Many things could be said about the past two months of protests in Hong Kong, first and foremost that the engagement, discipline, and organization of the overwhelmingly peaceful protesters have demonstrated beyond a doubt that they are worthy of the self-rule they agitated for in 2014.
They have also shown that protests are not always futile, even in China, as the scale of opposition drove the Hong Kong government to shelve (although not completely withdraw) the controversial extradition bill on July 9. The law—ostensibly a response to the case of a Hong Kong man who was accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan, and who could not be extradited there—would have allowed the selective extradition of Hong Kong suspects to a number of countries, including mainland China. Every major sector in Hong Kong, from the business community to human rights groups, worried that this bill would expose them to prosecution under China’s inhumane and unjust legal system. In the face of widespread opposition, the Hong Kong government then attempted to evade the already-minimal public vetting by “fast-tracking” the bill past regular scrutinization processes. The ensuing protests—including a rally that drew up to 2 million people—prompted the government concession.
Hong Kong’s is but a temporary victory, however, as Beijing will simply find other ways to do what it wants there. It has already been kidnapping people for both economic crimes and political offenses from Hong Kong and elsewhere, so while the legal cover of the extradition bill would have been nice, it is unnecessary.
So, this immediate victory is won, but the war will be lost, which is why the protests have not ended. Some more radical protesters fight with police, but by and large, peaceful anti-government marches, sit-ins, and rallies (including by thousands of traditionally neutral civil servants) persist almost daily, and have met resistance from police, pro-government demonstrators, and even triad gangsters. Various trade unions have organized sit-ins and strikes, including one on Monday, which disrupted traffic and public transit and caused hundreds of flight cancellations.
The concerns of the protesters have broadened to include the trustworthiness of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and the competence of a police force that is quick to respond to nonviolence with violence, inexperienced with handling nonviolent disobedience (often using crowd-control tools such as pepper-spray balls and tear-gas canisters as projectile weapons), and at best indifferent to if not in collusion with mob violence against unarmed protesters.
The protestors are now calling for the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the chief executive’s resignation, and an independent inquiry into police conduct, all of which are unlikely to happen. Even if they do, the current “one country, two systems” arrangement is due to end in 2047, at which time Hong Kong will lose its special status. Protesters fear that the “one country” that will come into being in 2047 will be that of the repressive Beijing regime rather than some version of the more liberal Hong Kong.
Make no mistake, this is a war that China will win, and any protests to the contrary will be in vain.
The danger of such futility is that protestors will become increasingly radical and nihilistic, which we already see not just with the small number of recent suicides but a broader sentiment among the young that they have “nothing to lose.” Increasing radicalism will in turn render normal political processes unable to deliver a resolution that is satisfactory to all, thus increasing the possibility of catastrophic and violent repression.
Breaking into the Legislative Council building on July 1 (the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover draws significant protests every year), for example, was an imprudent move, predictably drawing China’s ire. Several hundred protesters pillaged and vandalized the place, although they left money to pay for drinks they took from the canteen and spared the library and fragile artwork, and defaced the part of the Hong Kong special administrative region emblem that references its rule by China. Foolish though this trespass was, it cannot be condemned morally: When no genuine avenues for political participation and accountability are possible, then other means of political expression must be found. As someone helpfully explained in spray paint inside the building, “You taught us that peaceful marches were of no use.”
But just because the ongoing protests won’t succeed in their stated goals doesn’t mean they’re ineffectual. Many people argue that, because Hong Kong will inevitably become just another Chinese city when “two systems” comes to an end in 2047, it would be better to accept the mainland Chinese trade-off—wealth for civil liberties—and try to get the best deal possible within these confines. This could entail some level of continued preferential treatment as an autonomous region, if possible, or just special economic status like that which Shenzhen and Shanghai currently enjoy. Certainly, from an individual’s perspective, it does not make sense to be a martyr for a lost cause: better to make the best of the current situation or emigrate to a freer country if possible.
But staying and fighting is understandable even if Hong Kong is doomed. If someone is taking away your freedoms and rule of law, you have to at least scream.
And screaming does more than that: It sends up a flare. Even if the Hong Kong government had not capitulated and had ultimately passed the extradition bill, it would have been on notice that any use of the law to target Hong Kong’s civil society or civil liberties would have been closely scrutinized. This might have constrained the most egregious abuses.
Protests also signal to the wider population that dissidence and civil society are alive and well, which can bring people in from the sidelines who might have been otherwise too scared to participate. This happened during Hong Kong’s 2014 protests for universal suffrage, and it occurs elsewhere as well. For example, during protests against Augusto Pinochet’s regime in Chile in 1983, copper miners tried to avoid violent government repression by calling for decentralized demonstrations (e.g., walking and driving slowly on the streets, turning lights on and off, and banging pots and pans at night) rather than a strike. This had the additional effect of showing sympathizers unknown to one another that there were far more of them than they’d realized, perhaps enough to risk protesting openly in the future.
Furthermore, protests can generate secondary issues that draw others in. For example, in 2014 and now, the police response was grossly disproportionate to the peaceful protest methods, and this angered and galvanized other portions of the population, whose grievances then centered on police abuse and government complicity rather than the original cause of the protest.
Futile protests can also be a delaying tactic. Hong Kong’s fate is in Beijing’s hands, and it will continue to be squeezed by the Chinese Communist Party until the wall between the two systems has completely corroded, but the people of Hong Kong should fight back and try to hold out a little longer, in the hope that things will radically change in China someday and perhaps obviate what is currently the inevitable.
This is actually an epistemological consideration: One can never know for certain what will happen, and although the odds are overwhelming, a small number of attempted revolutions do succeed—but we cannot know in advance which ones.
And even failed efforts may bear fruit far into the future, in ways the original revolutionaries did not intend or expect. As Immanuel Kant wrote when the French Revolution’s outcome was still uncertain, no “sensible” person would want to repeat its “misery and atrocities” even if it were successful, but its occurrence demonstrates not only the natural human disposition “to hope for progress for the better,” but also that such progress is possible.
As it happens, some Hong Kong protesters have been known during the marches to belt out “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo’s fictional depiction of a later French uprising, Les Misérables. So, Kant’s choice of example was a good one.
Despite its explosive growth in recent decades, or perhaps because of it, China is facing serious domestic, economic, social, and political problems that will most likely require a painful reckoning, so one cannot tell what will happen. Insofar as protests in Hong Kong can delay the inevitable, they might preserve Hong Kong’s semi-independence long enough for the situation to change in Beijing and mainland China. (The risk, of course, is that the change may not be an improvement.)
The protests have, for now, tempered what the Hong Kong government and Beijing dare to do but only because of international and geopolitical circumstances. Continued provocation risks drawing a disproportionate response. Indeed, Beijing has now more than hinted (through various official spokesmen and media outlets) that it could send in PLA troops to quell the unrest, which only pointedly raises the specter of a second “June 4 incident,” as the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is known in China.
For the moment, Beijing is likely to hold off: Hong Kong is still a bastion of the rule of law in a China otherwise devoid of it, and draws significant foreign trading and financial investments, but Hong Kong’s importance is rapidly fading. Not only is Shanghai being groomed as an alternative financial hub, but Hong Kong’s portion of China’s overall GDP has dropped from over 18 percent at the 1997 handover to less than 3 percent today, and just this year it’s fallen below even that of neighbor and rival Shenzhen.
Hong Kong will soon outlast its utility in contributing to Chinese growth and prosperity, and Beijing cannot have continued unrest in Hong Kong raising questions or inspiring dissent in the mainland. If Beijing holds off on the violent repression it deploys elsewhere in China, it will only be because something else has stayed its hand.
Protests draw the attention of the outside world, especially when they seem so incongruous: tear gas and rubber bullets fired at skinny college-age kids and Democratic Party legislators wielding nothing but face masks, umbrellas, and helmets; toting supplies in their schoolbags; and holding their ground in between the gleaming skyscrapers of global investment banks and choking on tear gas outside luxury storefronts. Beijing will only refrain from sending in the military if it thinks that the international community is paying attention and will impose genuine sanctions in response. For the moment, China still seeks the respect of the international community, so continued demonstrations of the right kind will keep international attention focused on Hong Kong and extend the time it can hold out while waiting for China to revolutionize, yet again.
The CCP may be unafraid to practice violent repression in mainland China—including the use of torture, arbitrary mass detention in internment camps, forced disappearances, etc.—but the international community has an expectation that things in Hong Kong are different, and international moral opinion has sanctioning force.
All that will change as soon as the international community takes its eyes off Hong Kong. That means the international community must send credible signals that it is willing to politically assist Hong Kong dissidents and to diplomatically ostracize and economically sanction China for repression there, including making it clear that Hong Kong’s freedom will not be bargained away for trade concessions or other economic interests.
So while the ongoing protests may not get Hong Kong a better chief executive, a superior government, or a police force equipped to handle peaceful yet disobedient political activism, there is a grim logic to doing what one can do to stave off a worse fate, one that is readily demonstrated on the mainland.