rioters and provocateurs or crushed with violent policing. We have long witnessed the undermining of our much-vaunted liberal institutions, with the only responses being performative listening exercises intended to pacify rather than solve.
This time, however, it feels like there’s something new and dangerous in its place, for better or for worse: a growing phoenix spirit, emanating from Hong Kongers’ seeming commitment to taking Beijing down with them, so that a new Hong Kong can rise from the ashes. It’s a mentality captured by the dramatic Hunger Games-inspired chants that have only grown in volume among protesters as of late: “If we burn, you burn with us.”
The endgame is nigh – it just came 27 years earlier than expected.
So as we’ve seen the fragility of the promise on which Hong Kong’s very existence was built, and how untenable it has become, we have started to accept that we are a place that’s in-between – neither the old Hong Kong we were promised, nor a new, better one. And the movement is refusing to be complacent in this purgatory, instead rushing headlong to the next stage – no matter the consequences.
This always felt inevitable. Ever since the start of conversations between the British and Chinese governments on the sovereignty of Hong Kong in 1979, Beijing has argued the city was acquired by Britain through unfair treaties. The 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square soon followed, however, and it signalled to Hong Kongers – many of whom had supported the students and workers’ struggle for democracy in mainland China – that Beijing would meet dissent with force.
Still, in 1997 – in a vow enacted by treaty – colonial Britain returned Hong Kong to China, with Beijing promising to leave the region untouched by the Communist Party’s state apparatus for 50 years. And for many Hong Kongers, the agreed-upon terms and the Basic Law that ensued became an article of religious faith: China had agreed that Hong Kong would retain its autonomy and institutions – a common-law legal system independent from China’s and an economy that was neoliberal to a fault – until 2047. There would be “one country, two systems.” This was the compromise that made Hong Kong’s existence possible – this hope of keeping alive the Hong Kong we were promised.
In the years after the formal handover, however, Hong Kongers have witnessed how the Chinese Communist Party mobilized anti-treason laws and rhetoric to ward off whatever threatened its legitimacy. From the conviction of Tan Zuoren, who investigated the shoddy construction of schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, to the Hong Kong administration trying to pass an anti-treason law in 2003, and a 2015 crackdown on lawyers and the continued repression of labour activism, nothing seemed to escape the bounds of “national security.” People fled in droves to places such as Britain, Australia and Canada. For some, it felt as if Beijing’s crackdown was coming – it was just a matter of time.
It has added up to a loss of faith, not only in the current administrations in Beijing and Hong Kong but in a system that has shown itself to be rotten to the core. The fact that Hong Kong’s democracy movement, liberal in its politics and with no discernible abolitionist tradition to speak of, has begun to demand that the police be disbanded proves this point. For many, it now seems clear that the law and its enforcement serve power rather than justice.
The idea that “one country, two systems” is salvageable or worth salvaging at all has been exposed as an illusion. The breaking of China’s word appears complete, more than two decades early, suggesting that if Hong Kongers want autonomy, a new approach will be needed – one that’s a step up from that of the generations of activists who paved the way to this moment.
And so, many protesters have turned their molten anger into a flamethrower spray of red Make America Great Again hats. As it became increasingly clear in recent months that there would be no concessions from Beijing, many protesters turned to President Donald Trump’s United States, which seemed to be the only state with enough clout to rival Beijing. Some believe the U.S. could “liberate” Hong Kong; others hope U.S. efforts might damage Hong Kong’s economy and therefore the broader Chinese economy and the party’s legitimacy, bringing Beijing down with the ship. “If we burn …”
To an extent, this plan is bearing fruit. In November, 2019, the U.S. passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and recently declared the city “no longer autonomous,” revoking its special status on trade and immigration issues. But this, too, does not represent a clear-cut victory of freedom over authoritarianism. There are reasonable questions about the Trump White House’s endgame; some believe the city is being used as a pawn to further Washington’s interests in its battle with China. Others fear the U.S. interventions and sanctions will harm working-class Hong Kongers the most – people who have already been badly affected by the pandemic and were suffering from deep levels of inequality before that.
It has proved difficult to drive the democracy movement away from this potentially damaging course. After all, the raison d'être of modern Hong Kong is to act as an interface – an in-between space – for the economies and empires of the East and West. The fact that our city evolved from being Britain’s entrepôt to an international financial centre makes that a bargaining chip for salvation. With the national security law now in force, many more seem to be embracing this tactic, even though there is no telling if Hong Kong could survive the imperial powers colliding on our shores. That’s the reality of being caught in the middle.
The terrain may be changing, though. The police killing of George Floyd, the re-energized Black Lives Matter movement in the U.S. and the paramilitarized response to the protests there have caused many in the Hong Kong democracy movement to reconsider aligning themselves with a country where a different but still painful form of oppression and social injustice remains a fact of life.
The question now, as it has been since 1997, is where things go from here. Will the protests continue their almost nihilistic approach, or will the forces insisting that “one country, two systems” is salvageable win the day? Change, ultimately, will not come from leaning on other countries or their elites. If power rests with the people, then the movement needs more people to signal how important this fight is. It’s only when we connect with those who have been similarly oppressed and struggling against unjustified authority – from Black Americans to ethnic minorities who have been brought to heel in China – that Hong Kongers will be able to create the room needed to do something decisive from this space in between.
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