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Reframing the Hong Kong Protests

Opinion | September 30, 2019

Author’s Notes

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Writer #1: As a student who calls Hong Kong home, seeing my city paralyzed by protests has been hard to watch from afar. But I completely understand the necessity of these protests. It has been inspiring to see people of all professions and classes gain an understanding of the imbalanced nature of power, and unite to take genuinely impactful actions against a government that has historically disregarded protests.

However, I am worried about the popular desire for support from the US and UK governments. As somebody who is engaged with radical decolonial communities and spaces in the US, I cannot support such a sentiment. This article is an attempt at explaining my reasoning for this.

Writer #2: I call China my home. I grew up in mainland China. I love my country, and I love being Chinese. However, something went terribly wrong in the course of my country’s history, and I know there is grave injustice. For most of my life, I always felt like the country would never change. I just never felt like there was anything I could do about it. How is one individual supposed to fight against an international superpower?

But when I heard about the Hong Kong protests, I couldn’t help but feel hopeful. What if this is the chance for my country to be better? In Hong Kong, I see people that are putting their safety and lives at risk to speak up. I see their attempt to make sense of all the contradictions, and to imagine a different future. I want to join that movement. This article is my attempt to influence the people around me and imagine a better future for my home.

We are writing this anonymously because most of our family currently lives in Hong Kong and mainland China and we do not want them to be associated with an article that contains criticisms of the Chinese state.

Protests in Hong Kong have now been underway for over 100 days. Hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers have taken to the streets every week in mass protests. The demonstrations began to oppose a controversial extradition bill that would effectively allow the kidnapping of political targets by the Chinese government. The bill could severely compromise free speech and the sovereignty of Hongkongers. With the demonstrations dragging on and escalating into violence, there is a grim feeling that Hong Kong’s autonomy and future is at stake.

The protests also center a critique of police brutality and a demand for universal suffrage. As a former British colony, the city of Hong Kong has held on firmly to its colonial past. After the handoff of Hong Kong from Britain to China in 1997, the new government has reproduced the old British colonial system by letting high ranking UK-born officials in the police force maintain their positions and using colonial-era riot control techniques. There is a clear sense that an elite segment of society consolidated wealth and power at the cost of the oppressed masses. A central vision for the protests is dismantling the institution of colonialism and police while demanding fair representation for Hong Kong citizens. 

Local reporting and international news coverage has lent the movement a high degree of global visibility. In the US, the corporate news media has enthusiastically reported on various stages of the protest. There have been marches in support of Hong Kong in major cities such as New York City and Boston.

However, solidarity from Western allies is often rooted in uncritical pro-US rhetoric. Current discussions about Hong Kong oversimplify the current protests, reducing them to contrived scenarios of East versus West—authoritarianism versus democracy. In reality, Hong Kong’s discontent runs far deeper than such dichotomies. 

In the media, Hong Kong protesters are referred to as “pro-democracy” demonstrators, which is a partial and essentialized representation of the movement and its members. The Hong Kong protesters are not pro-democracy for democracy’s sake. The protests are about challenging extreme income inequality, absurdly high property prices, and the increasing erosion of local cultures due to corporate influence. Demonstrators are asking for a future for themselves and their children. The protests are about survival.

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If you scroll through your Facebook feed, you’ll likely see many of your friends posting in support of Hong Kong protesters. The protests have found many allies among freedom-loving Americans. 

The general public’s obsession with Hong Kong stems from the symbolic value that the protests hold. The protesters represent “democracy,” an idea that sits at the core of US founding mythology. Democracy has always been considered a core American value, and it serves as a basis for American exceptionalism—the idea that the US is a uniquely free nation founded on a sacred set of democratic ideals, superior to all other nations.

The protests have provided a convenient opportunity to create a symbolic dichotomy between China and the US. The US is in support of “pro-democracy” protests as the Chinese government is actively trying to suppress them. By using China as a foil for “democracy,” Americans individuals and institutions can downplay criticisms or avoid examination of their own hegemonic social structures. 

In the US, institutional crimes are often downplayed in the public sphere. The frequent human rights violations—such as the caging of immigrant children at the southern border and the murder and displacement of indigenous peoples—by the US government are absolved under a presumption of superior knowledge and good intentions. As a distraction tactic, the US news media is quick to point out social problems in other parts of the world.

When it comes to reporting on Hong Kong, police suppression of demonstrators has increasingly taken center stage. Corporate US news platforms are publishing headlines such as “Hong Kong police storm subway with batons as protests rage” and “Hong Kong police fire tear gas, water cannon as violence flares after protesters defy ban,” highlighting the violent actions of the local police force. 

These headlines do not capture the full historical context. Policing is about protecting the property and interests of the ruling elites against the unruly masses in the most violent way possible. Policing is historically rooted in colonial and authoritarian regimes, and thus police brutality is present in the US and in all places that are affected by these institutions. Police brutality in Hong Kong should be teaching us that the abolition of police must be central to our imagination of liberation in Hong Kong and everywhere else. 

It is no coincidence that the US—a nation that is struggling with its own reality of police brutality—chooses to highlight police brutality in Hong Kong. Focusing criticism on the Hong Kong police is a way to detract from the problem of police violence done unto communities in the US. Reporting on the authoritarian rule and colonial vices of China is a way to distract from and delegitimize critiques of US society. 

The US corporate news media is also quick to point out shameful parts of Chinese history. One New York Times article is titled, “In Hong Kong, Protest Photo Evokes Memories of Tiananmen Era,” referring to the 1989 massacre in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, where hundreds of peaceful student protesters were killed by an army of tanks and armed troops. The insinuation is that history will repeat itself in the form of violent military crackdown on Hong Kong protesters. Furthermore, it is an accusation that China is a monolithic oppressor. What is left out of discussions is how Western states, who hail themselves as the pinnacle of democracy, also struggle with their histories of militarized suppression of protests. 

To be conscientious US allies to Hong Kong, US spectators have to acknowledge that the US has its own shameful history in militarized suppression of domestic demonstrations—from the shooting of student protesters at Kent State to the federal program to murder leaders of the Black Panther Party. In these histories, champions of democracy are subjugated by an authoritarian state. The US cannot continue to suppress these histories in order to claim to be the pinnacle of “democracy.”

The lesson that should be learnt from Hong Kong is that allies need to take these histories—of Hong Kong and of the US—and use them to imagine a radical democracy that challenges dominant narratives.

US spectators of Hong Kong cannot use the protests to minimize or distract from their own histories. It is crucial to look at one’s own country’s authoritarian and imperial past and present. The US, as a self-appointed voice of justice and vigilante in the international landscape, has never seen non-Western countries as fit for self governance and self-determination. American support for human rights and democracy has often been a way for the US government to increase its influence on the international political landscape. We can point to US involvement in the war in Southeast Asia in the 1950s to the 1970s as an example. During that time, US military leaders evoked the false rhetoric of liberalism and democracy and publicly denounced its Communist enemies. All the while, American troops were indiscriminately shooting Vietnamese civilians, and the US military was blanketing Vietnam and its neighboring countries with bombs.

Among US spectators of the Hong Kong protests, there is a strong sentiment that only the American paradigm of democracy will “save” Hong Kong. When US politicians claim to “stand with” Hong Kong, these claims should be understood as reactionary attempts to capitalize on the predicament of a foreign country in an attempt to obtain further international influence. Currently, the US Senate is proposing a bill called “Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019.” As part of the rollout, Senator Marco Rubio released a statement saying he is “proud to reintroduce legislation that places the US firmly on the side of human rights and democracy.”

Under the guise of promoting democracy, the bill would allow the US to exert more pressure on the Hong Kong government. It gives the US more leverage to extradite individuals from Hong Kong and stipulates that Hong Kong should enact controversial sanctions against the US’s adversaries such as Iran. An expert appointed by the United Nations Human Rights Council has stated that such sanctions against Iran violate international human rights and have resulted in the deaths of Iranian civilians.

Many individuals in the US claim to be allies of Hong Kong. But as allies, it is important to avoid supporting an allyship that is in service of the US and its global empire. It is unacceptable to take away from people’s ability for self determination.

Though we are critical of the US government in how they approach the Hong Kong protests, we are not lending credence to the conspiracy theories that Western states are directly funding and influencing the protestors. We think that this particular conspiracy theory—which has recently gained momentum through Chinese nationalistic media outlets and WeChat—plays into a colonial narrative that positions Hong Kongers as inherently apolitical subjects that cannot make decisions for themselves. Their decisions must be made by a Western state. 

US allies of Hong Kong also often are so engrossed in the false narrative of staving off the authoritarian Chinese government that they fail to recognize the systemic social issues that are already present in Hong Kong. More specifically, in a fight for the future of Hong Kong, US allies fail to see and account for the colonial histories and realities of the city.

A simplistic view of the Hong Kong protests as “pro-democracy” obscures the humanity of the demonstrators in an effort to reaffirm and reproduce the idea of an unwavering, divine democracy in the US collective consciousness.

American institutions have a vested interest in propping up Hong Kong as a symbol of democracy. Hong Kong is falsely constructed as a “Westernized” city that is an oasis of democracy and human rights in the vast authoritarian domain of China. However, that is quite far from reality.

Hong Kong is a former British colony still deeply entrenched in colonial power structures. While affluent members of Hong Kong society are increasingly Hong Kong-born business elites instead of British colonists, there is a clear reality of colonialism and oppression.

Colonialism continues when economic elites collude with the governing body to exploit vulnerable communities such as ethnic minorities, Southeast Asian home care workers, and sex workers. The city’s legislative body frequently conspires with business elites, exacerbating problems of social and economic inequality. For example, government policies have allowed real estate developers to make tremendous profits while worsening the housing shortage in the city

While the elite are consolidating power, working-class people in Hong Kong do not have access to affordable housing, living wages, or educational opportunities. These groups have historically been subject to unfair policing, economic and social discrimination, and harassment on a far more regular basis than other citizens. Their treatment under authorities is symptomatic of the internalized logics of colonialism and neoliberalism that have long been at play in Hong Kong.

In other words, authoritarianism and police brutality—the problems that are now coming to the forefront—were present long before the protests of 2019. Critiques of the city’s political structure and any imagination of its future must be able to reconcile a narrative of the most marginalized through a decolonial lens. If such problems are recognized as being rooted in Hong Kong’s colonial history, the protests offer a unique opportunity for imagining the process of decolonization.

Postscript

If you claim to be an ally to Hong Kong, you need to situate the Hong Kong protests in historical, transnational, and decolonial conversations. Most importantly, you cannot simply locate problems of authoritarian rule and colonial vices in a construed Eastern “Other.” The problems that Hong Kong is facing must also be recognized and located right here, in the US. Only then can a transnational solidarity that can challenge the institutions that are oppressing Hong Kongers and people everywhere else be built. 

Despite a deep history of British colonization in the city, there are people from Hong Kong that are bravely engaging in conversations around decolonial thought. As Asian American scholar Mark Tseng-Putterman writes, “Imperialism is also a structure of knowledge, and Westerners feigning expertise over countries they know nothing about is at its root. The presumption of ‘knowing better’ is a staging ground for intervention and control.” Any self-declared ally to Hong Kong has to put in the work to undo these structures of knowledge. We recognize that it can be challenging to locate these sites of conversation, so we’ve listed a few such websites down below.

  1. Hong Kong’s Fight for Life Towards a Radical Hong Kong Imagination: New Forms and Content in the Movement for Self-Determination 
  2. Hong Kong’s Fight for Life
  3. Imagining the end of the police. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act: a critical analysis 
  4. Three Months of Insurrection: An Anarchist Collective in Hong Kong Appraises the Achievements and Limits of the Revolt 
  5. A back-to-school mixtape: Lausan’s first curated reading list on Hong Kong history, society, politics, and culture
  6. Timeline | Hong Kong Democratic Movement 2019