BY PHILIP J CUNNINGHAM
Hong Kongers are not quick to demonstrate, but when they do, whether in solidarity with people elsewhere, or out of the fear of losing autonomy, it’s worth paying attention to.
I first felt the positive force of Hong Kong people power in 1989 after relocating from Beijing to Hong Kong in the aftermath of the Tiananmen crackdown. People in all walks of life showed empathy and concern for what was going on in their big neighbor far, far away up north. In keeping with the traditional practices of mourning, there was a city-wide call to show solidarity with the people of Beijing who were crushed by June 4, 1989 crackdown. It was the largest protest in the history of Hong Kong, involving an estimated 1.5 million participants. Subtropical Hong Kong offers a strikingly different climate and cultural setting from the dry, dusty socialist square where history had been made--after all Hong Kong was best known as a bustling outpost of late empire colonial capitalism--but the passions expressed on the street were alike.
For the last thirty years, Hong Kong has been the only part of China where the victims of the tanks and guns of 1989 could be openly remembered, and just about the only place in the world where the tragedy was annually remembered on a large scale. In subsequent years, I attended candle-lit vigils in Victoria Park, and the memory of the passionate outpouring lingers, despite the alacrity with which Hong Kongers are able to resume their pragmatic, hard-working and business-oriented lives.
It is no mere coincidence that the June 9, 2019 anti-extradition bill demonstration this month took place just days after a peaceful demonstration, the largest in years, remembering the lost martyrs of 1989. These two events, separated by a gulf of three decades almost to the day, are a reminder that unresolved contradictions never really go away, and the initiative, once lost, is hard to recover.
Both events share a common yearning, not to ape the United States or clamor for US-style democracy, but to put forth China’s best version of itself. The pride in being Chinese, and the belief that Chinese are every bit as civilized as anyone else is not diminished by the fact there are unpopular people in power who will do almost anything to cling to it.
Hong Kong and China are indelibly linked by history, culture and economy; although there has been some minor, factional stirring in favor of independence, the point of contention in the really big demonstrations is not a break from being Chinese, but a desire to have a say in one’s future. It comes down to the importance of citizen participation and mutual respect in an imagined community called China.
After June 4, 1989, Hong Kong hearts beat as one with the mainland, despite its de facto independence as a UK colony. But over time the unresolved injustice regarding Tiananmen, which not only went unrecognized, but was whitewashed to the point of being taboo and invisible, has created an unbridgeable perception gap.
In 1997 when Hong Kong reverted to China, there were no massive demonstrations and little weeping. The British, who first secured a foothold in the region as drug dealers and then land-grabbers and renters, with the reluctant acquiescence of desperate and corrupt Qing officials, did eventually institute modern infrastructure, law, bureaucratic innovations and policing practices that have outlived the colonial regime, but Hong Kong, if it ever was in any sense a “child” of Britain, was a neglected child, ultimately abandoned.
The US, as the premier Western influence in the region today, is financially entrenched in HK and uses HK as a secure base from which to conduct China-related business and maintain geopolitical clout. Hong Kong and its Asian neighbors are no strangers to US interference; there’s been soft power projection, hard power kinetics, outright war and everything in between, but it does not go to say that every uprising and every big demonstration is the fruit of foreign meddling, or in CCP parlance, the work of “foreign forces” and “color revolutions.”
The “mother of all demonstrations” at Tiananmen Square is a case in point. It was overwhelmingly local, independent and spontaneous. True, the hands of various Beijing government factions showed early, and true, the media favored the students and there was sympathetic support from outside, most visibly from Hong Kong, as the denouement neared. But actual Western influence was minimal until it came to the end game of calling for the evacuation of citizens, providing refuge and ferrying people out. The US Embassy was in limbo between ambassadors, and, like other Western outposts, playing catch-up from the get-go, trying to make sense of a turn of events no one predicted. During Beijing Spring, the demonstrations transmogrified daily, a march here, a sit-in there, a hunger strike in the Square. The slogans changed too, from calls against nepotism and corruption, to calls for free press, from save the hunger strikers, to hold onto the Square. It was inconsistent and amorphous precisely because it lacked coherent direction either from within or without.
When the Li Peng's Beijing government cried “foreign intervention” it was a futile attempt to misdirect anger rightly directed at the regime itself.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement, though outside the focus of discussion here, was more of a splinter movement than a unifying one. It was, in the carefully-chosen words of veteran Hong Kong journalist educator Ying Chan, “complicated.”
It used the youth of its reputed leaders as a badge of innocence in the same way Carrie Lam has used her tears and her “gentle” gender to deflect from the hard truth of her hard politicking. She has proved scheming and unyielding to the point that her reputation is in tatters.
Martin Lee, a long-time democracy activist with a generally good reputation, muddied the waters by meeting with US Secretary of State Pompeo, a ruthless Machiavellian who was recently engaged in an abortive effort to foment regime change in Venezuela and would probably like to do the same in Iran. This feeds into the inevitable hostile “foreign forces” and “color revolution” trope that is sure to emanate from Beijing party organs.
The potential for violence is at least as great as the likelihood of a peaceful solution. Hong Kong police, who in calmer times enjoyed a favorable reputation akin to British "Bobbies" have been documented engaging in brutal crowd control. Demonstrations are truly hard to manage, but the optics of a heavily-weaponized force shooting tear-gas canisters, ganging up and striking peaceful protesters is never good.
Worse yet could come, in slow motion, or unsuspecting, all of a sudden.
Perhaps the only safe exit left, something that offers face-saving for both sides, is for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to exit the stage and for the extradition bill to be put on ice. Reasonable people can disagree about laws, reciprocity and extradition—the US extradites people all the time, and its aggressive bid for Huawei’s Meng Wanzhou and the rogue Australian trapped in the UK, Julian Assange, raises uncomfortable questions. It’s hypocritical for the long arm of Uncle Sam to want it both ways: yes, when the US does it, and no, when China makes a bid to do the same.
US statements on Hong Kong, including the eloquent words of solidarity from Nancy Pelosi, suggest that the US is doubling down on the status quo wherein the US makes the rules and goes after others for not following them.
President Trump, always a bit out of sync with the other members of the political class, and not always in a bad way, hit an oddly optimistic note, saying he thinks “they’ll be able to work it out.”
That would be for the best, of course, but only time will tell.