When Peaceful Protest Doesn’t Work, What Do You Do? They’re Asking That in Hong Kong, Too.

Brendon Hong
Anthony Kwan/Getty

HONG KONG—Typed on screens, painted as graffiti, and yelled out loud, the idea of “burning together” (laam chau in Cantonese) is invoked by a growing number of Hongkongers who believe a scorched earth attitude is the only reasonable response to desperate times.

Decades of nonviolent demonstrations have barely moved the needle in their quest for self-determination, and as the legal and political climates have begun to shift at a much more rapid pace, with Beijing determined to change the way Hong Kong functions, more people are concluding that peaceful resistance does not work, that perhaps the way forward relies on escalating action, possibly including telegenic, viral acts of violence.

No matter what form demonstrations take, they are by definition “wrong” in the eyes of authoritarian regimes. Time and time again around the world violent actions have been tethered to legitimate calls for freedom, equality, and justice, drawing opprobrium in many cases, but also attention. If appeals made in the most peaceful manner are ignored, whether in China or the United States, violence may ensue even at the risk it plays into the hands of authoritarians.

Last Thursday, China’s parliament bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature to back a new security law for the city in a nearly unanimous vote. The law’s details will be hashed out in the coming weeks and may come into effect before September—the month when Hong Kong will hold its next election for 70 legislative seats. What’s known for now is that the new law is designed to “prevent, frustrate, and punish” any entities that are involved in acts of “secession, subversion, and terrorism” in the city, and that Chinese intelligence agencies may establish a formal presence beyond their influence operations in Hong Kong.

China’s ‘Great Firewall’ Is Closing Around Hong Kong

Already, there are signs that political vetting is applied in new contexts in abnormal ways. Last week, several of Hong Kong’s government departments and Secretary for Security John Lee—a man who said last summer that there is the “seed of terror” within the protest movement—issued statements to voice their support of Beijing’s proposal and pledge their allegiance, while thousands of people took to the streets to oppose the CCP’s resolution in a loosely and hastily organized march.

And, with more entrepreneurs establishing local businesses that reject commercial ties with entities from mainland China, Hong Kong’s Companies Registry has begun to demand clarifications regarding the political leanings of the proprietors behind newly formed companies.

International corporations are not immune either. The global bank HSBC was in the rhetorical crosshairs of former Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying, who was a target of ire during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. On Facebook, Leung wrote that Hong Kong’s public officials should be “wary of” using the financial institution’s services because it has not rallied behind Beijing’s security law. “HSBC’s China business can be replaced by banks from China or other countries overnight.”

And what about educators who are sympathetic to the pro-democracy movement, or who simply look out for their students who take part in demonstrations? Pressure on them is coming in the form of 300 parents who have formed a “volunteer group” called Save the Children (not to be confused with the global organization) to expose teachers who include materials related to “political fallacies” in their lectures. The group also advocates for educational “reform” and the propagation of “positive energy”—a term frequently used by Xi Jinping and the CCP’s shills.

Even Hong Kong’s press freedom is being peeled apart slowly. The city’s public broadcaster is being probed by the government, which cited “wide public concern” regarding its program contents and management. In May, a political satire program produced by the station was suspended after the city’s broadcasting and telecommunications regulator said it had “insulted” the Hong Kong Police Force in some of its skits.

Most tellingly, while speaking to the press last Tuesday, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam emphasized that “rights and freedoms are not absolute.”

The CCP’s squeeze on Hong Kong—politically, economically, and socially—has many in the city seriously weighing the prospect of independence from China. In a poll conducted by Reuters last December, only 17 percent of people who were surveyed said they were in favor of shaking off Chinese rule completely. There are no numbers that are more recent, but judging from the widespread circulation of protest-related literature and forums where the pro-democracy movement is shaped through conversations among strangers, it is no longer rare to hear Hongkongers say that independence is “the only way out.”

How would that happen? A solid roadmap to achieve this or something resembling Taiwan’s fully, democratically elected government remains absent. And, with nobody standing in the CCP and Xi Jinping’s way, this rhetoric may even hasten Beijing’s assimilation of Hong Kong.

While the White House has threatened trade sanctions (again) against China over the national security law, diplomats from the European Union—one of China’s two biggest blocs of trading partners—said trade retaliation is off the table, and that they will approach Beijing with “critical and constructive dialogue.”

Most factions in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement realize that they are on their own, and recent developments have hastened the impulse to “build a nation,” or gin gwok in Cantonese. The term’s usage is aspirational, functioning more as a rally cry than actual directive, and it has been absorbed into pro-democracy slogans and literature.

(Interestingly, north of the border, the same term—pronounced jian guo in Mandarin—is loaded with a different meaning, evoking a heavily propagandized era of China’s history. It became a popular name for children born after Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists took power in 1949. Today, like everything else related to the Great Helmsman’s legacy, opinions about the name are polarized: It is either seen as a patriotic mark that follows a person for their entire life, or an imprint of mawkish nationalism that can’t be shaken off. Changing one’s name from Jianguo to something else would be, to say the least, frowned upon. As of last September, more than 960,000 people in China have this as their legal name.)

In any tongue, building a new nation is a painful undertaking, where defeat seems imminent every step of the way.

May 27 was the first day for students in Hong Kong to return to school since education facilities were closed due to COVID-19. On the same day, small, sporadic protests broke out in some parts of the city in reaction to a bill, separate from Beijing’s resolution, designed to criminalize “disrespect” of the Chinese national anthem. 

Riot police were out in force, rounding up, questioning, and detaining high school students and office workers who, in many cases, were just out on their lunch breaks, or leaving school or work. In all, more than 360 people were arrested that day. 

The youngest I saw in police custody looked like she was only 13 or 14 years old. She was in her school uniform, carrying a bookbag. As she was led into a police van, she was calm. The children expect this treatment now.

Hong Kong’s protesters—whether the black bloc, medics, cooks, drivers, logistics handlers, rally organizers, trade union members, or folks who join marches during public holidays—are called “rioters” by police and government officials in the city as well as in mainland China, just the way Donald J. Trump moans about “thugs” in Minneapolis.

That delusion, prejudice, and paranoia in the Oval Office are mirrored in Beijing, too, where key public figures also push their own twisted message by focusing on extreme actions committed by agent provocateurs, rather than address the foundational, systemic flaws that fuel broad public anger. 

Hu Xijin—the chief editor of the party’s extreme, nationalistic mouthpiece Global Times, and a man who, like Trump, can move markets with an afterthought tweet—suggested on Sunday that the confrontations unfolding on the streets from Miami to Seattle, sparked by the gruesome death of George Floyd, actually were planned and directed by Hongkongers who have infiltrated and appropriated the Black Lives Matter movement.

What? Yes.

CCP officials and their propagandists are watching how police in the U.S. are cracking down on protesters, and shooting at and arresting reporters. There is little doubt that they see this as vindication—it’s now open season in China’s freest city, perhaps freest not for long.

Last year, in early July, protesters in Hong Kong surrounded and then took over the government’s legislative building, smashing up its facilities, including the chamber where lawmakers hold their meetings and debates. Someone left 12 Chinese characters in black spray paint on a white pillar. It read, “It was you who taught us that peaceful marches are futile.”

Behind that indictment was desperation for just a little normalcy and control. It was palpable then, and still is now.

POST SCRIPT: On Tuesday, June 2, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam said at a press conference that Washington has "double standards" when it comes to Hong Kong. Trump has said he may remove economic and policy exemptions that apply to the city if Beijing's national security law comes into effect, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented that the city is "no longer autonomous" from the Chinese government.

"They value very much their own national security, but are biased in viewing ours," Lam said.

Without intending irony, Lam also said, "Some ask whether Hong Kong is still a city with the rule of law, or whether it is rule of fear."

For the first time ever, the Hong Kong Police Force has banned the annual Tiananmen Massacre vigil that is normally held on June 4, and in recent years has drawn six-figure attendance.

In 1989, 1 million people assembled in Beijing's Tiananmen Square to demand political reforms, calling for democracy, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the termination of corruption within the Chinese Communist Party. There were rallies in other cities around the country as well. A harsh and fast military crackdown ended the peaceful demonstrations, shaping the party's political outlook since then.

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