After Recent Blows, Can Hong Kong’s Pro-Democracy Movement Endure?​

The movement is on its heels thanks to COVID-19 and pressure from local and national authorities – a worldwide resurgence of protest politics may only complicate matters.​
June 17, 2020, 9:08am
Hong Kong protests, China, George Floyd protests, Sunny Cheung
Police detain a man as pro-democracy protesters gather in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong on June 12, 2020. Anthony WALLACE / AFP

The annual June 4 gathering marking the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park was a little different this year.

Every year since 1989, when the Chinese government killed anywhere from 200 to over 10,000 people in a brutal crackdown on student-led demonstrations, thousands have assembled to commemorate Tiananmen with a candlelight vigil in Hong Kong—the only place on Chinese soil where even mentioning the massacre, let alone holding a rally memorializing it, is permissible.

This year, however, for the first time in decades, city officials issued a ban on the rally, citing health concerns about the spread of COVID-19. But the vigil’s organiser, the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, said it believed that the move was less about public health, and more about “political suppression.”

Indeed, after months of often-violent pro-democracy protests that rocked the city last year, authorities have been reluctant to allow mass gatherings of any kind. But thousands of Hong Kongers defied the ban, and went ahead with the vigil anyway.

The ban also came at a time of tightening restrictions on the local pro-democracy movement in the form of a new national security law, mandated by China’s National People’s Congress, which aims to outlaw, in broad terms, any acts of secession, terrorism, and foreign interference in Hong Kong—all bywords used by Beijing at one time or another to describe last year’s protests.

For many, the law represents a final nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s special freedoms, of which the annual Tiananmen vigil is a prime example.

Meanwhile, on the very same day as the Tiananmen vigil, Hong Kong’s local legislature passed a controversial bill criminalizing disrespect for the Chinese national anthem, which is often greeted with boos and jeers when played at Hong Kong sporting events.

The recent developments have sparked fresh, albeit diminished, protests in the city, but the new restrictions, along with a recent strategy of mass arrests pursued by Hong Kong police, have raised questions over whether Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement will survive, and in what form.

While some local protesters have vowed to fight on, Sunny Cheung, a pro-democracy activist and part of a self-described “resistance camp” of like-minded leaders and politicians, told VICE News there was a real risk the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) may use the national security law to "try to repress… local activism.”

The threat of severe political prosecution, he added, could be enough to convince some local activists to flee the city.

But amid the soul searching among Hong Kong’s protesters, something surprising has happened. A host of similar protests have sprung up around the world, starting in the United States, to challenge centuries of systemic racism, and in particular, the deaths of countless Black people at the hands of police.

Some of these Black Lives Matter protests have even lifted from Hong Kongers’ protest playbook, with participants using traffic cones to snuff out tear gas canisters, and umbrellas to block pepper spray and rubber bullets—techniques Hong Kongers innovated over the last year.

Though the two protest movements are seeking different goals, they share a social justice-minded spirit—and at least one common enemy: the police.

“In each country we should all support human rights,” said Cheung. “We should end police brutality by all means.”

However, though some might expect the Black Lives Matter movement to lend at least moral support to Hong Kong protesters, some experts think the global protests might actually complicate matters.

“It comes at a very unfortunate time for the Hong Kong protests, both because it distracts global attention, and because it provides the Chinese government with ready-made responses to international criticism of crackdowns by authorities in Hong Kong,” said Elise Thomas, a researcher at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.

Already, China’s brigade of “wolf warriors”—its term for select diplomats and spokespeople empowered to fight social media propaganda wars on platforms banned at home—are sinking their teeth into the U.S.’s initially hamfisted response to the protests, lobbing sarcasm and playground insults on Twitter.

On May 30, for instance, Zhao Lijian, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson and putative head of the wolf pack, retweeted a deliberately misleading doctored comparison of an American pastor’s comments on the protests in Hong Kong and Minneapolis.

In addition to providing Chinese propagandists a convenient excuse for heavy-handed tactics in Hong Kong, the response to the Black Lives Matter protests is also being used more broadly by the Chinese Communist Party and its surrogates to insist that it’s no different from Western democracies.

Even as Hong Kongers were gathering to commemorate Tiananmen at Victoria Park on June 4, Hu Xijin, editor in chief of the nationalist state-run tabloid Global Times, tweeted videos juxtaposing the iconic “Tank Man” facing down a column of Chinese armored vehicles with images of police cars driving into protesters in Brooklyn on May 30.

It’s difficult to miss the implication: if democracies’ stated commitments to civil and human rights are merely a hypocritical facade, as China maintains, why should China itself embrace them?

“China is certainly using the opportunity to contrast U.S. (and other Western states) support for demonstrations in Hong Kong with the Trump administration's condemnation of current protests in the U.S.,” Dr. Michael Clarke, Associate Professor of the Australian National University’s National Security College, recently told VICE News.

The PR putsch, he added, seeks “to demonstrate that the U.S. is ultimately hypocritical in its upholding of principles of democracy and human rights and that the U.S. simply instrumentalizes them in pursuit of other less benign objectives (e.g. for the ‘separation’ of Hong Kong from China, as the CCP would have it).”

All these developments have rendered the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement’s already precarious situation even more “unpredictable,” Sunny Cheung admitted, though he still believes that the local protests “will not die down.”

Rather than dampening the local democracy movement, he thinks that Beijing’s recent attempts to tighten its grasp on the city will only encourage more people to take their grievances to the streets, especially the younger generation of Hong Kongers, who no longer have “confidence” in the communist regime.

According to Cheung, the CCP have already "lost the whole generation.”