It’s hard to know what to think about the student protests in Hong Kong.
On the one hand they are incredibly inspiring. The courage, determination, brilliant organizing in the face of corporate blocking of the social media platforms that have been so critical early on to coordinating actions and rallying support, and the links that these masses of students have been able build with the broader Hong Kong community, have been amazing to witness. So to is the massive support that the city’s residents — even its staid usually conservative business-minded bankers and shop owners — have given and continue to give to this young people’s movement.
On the other hand, there is the hard reality that the students’ very success in standing firm against increasingly violent police repression raises the specter of an eventual Chinese military response that could end what freedom Hong Kong has managed to hang on to since the 1997 handover from colonial Britain to the People’s Republic of China.
The latest attempt by students to occupy the autonomous city’s universities and convert them into fortresses against police attacks, because they were so destructive and militant in nature, featuring as they did the use of bows and arrows (some of them flaming arrows), sling shots and petrol bombs, the tearing up of sidewalks for use in blocking passage on access streets and highways, and the destruction of train stations and toll booths, precisely because they have been so successful at disrupting travel and economic activity in the territory, are inevitably being viewed by the hard-line Communist Party leadership in Beijing as an existential threat to their 70-year rule over China dating back to 1949.
So far the PRC, with its firm grip on news inside the country, thanks to a tightly controlled national “intranet” and state-controlled news media, has succeeded in its efforts to keep information about the uprising inside of Hong Kong away from the broad Chinese public. What news there is in China concerning the disturbances in Hong Kong make it all out to be the result of foreign interference — a tried-and-true way to appeal to a growing Chinese nationalism and to a still widely held sense of a historic wrong suffered by China at the hands of foreign imperial powers.
The Hong Kong students, who have legitimate grievances and are trying their best to prevent what they rightly see as increasing Chinese meddling in Hong Kong local affairs and laws, and as a reneging by Beijing on promises for more local democracy in the city’s governance made in 1997. The lion’s share of political power in Hong Kong, whether under British or Chinese control, has always been kept with the business elite in the city. Student activists need to realize that any dreams they may have of Hong Kong becoming an independent city state like Singapore are futile. China will simply never allow that to happen. Actions, even symbolic ones, that suggest the city’s independence to be a goal, like waving American flags or burning the Chinese flag, are like waving a red cloth in front of a charging bull to the rulers in Beijing. So is calling for Hong Kong independence as a demand.
If the goal is to press China to honor its promise to gradually allow full one-person-one-vote elections for the entire Legislative Council that is supposed to govern the city, and open election of the city’s Chief Executive who to date under Chinese rule has been carefully hand-picked by Beijing’s leaders (it’s currently Carrie Lam, whose tone-deaf subservience to Beijing’s dictates sparked the current crisis), that might conceivably be achieved through concerted protest. Indeed the effectiveness of the protests that began last June toward those ends probably explain the Hong Kong government’s (and behind the scenes the Chinese government’s) resort to ever more violent police repression.
But this means that student activists have to walk a tightrope. So far, they have managed to retain the support of the vast majority of Hong Kong’s eight million residents as massive demonstrations supporting the students over recent months, some almost spontaneous in response to events, have demonstrated. As the UK newspaper the Guardian reports, that support has been dramatic, with a poll in late October showing that 52.5% of respondents blamed the government for the unrest and protest, while 18.1% blamed police and only 9.1% blamed the students. But as that article also reports, there are signs that this support for the students may decline as their resistance, certainly understandable, to police attacks turn more violent and destructive. The November 17 article, published a day after students had left or were driven by police from all the city’s public universities where they and the police had wreaked considerable destruction, forcing an end to classes, and after students had closed down key transportation hubs, rail lines and highways and tunnels, states that at least some ordinary Hong Kong residents who have supported the student protests are growing disenchanted, at least anecdotally. Among their concerns, the fear that China could involve the People’s Liberation Army, which reported has some 12,000 troops in the territory at this point — up until now confined largely to barracks — and has also quite publicly moved more troops and vehicles into Shenzhen, just across the border from Hong Kong’s New Territories.
China knows it still needs Hong Kong as an economic gateway to the global economy, with its relatively well-regulated stock market and British Common Law-based economy a reliable source of international investment capital for Chinese listed companies. It also values the “made in Hong Kong” label affixed to products actually largely produced in China except for minor additions, a sleight of hand that is useful for insulating Chinese manufacturing from international tariffs and costly involvement in trade disputes. But make no mistake: China’s national leaders will certainly ignore all the economic benefits to China of an autonomous Hong Kong if the alternative is a loss of control over this unique piece of Chinese real estate. Hong Kong, don’t forget, is where the British humiliated the Chinese empire in the mid-19th Century by grabbing the island, and from that base demanding the right to peddle opium to China’s population.
As a young anti-war activist in the late 1960s an early 1970s I was a committed part of the largely student-led struggle against the US imperial war against Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Our protests were for a long time rooted in the non-violent tradition espoused by Martin Luther King and others dating back to Henry Thoreau. But by 1970 after Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia and the murder by the National Guard at Kent State in Ohio and police at Jackson State in Mississippi of student anti-war protesters (possibly at the urging of the White House), , we became much more militant as a movement. A wildly successful national student strike was called that spring, which, as in Hong Kong today, saw buildings occupied, and classes brought to a halt. In some universities, degrees were simply awarded with seniors no longer attending class or taking final exams. In others, students were left hanging, their course work left undone or ungraded. Things escalated further in 1972 when President Nixon ordered the mining of Haiphong Harbor in North Vietnam — a dangerous act of war escalation that risked damaging Russian ships and globalizing that conflict perhaps into a nuclear war. The anti-war movement responded with a series of quickly organized mass demonstrations across the country that featured highway-blocking sit-downs, smashing of windows and other violent disruption, even as radical militant groups like the Weather Underground were exploding bombs at locations considered to be part of the US war effort.
The results of this confrontational turn by the US anti-war movement were mixed. The increased militancy of the movement may well have contributed to the government’s decision to wind down its increasingly bogged-down war in Indochina, though it’s hard to tell because of course, the main factor in that decision was the dogged resistance of the Vietnamese themselves, who were wearing down and defeating the US military. But increased militancy by US antiwar activists also certainly led to a loss of broader support for the anti-war movement. While Sen. George McGovern did manage to win nomination as a peace candidate for president on the Democratic ticket in 1972, sabotaged by his own party leaders, and a victim of Nixon campaign dirty tricks, he went on to lose that election in November by a landslide. In the end, Nixon improbably won a second term by 60.7% of the vote to McGovern’s 37.5%, capturing the electoral votes of every state except for Massachusetts.
One can easily overstate the parallel here but it seems clear to me that student activists in Hong Kong need to move carefully. It they are attacked violently by police for peacefully protesting, Hong Kong people have shown they will respond by the millions to support the kids. But if the police violence looks like it is in response to student attacks by arrows and flaming petrol bombs, that support may not be so forthcoming or so broad. Furthermore, if student movement demands go too far, to the point for example, of calling for Hong Kong’s independence, they risk eventually having China cross the Rubicon of activating the PLA.
I have a pretty good sense for what is happening in Hong Kong, having lived there and worked as a journalist and as a member of the Hong Kong Journalists Association during the critical six year period from 1992-97. That was when the terms of the handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty were finalized, and when China finally took back the city stolen by the British during the Opium War in 1841. Hong Kong people, and the students and young people I knew back in those days, were both proud and anxious about that handover — proud because they did not like being colonial subjects of Britain, which had a long history of repressing, diminishing and looking down on local Chinese residents of the city, and anxious because they had won many valued freedoms over the years of British rule, which they feared could be lost if the city became too much like China. Students in particular were committed to hanging on and even to expanding those freedoms from the start.
I don’t buy the claim being made by some in Hong Kong that the current student revolt in Hong Kong — being conducted by students most of whom were actually born after the handover of the city to China — is the work of outsiders and of outside funding by the likes of billionaire anti-communist George Soros. I’m confident that what we’re seeing in Hong Kong today is the genuine, heartfelt desire by Hong Kong’s educated younger generation for the preservation of the freedoms they and their parents have won over years of struggle from first the British and then the Chinese government. None of it was just handed to them. It was the result of insistent pressure for more democracy, for freedoms of press, speech and assembly, and of a willingness to take to the streets to make their demands clear. In recent years China, uncomfortable with the degree of freedom Hong Kong people won, has been trying to push that genie back into the bottle. The students, to their credit, aren’t having it.
If they are strong, steady, and work out how to modulate their protests and their demands as they maneuver their way along the tightrope of political activism, they may yet win and serve as an inspiring model to young people everywhere.
One thing is sure, and it’s important too: The whole world is watching Hong Kong.