Hong Kong’s fight for democracy not over yet
COVID-19 moves protest online
In 2019, after Xi Jinping, China’s president since 2013, declared himself dictator for life, the Beijing government sought to flex its proverbial muscles within its borders in a global show of power. This involved a nation-wide crackdown on several substantial minority groups, whom the CCP have deemed antithetical to its rule and the “Chinese Way of Life,” including suppression of Chinese Christians (especially Catholics), renewed crackdowns on Tibetan Buddhism and nationalists, and, most severely, the state-sponsored cultural (and literal) genocide directed at Muslim Uighurs in its North-Western edge. The most well-known of these acts of oppression, however, and the one which has also drawn the most international ire, is its encroachment on the island-state of Hong Kong.
For those who didn’t get a degree in history, here’s a quick run-down of Hong Kong’s past. Prior to 1842, Hong Kong island and the surrounding peninsula were sparsely inhabited and largely overlooked by the Western world. After a bit of bad-faith diplomacy, drug smuggling, and open war, the island was ceded to the British Empire, who held it until 1997. That year, after granting the colony nominal democracy, Britain handed Hong Kong’s sovereignty over to the CCP under the terms of a 1984 treaty which gave the island nominal autonomy and special status for 50 years. Up until the 2010s, China’s rule in Hong Kong had been largely benign, albeit looming, and the city enjoyed economic success while its citizens experienced their first real sense of self-rule in a century. The city continued to develop a unique culture of its own, gradually becoming a centre of commerce and travel for both mainland Chinese and the rest of Asia.
Upon Jinping’s seizure of total power in Beijing, however, the CCP changed its approach to rule in Hong Kong. Instead of integrating the various regional cultures and beliefs alongside their own, the CCP began a fierce campaign of forced assimilation. Anything that is not directly deemed by the party as culturally Chinese is to be uprooted, destroyed, and remoulded in the CCP’s image either by coercion or, often, violence. As a result, Beijing took a more direct approach to Hong Kong, including broadening the degree of censorship and deporting “political agitators” to mainland detention centres. In response, many Hong Kong citizens stressed that such acts violated the terms of the 1997 Hand-Over, an accusation the U.K. and most Commonwealth nations formally recognized in late 2019. Following a fierce crackdown by the HKPD on political groups, university students took to the streets in protest. Over the following summer, skirmishes between HKPD and protestors, who were overwhelmingly peaceful, became the daily norm, and soon the island’s struggle for self-determination was brought to the centre of the global stage.
For the better part of half a year, news cycles in much of the Western world portrayed the Hong Kong Police Department as an intimidating yet impotent force of totalitarianism attempting to crush the spirit of an entire city, while protestors fought back using every non-violent play in the book. As the HKPD’s methods became harsher, the protestors demonstrated in greater numbers as their leaders developed a militant approach to public agitation. The student demonstrators practiced non-violence by means of tactical withdrawals, gas masks and homemade body armour, tight formations resistant to on-foot assaults, and even the ancient Roman Testudo using umbrellas in lieu of shields. As this went on, the Western world became awed by the spectacle of willpower and grassroots determination while the CCP labeled the students as rioters, attempted to keep the rest of China ignorant, and utterly failed to present a positive picture of its domestic policies. Steadily, governments within the U.N. issued official statements, including economic sanctions in some cases, either in support of the protestors or against the CCP’s conduct. Some of Hong Kong’s most prominent pro-democracy activists have been arrested and jailed for their role in the protests, including Joshua Wong who is serving a 13.5 month sentence (and who was recently arrested while still in prison on new charges under the sweeping security law). Others, like Nathan Law, who was previously arrested with Wong in 2017 protests, have fled the island under threat of arrest.
As autumn 2019 rolled around, the civil battle over Hong Kong seemed poised to reach a dramatic climax that would live on for ages, but it was derailed by the arrival of a then unknown coronavirus in Wuhan. Soon, 2019 turned to 2020, and COVID-19, along with the disastrous response by both the WHO and Beijing, became the main story coming out of Asia. By January, Western attention had steered completely towards the disease, depriving Hong Kong of its most valuable source of support and public awareness. When the pandemic reached the island, public demonstrations evaporated as protestors were forced by these new circumstances to isolate at home. Without the presence of mass demonstrations, the CCP was able to force/coerce HK officials to pass legislation expanding Beijing’s political presence on the island, widening censorship laws, and placing greater restrictions on individual rights and political action.
This process repeated itself to the point where the United States government declared on May 7 that Hong Kong no longer enjoyed autonomy, a sentiment echoed by the UK, in the wake of a new security bill passed by Beijing. Public demonstrations remain scarce, and without the ability to publicly gather many Hong Kong citizens are turning towards escape. The overwhelming majority of Hong Kong students are choosing to study abroad, away from the CCP’s reach, and in July 2020, the UK granted most Hong Kong residents eligibility for British National status, meaning they could reside within Britain territory for five years whereupon they could be granted citizenship. This also makes it easy for applicants to travel to Commonwealth nations. However, to many demonstrators who consider Hong Kong home, the fight is far from over.
Stuck at home, protestors have since taken their fight online, digitally petitioning governments across the globe to intervene and refuse to recognize the CCP’s rule. They’ve also distributed well, information about the CCP’s censorship, false claims, and suppression of historical events such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989. Hong Kong demonstrators have also become some of the greatest actors in disseminating information regarding the CCP’s actions against the Uighur people, which include but are not limited to mass detainment, cultural destruction, and forced sterilization. Even after a year of setbacks, many in Hong Kong continue to fight for their island’s autonomy, holding out for the U.N. or NATO to intervene or for a change in leadership within Beijing. In a post-COVID future, only time will tell whether the world at large finally takes action or if the struggle for Hong Kong’s democracy will be in vain.