Last updated: 15 January 2022. The mass media has been presenting the Hong Kong protests of 2019 and 2020 as a familiar story—a band of idealistic young freedom fighters trying to protect their land and people from an evil empire. In reality, things are not so simple. The purpose of this article is to give readers a deeper understanding of the protests —the historical and socio-political background, the causes, the approaches used by the protesters and the likely outcomes.
This article is a follow-up to my photo-essay on Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. In this article on the 2019-2020 protests, I discuss the following:
Q1. What sparked the protests?
Q2. The political background: What is Hong Kong’s status within China?
Q3. The historical background: Why can’t Hong Kong be independent?
Q4. What are the causes of discontent?
Q5. What are the aims of the protesters?
Q6. What were the problems with the protesters’ strategies?
Q7. What are the central government’s aims?
Q8. What about police brutality?
Q9. What about violence, intimidation and vandalism by the protesters?
Q10. What about violence by others?
Q11. Do the protest supporters condone the use of violence?
Q12. Who are the protesters and how much support do they receive?
Q13. Is there a silent majority against the protests?
Q14. Can the government negotiate with moderates?
Q15. What is the Hong Kong government doing?
Q16. How have the protesters influenced protests in other countries?
Q17. What are other countries doing about HK?
Q18. What is the likely outcome of the protests?
TLDR Summary: The protests fizzled out because (1) the original goal—stopping a specific extradition bill— turned into a set of unrelated and far-reaching demands, (2) the protesters lacked the leverage necessary to achieve those additional goals and (3) the protest movement itself shifted from a peaceful pro-democracy movement to an antigovernment and anti-China movement that used violence and intimidation to suppress opposing voices.
Q1. What sparked the 2019-2020 protests?
In early 2018, a twenty-year-old Hong Kong man, Chan Tong-kai, and his pregnant nineteen-year-old girlfriend went on a trip to Taiwan. While in Taiwan, Chan murdered the young woman and returned to Hong Kong before the body was discovered. Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty with Taiwan, so there was no formal mechanism for sending him there. The Hong Kong government took this opportunity to propose legislation that would allow Hong Kong to extradite criminal suspects to jurisdictions—like Taiwan—that do not currently have extradition treaties with Hong Kong. If the bill, called the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, had been passed, that legislation would also have allowed Hong Kong residents (and visitors) to be extradited to Mainland China.
The Hong Kong government, after a limited consultation period and some amendments, tried to push the bill through the Legislative Council before the legislators went on summer break.
There was nothing wrong with enacting extradition legislation in principle, but the proposed law was flawed and was opposed by many people and groups in the community: average citizens, the business community, the legal community and human rights groups. This opposition led to the massive protest marches in early June.
1.1 Problems with the Extradition Bill
The main fear among Hong Kongers was that the extradition bill, once passed into law, would allow Mainland authorities to extradite and put on trial Hong Kong residents for political purposes.
The legal systems of Hong Kong and China are very different, with the latter based on a civil law system (rather than the common law system used in Hong Kong) and featuring capital punishment, a non-independent judiciary, high conviction rates, arbitrary detention, relative lack of access to independent legal representation and harsher prison conditions. Another important difference is that, as the Taiwan murder case showed, Hong Kong laws only apply to crimes committed within its borders. In contrast, China’s laws can be applied to crimes committed anywhere in the world against the state (The People’s Republic of China) or its citizens provided that the offence is also a crime in the jurisdiction where it occurred.
To address these concerns, the Hong Kong government included a series of safeguards in the proposed bill:
- The law would only cover serious criminal offences that are punishable by at least three years (later amended to seven years) imprisonment and that are considered criminal offences in BOTH jurisdictions.
- It would not apply to nine specific economic crimes.
- It would not apply to political crimes.
- It would not apply to crimes punishable by death.
- Any extradition would need the approval of the Chief Executive (the head of Hong Kong’s government) and the judiciary.
Although those safeguards were quite good, some things still required clarification. For example, it wasn’t clear how much power the judiciary would have to accept evidence AGAINST extradition. It also would have been good to include assurances that, once across the border, people could only be tried for crimes they were specifically extradited for.
One local columnist argued that it is common for countries with vastly different legal systems to have extradition treaties with each other, and he used the extradition treaty between America and the Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example. However, in that scenario, America would have no trouble refusing an extradition request from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, whereas could the same be said for Hong Kong, where the main extradition gatekeeper—the Chief Executive—is appointed (after a controlled selection process) by China’s central government?
Many Hong Kong people did not have complete faith in the Mainland and Hong Kong governments because there had already been two cases of apparently extralegal rendition of people from Hong Kong to the Mainland, once in 2015 and once in 2017, and the Hong Kong government hasn’t fully explained either case:
- The booksellers case: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Causeway_Bay_Books_disappearances
- The case of Xiao Jianhua: www.scmp.com/news/china/economy/article/2148154/disappearing-chinese-billionaire-xiao-jianhua-awaits-day-court (Edit: he is now said to be assisting Mainland law enforcement with their investigation)
If these two cases hadn’t happened, would Hong Kongers have been so suspicious of the proposed extradition law?
The legislation needed one or two more revisions to provide clarification for a few points of contention, but the Hong Kong government insisted on pushing the bill through.
1.2 The Initial Protests
On 9 June, there was a massive march against the extradition bill, with hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets.
The protest on 9 June was almost entirely peaceful, but in the early hours of 10 June, protesters did scuffle with police, with one officer being knocked to the ground and kicked in the head.
The government, ignoring the public outcry, stated that the process of turning the bill into law would continue. This response outraged a lot of people. On 12 June, the day the bill was tabled to go before the Legislative Council, protesters surrounded the building where Legislative Council meetings are held, an action which prevented councilors from attending the session. In the afternoon, the building was besieged by protesters, some of whom threw bricks and poles at police. The idea that there was a long period of peaceful protests is a myth. There was a small amount of violence already immediately after the first protest and a lot of violence during this second protest
The police seemed unprepared for the onslaught despite news reports earlier that week stating that many companies were giving employees time off work to participate in the protest and despite videos published on the morning of 12 June showing protesters raiding a nearby construction site for bricks and carting the bricks away in wheelbarrows.
The police responded in a heavy-handed manner with tear-gas, pepper spray and truncheon blows. With protesters planning another huge march for 16 June, the Chief Executive responded on 15 June by stating that the bill would be suspended. This response, however, did not satisfy the protesters. They wanted the bill to be formally withdrawn.
On 16 June, there was another massive rally. The numbers are disputed (Measuring the Masses), but everyone can agree hundreds of thousands of people took part, which, in terms of protest numbers, is a massive amount of people in a city with a population of 7.4 million people.
On 21, June a large group of protesters encircled the police headquarters in Wanchai, with some protesters hurling objects at the police and shining laser lights in their faces.
The next large protest march was held on 1 July. However, while this protest was underway a large group of more radical activists besieged the Legislative Council building (The Central Government Complex of HKSAR), the main government offices near the end of the protest route. There were police (and people working) inside the building, but they all withdrew. Eventually the protesters were able to smash their way into the building and they then vandalized the Legislative Council chambers.
I left the site shortly before the protesters managed to break in.
I had intended to document the protest movement in photographs as I had done during the Umbrella Movement of 2014. However, during the 2014 protests, people were happy to be photographed and asked me to share their stories with the world. During the 2019-2020 protests, I was met with suspicious stares, orders to not take photographs (e.g., ”No photos unless you are a friend”) and threats. During the protests, there were several incidents of people getting beaten up by protesters for taking photos.
The Umbrella Movement protesters of 2014 were concerned with getting their story out to the rest of their world. The protesters of 2019-2020, in contrast, were concerned with presenting their NARRATIVE the rest of the world.
The following video I took shows a typical weekend protest in the Prince Edward area on 20 October. Nothing much happened. A few hundred geared-up protesters set up road blocks, set barricades on fire and damaged traffic lights and street furniture. The police came and lobbed tear gas at them. The protesters would retreat several blocks and the whole thing would repeat. The cat-and-mouse game, which lasted several hours, seemed pointless.
1.3 Just a Spark
The extradition bill was eventually completely and formally withdrawn in October, but by then the protest movement had already morphed into an anti-government, anti-police and anti-China movement with protests, often marred by violence, taking place nearly every week between July 2019 and February 2020.
The government’s attempt to rush through the proposed extradition bill was the spark, but what was the combustible material that was ignited? That would include things like perceived gradual encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms by China’s central government, quality of life issues and a nascent localist movement.
So…what happened to the man whose actions sparked the whole thing, Chan Tong-kai? He was tried in Hong Kong on money laundering charges (for withdrawing money from his victim’s account) and was sentenced to 20 months in prison. He was released in October 2019. He volunteered to go to Taiwan on his own to take responsibility for his crimes, but the Taiwanese and Hong Kong authorities could not come up with any arrangements. He remains in Hong Kong, a free man.
Q2. The Political Background: What is Hong Kong’s status within China?
To gain a better understanding of why people are protesting, it is important to first look at Hong Kong’s changing status within China.
2.1 Hong Kong’s Traditional Role
In 1997, China regained sovereignty over Hong Kong after 155 years of British colonial rule. During the long colonial era between 1842 and 1997, Hong Kong established itself as a gateway linking Mainland China to the rest of the world.
For many years, Hong Kong also served as a refuge for Mainlanders fleeing civil strife, economic hardship and political persecution.
When China began opening up in the 1980s, the Mainland became a source of cheap labor as Hong Kong manufacturers moved their factories to the Mainland, sparking development in Shenzen, the border town just across the river.
Since then, the territory’s main role has been to act as a go-between, facilitating trade and investment between the Mainland and the rest of the world. Hong Kong’s legal system based on English common law, an independent judiciary, (previous) stability, freely convertible currency and a well-educated populace with fairly strong English skills combined to make the territory an attractive base for investors and companies looking to enter the Mainland market. These days, for example, around 70% of foreign investment in China flows through Hong Kong. This gateway role has also benefited Mainland interests looking to move capital out of China and branch out into overseas investments.
2.2 Changing Dynamics
The relationship between Hong Kong and the mainland has greatly changed over recent years. The move of Hong Kong’s manufacturing industry to Shenzen brought massive changes to both Hong Kong and Shenzen.
Hong Kong reinvented its economy to rely less on manufacturing (which by the late 1970s accounted for 30% of the territory’s GDP, compared to around 1% today) to focus more on trade, re-export and financial services.
The changes to Shenzen were greater. During the 1970s, Shenzen had a population of 30,000 (compared to Hong Kong’s population of between 4 and 5 million at the time). Now, Shenzen is a megacity with a population of around 12 million permanent residents and an estimated 8 million temporary residents (compared to Hong Kong’s population of 7.4 million) and is home to cutting-edge tech companies such as Huawei, DJI and Tencent. Shenzen’s GDP recently surpassed that of Hong Kong’s. Its port is now busier than Hong Kong’s port, which used to vie with Singapore’s for the world’s top spot in terms of shipping volume.
Hong Kong is nowhere near as dominant economically as it used to be. During the 1980s, the GDP of Hong Kong was nearly 30% of China’s GDP. It is now less than 3% (Note: Hong Kong’s GDP is not included in Mainland China’s GDP).
Beijing’s plan is to further develop Shenzen and neighbouring cities such Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Macau, Zhuhai, Foshan, Zhongshan, Dongguan, Huizhou, Jiangmen and Zhaoqing into a tech-oriented economic powerhouse (with a population of over 80 million) called the Greater Bay Area (GBA). In this scenario, Hong Kong is meant to be the financial center of the GBA
On the one hand, that means there will be a lot of business opportunities for Hong Kong residents. On the other hand, there is the very real risk of Hong Kong being swallowed up within the much larger GBA and losing its distinct culture and identity.
From Beijing’s point of view, its plans to integrate Hong Kong into the GBA is meant to act as a carrot. Beijing has been trying to entice Hong Kongers to develop closer ties to the Mainland by enacting policies making it easier for Hong Kong people to study, work, live and buy property on the Mainland. For many Hong Kongers, however, the supposed ‘carrot’ of integrating into the GBA is perceived as a ‘stick’. According to a survey conducted by the Hong Kong Guangdong Youth Association, over 70% of the young people surveyed wanted Hong Kong to keep a distance from the Mainland and 60% stated that greater integration would do more harm than good to Hong Kong (www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3046086/why-chinas-greater-bay-area-plan-fails-catch-imagination-young).
2.3 One Country Two Systems (1C2S)
In 1997, Hong Kong became part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a Special Administrative Region (SAR) under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ (1C2S) framework. This policy is outlined in:
- The Sino-British Joint Declaration, which is a 1984 agreement between Britain and China (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sino-British_Joint_Declaration)
- The Basic Law, which was written in 1990 and which serves as a kind of constitution for the territory (www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/)
The British and Chinese governments have different views over how these two documents are related. From London’s point of view, the Basic Law codifies the principles set out in the Joint Declaration, the Joint Declaration is still relevant as an international treaty and Britain is obligated to monitor what is going on to ensure that the treaty is being upheld. Beijing’s view, however, is that the Joint Declaration only covers the period up until the 1997 handover and that it has been replaced by the Basic Law (and consequently no longer has any relevance).
2.3.1 The 50-Year Guarantee
The two documents state that Hong Kong will enjoy a high degree of autonomy and that its ‘way of life’ will remain unchanged for 50 years. The exact wording of the 50-year guarantee in the Basic Law is as follows:
The socialist system and policies shall not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and the previous capitalist system and way of life shall remain unchanged for 50 years.(Basic Law, Article 5)
Beijing has questioned Britain’s sincerity, as the colonial power only introduced direct elections in 1991, seven years after the Joint Declaration (which promised ‘no changes’ from 1997 onwards) and just six years before the return of sovereignty to China.
2.3.2 The Promise of a High Degree of Autonomy
Hong Kong has not been promised complete autonomy. The text in in the Basic Law reads:
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall be a local administrative region of the People’s Republic of China, which shall enjoy a high degree of autonomy and come directly under the Central People’s Government.(Basic Law, Article 12)
The autonomy promised is qualified with the words ‘high degree’, and it is explicitly stated that Hong Kong comes UNDER the Central People’s Government. This is the case in both the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.
2.3.3 The Aims of 1C2S
The 1C2S policy has three main aims:
- Economic aim: The system allows the territory to continue serving its role as an international gateway to the Mainland (to the benefit of both parties).
- Socio-political aim: The 50-year-way-of-life guarantee creates a buffer period between Hong Kong’s colonial past and its future integration with the Mainland.
- Political aim: A smoothly functioning 1C2S framework serves as a model for a potential peaceful reunification with Taiwan and also demonstrates to other countries that Beijing is able to interact well with more Westernized systems and societies.
2.3.4 The Problem with the Socio-political Aim
This ‘buffer period’ aim doesn’t seem to be working out as planned.
At the time of the Joint Declaration in the mid-1980s, the assumption by the British and optimistic Hong Kongers was that China would open up so much economically and, more importantly, POLITICALLY, that by the time 2047 rolled around, the two systems would be almost indistinguishable. Hong Kong would then smoothly integrate into the Mainland or the central government would happily allow Hong Kong to maintain, if not increase, its autonomy.
However, China is not following that script. Instead, Beijing has committed to its own approach to governance rather than looking to emulate Western-style one-person-one-vote democratic systems.
2.3.5 The Other 1C2S
Hong Kong is not the only model of the 1C2S policy. Macau, a former Portuguese colony, was returned to China in 1999 under a similar arrangement to Hong Kong’s. In general, the people of Macau have been much more acquiescent to Beijing since the handover.
2.4 The 2047 Question
Neither the Basic Law nor the Joint Declaration states what will happen when the ’50-year-way-of-life’ guarantee expires in 2047. There is nothing that states that ‘Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy’ will end in 2047. It is merely the PROMISE of this autonomy that expires.
That means that there is a huge unanswered question. There is a deadline—1 July 2047—but what happens after that? Regarding this post-2047 question, Beijing might decide:
- to extend or make perpetual the 1C2S policy;
- to choose 2047 as the start of a full or partial integration process;
- to make it an an end-date—that on 1 July 2047, Hong Kong becomes another city in Guangdong province and that all Chinese laws and systems (e.g., government, education, judiciary) apply—and then let Hong Kong choose how it wants to prepare for that integration;
- to have the integration straddle that date;
- to create an entirely new framework for Hong Kong that would replace the existing one (If I had to place a bet on what would happen, I would go with this one);
- to introduce legislation overriding the Basic Law and making it one country one system (or introducing a new framework) well before the original deadline (and accept that China may face international sanctions for a few years).
Those are the possibilities, but it is Beijing making the decision. The people and government of Hong Kong can suggest, advise and negotiate, but the central government holds ALL the cards. Any victories achieved by protesters can therefore be rolled back entirely in 2047 by the central government.
The protest movement has no official line about what kind of future they want for Hong Kong; its members just hope to make Hong Kong as free as possible before that date. I have asked many protesters and their supporters what they want to happen after 2047 and how they hope to achieve it. Almost all the people I asked flat-out refused to answer, with some stating that 2047 was too far away to worry about.
In reality, 2047 is just around the corner. The students I am teaching in Hong Kong will be in their forties in 2047—in the prime of their careers. And if Beijing decides that 2047 is to be the deadline for integration to be completed, the process will need to start long before then. For example, many financial instruments—like mortgages—have a twenty-year duration, and if students are to be taking Mainland university entrance exams in 2048, the education system would need to be overhauled many years in advance.
On the few occasions that protest supporters did answer my 2047 question, they only mentioned three things:
- complete autonomy,
- independence (or self-determination),
- the fall of the Communist Party of China (i.e., a full-scale revolution).
2.5 Democracy in Hong Kong (at the time of the protests)
Although Hong Kong is under Chinese sovereignty, Hong Kong has retained most of the political, economic, legal and education systems that it developed as a British colony. However, one difference from the colonial era is that the head of the government is, of course, no longer a British-appointed governor.
At present, the head of the government is selected, the cabinet is appointed and the legislature is rigged in order to dilute the power of any one political party.
That said, there was more democracy when the protests began in 2019* than at any time under British colonial rule. Records declassified in 2014 show that Beijing pressured London in 1958 and 1960 not to make any moves towards self-governance and in the 1980s pressured London not to make sweeping democratic reforms in the years leading up to the handover (www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/10/the-secret-history-of-hong-kongs-democratic-stalemate/381424/). Nevertheless, Britain was the colonial power in charge of Hong Kong and only started implementing limited democratic reforms several years AFTER agreeing to return Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty.
(*Edit: In March 2021, long after the protests started, Beijing announced that it would introduce electoral reforms. These are discussed in section 4.3 and can be considered a setback to democratic development.)
2.5.1 The Chief Executive (CE)
The head of the Hong Kong SAR government is the Chief Executive (CE). The term of office for the CE is normally five years. The current CE is Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, who was selected by an election committee consisting of 1,200 members, most of whom are pro-Beijing and/or pro-establishment (hence the protesters’ calls for universal suffrage).
The CE is ostensibly running the show, but it is not clear how much authority she really holds. How often does she run policies by the central government before implementing them? Can she go against the central government’s wishes?
2.5.2 The Executive Council (ExCo)
The Executive Council (ExCo) consists of appointed government members responsible for assisting the CE in formulating and overseeing policies. The make-up, appointment method and function of this body have mainly been carried over from the colonial days.
2.5.3 The Legislative Council (LegCo)
The legislature is known as the Legislative Council (LegCo) and (at the time of the protests) half of its 70 members were directly elected in geographical constituencies, 30 were elected via functional constituencies and 5 represented the District Council.
During the British colonial era, direct elections (via geographical constituencies) for legislators were introduced for the FIRST TIME a scant six years before the handover, with only 18 of the 60 members being directly elected via geographical constituencies in 1991 and 20 of 60 members being directly elected via geographical constituencies in 1995.
The LegCo elections are democratic, but there are two ways in which the government is able to dilute the power of pro-democracy parties.
First, the functional constituencies are irregular. Functional constituencies (again, another holdover from the British colonial days) represent various trades and special interests (e.g. Transport, Education, Insurance, etc.), and different voting methods are used for different constituencies. For example, in 2009, in the Education constituency, 88,964 individuals were registered to vote for their representative, while in the Insurance constituency, 141 corporations were registered to vote. This strange voting method has helped pro-establishment politicians capture a significant proportion of functional constituency seats (just as it did under the late-colonial-era elections).
Second, the geographical constituencies use a proportional voting system (like Australia’s national election system) rather than a first-past-the-post system (like America’s). A proportional system is good in ensuring less popular parties and the people that vote for them have adequate representation. When combined with the functional constituencies, however, this voting system makes it difficult for any one party to secure a majority, thus condemning the popular pro-democracy bloc in Hong Kong to the role of a perpetual opposition party.
An important side-effect of this perpetual-opposition role is that the pro-democracy bloc has always been more interested in opposing or blocking the implementation of government policies rather than in trying to come up with any of their own policies to address economic, social or environmental issues.
2.5.4 District Councils
There are also elections for the District Councils, but these councils mainly just advise the government on community matters such as public works, public facilities and community activities and help undertake projects related to those areas within their respective communities. These elections are generally won by pro-establishment candidates due to their long record of working on grassroots programs. In the November 2019 elections, however, pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide (as was the case in the District Council election held after the 2003 protests).
2.5.5 A Flawed System
From the 1980s up to now, because of the rigged electoral systems (which had been set up by the British colonial government), the pan-democrats have only ever functioned as an opposition party and have been concerned almost solely with one issue—democracy. They focus mainly on things like protesting government bills, filibustering and criticizing the government’s performance.
One prominent exception to this ‘we-are-here-to-oppose’ mindset was the founder of the pro-democracy Citizen’s Party, Christine Loh, who was also a prominent environmental and equal rights activist. She went on to serve as Under Secretary to the Environment under Chief Executive C. Y. Leung. After she joined the administration, many in the pro-democracy camp’ viewed her as a ‘turncoat’, or as this article (Quit the democrats, land a job! ) argues, as someone who was naïve in thinking she could make changes from within (though for good measure, the writer of the article also explicitly labels her as a ‘turncoat’).
This kind of opposition-only mindset was also part of the protest strategy. In the first post-protest LegCo elections (postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic), many people expected that the pan-democrats would finally gain a majority. The explicitly-stated plan was that if that happened, the elected pan-democrats would not use that power to push for economic reforms or address social inequality or environmental issues. Rather, the plan was to block legislation, paralyze the government, force another LegCo election, paralyze the government again and by doing this, force the resignation of the Chief Executive (as would be required under the Basic Law) and then repeat the procedure with the new Chief Executive. The expressed hope was that Beijing would then be forced to implement emergency rule and that other countries would then sanction China in response. And then what? Again, no one has expressed a clear long-term strategy. This paralyze-the-government plan eventually led to the arrest of around 47 pro-democracy politicians and activists (for alleged acts of subversion) on 6 January 2021.
2.6 Promises of Electoral Reform
Universal suffrage for the election of Chief Executive is mentioned in Article 45 of the Basic Law as the ‘ultimate aim’ of democratic progress, but there are two qualifications that are also mentioned in that article:
- Most importantly, there are two components to the process: (a) election (or selection) and (b) ‘be appointed by the Central People’s Government’. Many people seem to miss this second point. Even with universal suffrage, the second part—appointment by the Central People’s Government—would also apply. There is nothing to indicate that this process of appointment is to be a rubber-stamp one.
- Universal suffrage is presented as the ‘ultimate aim’ of democratic reform (not as a ‘promise’) and the Basic Law states that such reform should be ‘gradual and orderly’. The article also states that the reforms shall ‘be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.’ No timetable is given for reaching the ultimate aim of universal suffrage.
There are two issues with Article 45. First, ‘the-election-and-appointment’ system creates a potential problem. What happens if Hong Kongers, via universal suffrage, elect a candidate whom Beijing then refuses to appoint? There would be a constitutional crisis and massive social unrest.
To prevent this situation from happening, Beijing proposed in 2014 to implement universal suffrage for the election of Chief Executive starting in 2017, but only on the condition that there would be two to three candidates and these would be pre-approved by Beijing. Many Hong Kongers were unimpressed with this proposal, and this dissatisfaction was the cause of the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. Beijing’s proposal was rejected and election reform stalled completely. In that 2014 proposal, Beijing also suggested having universal suffrage via direct elections for all seats in the Legislative Council in 2020. However, once Beijing’s plan was rejected, that part of the electoral reform stalled as well.
The second issue is that it is unclear what is meant by ‘in light of the actual situation’. Do the current protests show that it is time for universal suffrage (due to the strong demand for it) or that Hong Kong is not ready for it (due to the protesters’ use of violence and intimidation to stifle dissenting opinions)?
The main point is this: until Hong Kong can come up with a way of ensuring that an anti-China, nativist and/or pro-independence Chief Executive is NOT elected, there is not much chance of getting universal suffrage. That is a glass-half-empty interpretation. The glass-half-full interpretation is that there is plenty of room for negotiation. If Hong Kongers can address China’s concerns about possible independence and subversion movements rising up in Hong Kong, universal suffrage is a very real possibility.
2.7 2047 vs Democracy
If one is thinking about trying to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy and way of life, surely extending Hong Kong’s autonomy past 2047 is more important than bolstering democracy in the short term. If a post-2047 Hong Kong were put under a Greater Bay Area (GBA) Municipal Authority and the whole area had full universal suffrage, Hong Kong residents would find themselves in a minority and would have next to no say in their own affairs.
That isn’t to say increased democracy isn’t worth striving for—just that guarantees of autonomy past 2047 are much more important in the long run.
2.8 Military Arrangements and Emergency Powers
Hong Kong does not have its own military as that responsibility falls under the ‘one country’ part of 1C2S. There are approximately 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stationed in Hong Kong, but they maintain an extremely low profile.
According to the Article 14 of the Basic Law, the PLA already stationed in the territory may be asked by the Hong Kong government to help restore order or to help respond to a disaster.
Article 18 of the Basic Law also gives the Central People’s Government the right to the right to apply Mainland laws to the territory if it feels that turmoil in Hong Kong threatens national security and cannot be handled by the territory’s government.
The Hong Kong government also has emergency powers to enact laws to restore order (this falls under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which dates back to Hong Kong’s colonial days).
2.9 Power to Interpret the Basic Law
One important question involves who has final say over interpreting the Basic Law. In the American system, the Supreme Court has the final say over interpreting the American constitution. In Hong Kong, the territory’s courts are authorized to interpret sections of the Basic Law which come within the limits of Hong Kong’s autonomy; however, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), a branch of the Chinese Central government, has the final say over interpretation of the Basic Law, and can overrule (as it has done already) Hong Kong’s highest court—the Court of Final Appeal.
Thus, Hong Kong doesn’t have the same clear separation of powers that you might find in a Western democracy. In Hong Kong, the body with the power to create and amend the Basic Law is the same body that has final say over its interpretation.
2.10 A Lame Duck Government
The Hong Kong government has always been somewhat of a lame-duck government since the 1997 handover. It cannot really make major changes. This is due to a few reasons:
- The executive branch is unelected and therefore doesn’t have a strong mandate from the public.
- The government has to work under the Basic Law’s promise of ‘fifty years of no change’.
- The government faces strong opposition to virtually everything it does from a significant portion of society and from the pan-democrats, who have never moved beyond having an opposition-only mindset. Therefore, the government is reluctant to take any actions that might anger any factions—large corporations, tycoons, business owners, landlords, rural leaders, etc.—that normally offer the government their support.
Let’s take one issue as example. In 1972, to promote development of the New Territories and gain public support, the colonial government introduced its small house policy. The policy grants a plot of land on which to build a house to each adult indigenous male villager who is descended through the male line from a resident in 1898 of a recognized village in the New Territories. This policy is clearly outdated. It is (1) sexist (under the policy. females are not entitled to anything); (2) socially divisive (a small number of people in society are just handed something worth a lot of money); (3) frequently abused (many people just take advantage of the policy as a money-making scheme) and (4) problematic (the Hong Kong government argues that is suffers a land shortage for housing but at the same time it is freely giving away land). However, if the government tried to abolish this outdated policy, the pan-democrats would likely fight against it, arguing it would be a betrayal of the 50-year-no-change promise, AND, more importantly, the powerful rural political body—the Heung Yee Kuk, which normally backs the government—would likely fight tooth and nail to hold on to its privileges.
There are similar problems with things like monopolies and price fixing. If the government tries to seriously deal with these issues, it will face strong opposition from the tycoons at the heart of Hong Kong’s economy.
Hong Kong faces many challenges. However, the government lacks the strength to tackle them.
2.11 Beijing’s Concerns and Article 23
Beijing has two main concerns:
- That Hong Kong never attempts to become independent.
- That Hong Kong is not used as a base for dissidents to attempt to overthrow Communist Party rule.
Beijing wants iron-clad, legally binding assurances on these. Article 23 of the Basic Law requires the Hong Kong government to enact anti-sedition legislation:
The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.(Basic Law, Article 23)
The Hong Kong government tried to enact such legislation in 2003, but massive protests led to the government backing down. None of the Chief Executives since then has dared table this required legislation. After the protests died down in 2020, however, Beijing unilaterally enacted national security legislation in Hong Kong.
2.13 Mutual Dissatisfaction with One Country Two Systems
Many Hong Kongers want greater autonomy from Mainland China and are fighting back against real and perceived encroachments on their rights, freedom and autonomy. They think China is not respecting the ‘two systems’ part of 1C2S (see section 4.2 for more information).
At the same time, the central government and many people on the Mainland think Hong Kongers are failing to acknowledge that ‘one country’ takes precedence over ‘two systems’—that Hong Kongers are not respecting the ‘one system’ part of 1C2S. They rightly point out that from the return of sovereignty in 1997 to the protests in 2019, Beijing kept a mainly hands-off approach and made almost no effort to decolonize Hong Kong.
Who is right, then? The answer to that largely depends on whether the ’50-year-way-of-life’ guarantee in the Basic Law is meant to be:
- A period of transition leading up to the integration of Hong Kong into the Mainland or to a new 1C2S framework OR
- A period of absolutely no change except for the promised democratic development.
I think both viewpoints are valid. I would argue that with the first viewpoint—the one in which Hong Kong is meant to be going through a transition period—at least the Mainland has a clear long-term vision: for the territory to become an integral part of the Greater Bay Area tech hub. At the moment, those pushing for the no-change-at-all approach haven’t articulated any vision for Hong Kong’s future after 2047.
3. The historical background: Why can’t Hong Kong be independent?
There is a precedent for a small city state being handed over by its colonizer to a larger country and then gaining independence from that country: Singapore’s divorce from Malaysia in 1965. The government of Malaysia felt that trying to incorporate the former British colony of Singapore into the nation would be more trouble than it was worth and basically kicked it out of the country.
This is not a possible scenario for Hong Kong, though. The reasons are related to history.
3.1 A Century of Humiliation
Hong Kong was seized by Britain in 1841 during the Opium War, an immoral war that Britain waged in order to force China to allow British-owned companies to sell opium to its people (in order to rectify a massive trade imbalance caused by a British love for Chinese products like tea, silk and porcelain). Hong Kong, with its sheltered deep-water harbor, then became a base of operations for the opium trade.
After being defeated in the Opium War, China was forced to sign an unequal treaty ceding Hong Kong Island to Britain in 1842 and allowing for the opium trade to continue, then was forced to cede Kowloon Peninsula in 1860 (after the Second Opium War) and finally leased the New Territories to Britain for 99 years in 1898.
American companies were also heavily involved in the China opium trade, with US Marines operating in China to protect American interests. Warren Delano Roosevelt, grandfather of famed American President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, got a large part of his fortune from the China opium trade. America’s first millionaire, John Jacob Astor, also made a fortune in the China opium trade. This article discusses how 19th-century Boston was shaped by the opium trade: www.wbur.org/commonhealth/2017/07/31/opium-boston-history.
During the 19th century, opium addiction ravaged China’s economy. Money flowed out of the country and into British and American coffers, health problems increased and productivity was reduced. This led to things like increased taxation and increased lawlessness.
When one looks back at history, there is always a danger of applying contemporary moral values; however, the addictiveness of opium and the destructiveness of the opium trade were well known at the time and many people did recognize opium trading as a deeply immoral business. Here is a debate between two merchants, one supporting the trade and one decrying it: www.columbia.edu/cu/weai/exeas/resources/pdf/opium-morality.pdf.
With China weakened by military defeat and widespread opium addiction and with its people angered by their rulers’ inability to handle the Western powers, the latter half of the nineteenth century saw chaotic events such as the Taiping Rebellion (1850-1864), which led to 20 to 30 million deaths; a second Opium War (1856-1860) which included the looting and destruction of the Summer Palace; and the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), which led to a campaign against China by a coalition of eight countries and then to foreign occupation of parts of the country that only ended after the Second World War (with the Second Sino-Japanese war accounting for another 10 to 20 million deaths in China).
Thus, to China—its government and its people—the recovery of sovereignty over Hong Kong is an important symbol of national strength and the closure to what is viewed as a century of humiliation. I have tried to think of another example from history to serve as a comparison, but there is nothing quite like it. In many countries, there are sensitive issues that resonate through that nation’s history and have a profound effect on the present. In the United States that would be the legacy of slavery, which still affects issues of race and discrimination. In China, this third-rail issue is the country’s capitulation to foreign armies and drug barons in the 19th century and all the death and destruction that followed.
I’ve often read comments by people online saying something along the lines of “The Opium War was nearly 200 years ago. Get over it already.” The commenters, however, are failing to take into account the century of death and destruction that followed. Perhaps the term ‘century of humiliation’ is misleading as it may make one think in terms of concepts like ‘losing face’. A term like ‘century of death, destruction, invasion and fragmentation’ might be more appropriate.
After waiting for so long to recover the territory of Hong Kong, China is simply not going to let it go. Here is a photo I took in Tiananmen Square in Beijing 555 days before the 1997 handover. The digital sign is counting down the days and the SECONDS before the return of sovereignty over Hong Kong.
Independence is off the table.
This historical background—of Western powers bringing China to its knees via the drug trade and military force and then carving up the country amongst themselves—also colors the way the central government and, more importantly, Mainlanders in general view the Hong Kong protesters, who have actively and repeatedly called on foreign governments to intervene and apply sanctions to Hong Kong and China and who often fly British and American flags during the protests. The protesters are viewed by many on the Mainland as separatist traitors.
In late April 2020, there was an interesting case in which footage emerged of a primary school teacher doing an online lesson (due to the COVID-19 pandemic). In the lesson, the teacher explained that the Opium War was a result of Britain trying to protect Chinese people by STOPPING the opium trade (the opposite of reality). It is not clear whether it was a deliberate attempt to misinform students or whether the teacher was really that ignorant.
3.2 An Impossible War
Many people, including many Hong Kongers, have told me that if America could win independence from Britain via armed conflict, Hong Kong could do the same.
However, let’s compare the two situations. During the Revolutionary War, the American Continental Army had around 50,000 soldiers at its peak (a total of 231,000 men served at some point during the war) and these soldiers were supported by militias and French troops. They were facing off against a roughly equivalent force of 22,000 British soldiers stationed in North America supplemented by thousands of loyalist irregulars as well as thousands of German mercenaries.
In terms of military power available to them, the American colonies and Britain were on relatively equal footing. Britain had an advantage in terms of the training and experience of its soldiers. The American colonies had an advantage in terms of sheer numbers of fighting men available as well as in not having to worry about reinforcements and supplies having to be shipped across an ocean to get to the front lines.
If Hong Kong wanted to fight a war of independence, it would be facing off against a country with a population of over 1.4 billion people, with a ground force of nearly 1 million soldiers that does not have to worry about crossing an ocean.
It is not just a matter of brute force. A small power can defeat a much larger one if it inflicts enough pain on the enemy that the enemy loses the resolve to do whatever is necessary to win. In this way, North Vietnam was able to drive out the Americans. Afghanistan was able to drive out the Soviets.
Hong Kong lacks the required strength. And due to the historical background I mentioned above, the Mainland will have no shortage of resolve.
A war of independence is not an option.
3.3 Colonialism through Rose-tinted Glasses
Many people in Hong Kong, especially those who grew up after the handover, tend to look fondly at British colonial rule and forget that Britain did not allow any direct democracy until 1991, several years after it agreed to return the territory to Chinese sovereignty and a scant six years before the handover. Throughout most of the the colonial period dissent was quashed, sometimes violently, and labor unions were forcefully discouraged. You can read more here:
- The Empire Strikes Back: Britain’s Use of the Law to Suppress Political Dissent in Hong Kong
- Twitter thread by Michael Rowley (highlighting political suppression during the colonial era)
In the conclusion to the Empire Strikes Back paper, Richard Klein writes:
“Over the course of colonial rule, the Government used martial law, flogging, deportation and censorship of those deemed antagonistic to British control. Newspapers were closed and publishers jailed for the crime of sedition. Union headquarters were raided and shut down, labor leaders arrested and imprisoned. When protests occurred, steel-helmeted police responded with tear gas and batons.
At times, demonstrations were completely outlawed as was any use of ‘inflammatory’ speech. Curfews were instituted and warrantless searches conducted. Petitioning, posters that might lead to ‘ill-will’ and public assemblies were forbidden. When the government was unable to specify any specific offense that was committed by someone the British wanted to imprison, the law permitted detentions for up to a year without the need to charge any crime at all.”
Of course, quite often the colonial government enacted benevolent policies, but the colonial era was definitely not a golden age of unfettered freedom and democracy.
Hong Kong never went through any kind of decolonization process. All the names are still there—Victoria Harbor, Victoria Peak, Victoria Park, Prince Edward Road. You will still find Jardine’s Lookout and Jardine’s Bazaar and Jardine’s Crescent, which were named after William Jardine, opium trader and one of the chief architects of the first Opium War. In history lessons, many of the less savory aspects of colonialism are ignored or glossed over. Most senior government officials were career civil servants in the colonial government. For example, Carrie Lam, the territory’s Chief Executive, began her civil service career in 1980 (17 years before the handover). Most of the top schools in the territory are still run by Christian religious groups and are given a lot of leeway when it comes to proselytization. Plans for a national education program were shelved (and are were only revived after the protests in 2019-2020).
One of the inevitable aspects of colonization is the formation of a social-economic hierarchy based on political power, economic power and race. In a colony, to move up in society, local people often need to move closer to the colonizers—share their beliefs, speak their language, excel in their education system, adhere to their etiquette, appreciate their culture and respect their economic and political systems. The colonial mindset was built up for over a century and remains deeply engrained in the territory. This is how we ended up with the bizarre sight of protesters calling for freedom and democracy while waving colonial flags that represent an era of even less freedom and democracy.
4. What are the causes of discontent?
The protests did not just appear out of nowhere. The protests were rooted in several underlying issues such as Hong Kong’s changing relationship with the Mainland, perceived and real threats to freedom and autonomy as well as a variety of quality of life issues.
4.1 The Mainlandization of Hong Kong and anti-Mainland Sentiments
Hong Kong has been becoming more closely integrated with the Mainland since the early 1980s. This trend started with the previously mentioned relocation of Hong Kong’s factories to the Mainland, but it is also visible in many other areas: population growth, business, tourism, education and the mass media. Here are a few examples:
- Every day about 150 Mainlanders enter Hong Kong per day under a family reunification scheme with the intention of residing in the territory. Others immigrate under the Scheme for Talent, Professionals and Entrepreneurs. Since the handover, Hong Kong has gained around 1.5 million new residents from the mainland—accounting for around 20 percent of the current population. Hong Kong has an unusually low birthrate—around 1.2—which is much lower than the 2.1 needed to replenish a population. Therefore, population growth in the territory is almost entirely driven by immigration from the Mainland.
- In 1996, only two of 33 companies listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange were owned by Mainland interests. In 2020, more than half of the companies listed were Mainland companies.
- In 2017, nearly half of all prime office space in Hong Kong’s Central District was being rented to companies from the Mainland.
- In 2002, visitors from the Mainland accounted for 40% of all tourists coming to Hong Kong. By 2018, that figure had risen to 77%.
- In the 1996-1997 academic year, the 791 tertiary-level students from the Mainland, who were mostly confined to postgraduate research programs, represented 0.9% of the total student enrollment in Hong Kong’s UGC funded universities. By the 2018-2019 academic year, the number of students from the Mainland had risen to 12,322, representing 12.3% of the total enrollment.
- It is estimated that about 100,000 Hong Kong people are working, living and/or studying on the Mainland.
- In 2020, there were around 27,000 cross-border students (compared to 3,800 in 2004). These are students who live on the Mainland but cross into Hong Kong each school day to attend primary or secondary school.
- More than half of the Hong Kong movie industry’s annual output of around 50 movies per year are now co-productions with Mainland companies.
- The main English-language newspaper in the territory, The South China Morning Post, was purchased by the Mainland company Alibaba (which has ties to the Chinese Communist Party) and several other news media companies are at least in part owned by people with ties to the Chinese Communist Party and/or Mainland businesses.
- Roughly 25% of income in the insurance industry comes from Mainland clients.
- Then there is Hong Kong’s reliance on food, water and electricity from the Mainland. For example, around 70 to 80 percent of Hong Kong’s water supply comes from the Mainland.
I often read comments on social media by Hong Kongers saying things like ‘but we don’t want to integrate with the Mainland’. That line of thinking is an attempt to turn back the clock to the 1970s. Industries such as manufacturing, trade, finance and insurance, logistics, retail, aviation, tourism, construction and entertainment all have close and inseparable Mainland connections that have been built up over decades. For example, about ten years ago, I attended a talk by veterans of the Hong Kong film industry. I had expected them to be very glum about the industry’s future as there had been a huge decline in the number of films released in Hong Kong since the industry’s heyday in the late eighties and early nineties. Instead, the speakers were very optimistic. Their optimism was entirely based on the growing potential for cross-border co-productions with Mainland studios and investors.
The reality is that Hong Kong is already largely integrated with the Mainland.
Under any circumstances, this kind of increased influence by ‘outsiders’ would cause concern. In Hong Kong, however, this concern is exacerbated by the antipathy many Hong Kongers have towards people from the Mainland. There has long been a tendency for some Hong Kongers to look down on Mainlanders, regarding them as:
- A cheap labor force to be exploited,
- Uneducated country bumpkins with poor manners (‘They don’t know how to queue up!’) and even poorer standards of hygiene (They spit everywhere! Their children defecate in the street!’)
- Gullible idiots who have been brainwashed by state-run media and/or as
- Rapacious locusts invading Hong Kong and driving up property prices, wasting taxpayers’ dollars on social welfare and causing shortages of things like baby milk powder.
This prejudice has been there for decades. The ill-mannered, illiterate hick from the Mainland was a stock character in local movies and television shows shows starting from the 1970s. This stock character is often referred to as ‘Ah Chan’, with the name coming from a character in the 1980 TVB series ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’.
Opinions towards the Mainland seemed to soften a little during the early 2000s. However, there were a series of scandals in China that lead to attitudes towards Mainlanders getting worse. These scandals were: (1) The Sichuan earthquake disaster in 2008, in which many schools collapsed due to sub-standard construction; (2) the milk scandal in 2008, in which milk and infant formula were adulterated with melamine, leading to six babies dying and 54,000 infants being hospitalized; and (3) incidents like the case in Foshan in 2011 in which a two-year-old girl was run over by vehicles twice while passers-by ignored her.
In 2012, a group of Hong Kongers took out a full page ad in Jimmy Lai’s Apple Daily newspaper vilifying Mainlanders and comparing them to locusts. Here is a response to that advertisement that shows the feelings of many Hong Kongers at the time (from badcanto.wordpress.com/2012/02/03/hong-kong-netizen-why-cant-we-say-locust/)
To a large extent, the protests were driven by anti-Mainlander prejudice and could be considered an attempt to turn back the tide of Mainlandization—an effort to keep out the ‘barbarians at the gate’.
You may hear some supporters of the protest movement say something like ‘We don’t hate China and we don’t hate the Chinese people; we are just against the Chinese Communist Party.’ However, this sentiment doesn’t match reality. During the protests, Mainland immigrants, tourists and journalists were verbally abused and physically assaulted and businesses owned by (or simply catering to) Mainland Chinese were vandalized and firebombed. There is now a clear nativist, anti-Mainland component to the protest movement.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, some Hong Kong restaurants began implementing a no-Putonghua policy (Putonghua is the main official spoken dialect of the Mainland, while most Hong Kongers speak Cantonese). This policy basically barred Putonghua speakers from entering. The stated reason was that the restaurant staff could not speak Putonghua (despite all Hong Kongers learning the basics of Putonghua at school); however, exceptions were explicitly made for people from Taiwan (where Putonghua is also a main spoken dialect). The equivalent in America would be a Los Angeles restaurant publicly stating that Spanish speakers would not be served unless they were visiting from Spain.
The Hong Kong Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) received several hundred complaints and enquiries about these restaurants; however, it only issued warnings. Once the national security law was passed in 2020, most of these restaurants ended their openly anti-Mainlander policies.
4.2 Perceived & Real Attempts to Reduce Freedom
Since the handover in 1997. Hong Kongers have been pushing back against any perceived attempts to reduce their freedoms.
4.2.1 The Right of Abode Case (1999)
The one exception to this resistance occurred in 1999, when the general public and mass media strongly SUPPORTED the Hong Kong government’s request to have the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) overturn a decision by Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal regarding the right of abode.
After a series of court cases, Hong Kong’s Court of Final Appeal had ruled that all children born to Hong Kong residents would have the right to reside in Hong Kong. Fearing an influx of Mainland immigrants after this ruling, the Hong Kong government sought to limit the Right of Abode only to children of people who were Hong Kong permanent residents AT THE TIME OF BIRTH.
A small number of legal experts and pro-democracy activists argued that the government’s request for an interpretation would set a dangerous precedent, but the government received widespread support from the community and the media. In order to gain that support, the government used questionable research statistics to paint a grim picture of a sudden invasion of over 1.67 million Mainland immigrants, describing how they would strain Hong Kong’s social services and cost the territory billions of dollars. The government’s statistics completely ignored any benefits the immigrants would bring. The news media simply ran with that story without questioning the numbers.
Thus, the Hong Kong government exacerbated the negative attitudes its citizens had towards Mainlanders, ironically helping set the stage for the rise of a radical, localist/populist movement.
At the same time, Hong Kongers, acting out of self-interest in trying to reduce the number of Mainlanders eligible to gain right of abode, sacrificed some of their own autonomy. Just two years after the 1997 handover, Hong Kongers set a very early precedent for the NPCSC to intervene in Hong Kong’s affairs, something that has happened several times since then.
4.2.1 Article 23 (2003)
In 2003, an estimated half million people marched against proposed anti-sedition legislation. According to Article 23 of the Basic Law, the Hong Kong government is required to enact such legislation. However, the proposed legislation was withdrawn and subsequent governments have avoided the issue entirely for fears of igniting social unrest. Macau, in contrast, enacted its anti-sedition legislation without fanfare or fuss in 2009.
4.2.2 National Education Proposal (2012)
In 2010, the government proposed the implementation of a Moral and National Education curriculum that was at least in part intended to give students a more favorable view of the Mainland and its government. A student-led protest campaign starting in 2012 led to that proposal being withdrawn.
Patriotic education is not equivalent to brainwashing, but the potential is there. Many countries have some form of patriotic education in their curriculum (e.g., national history, civics) and in some of their practices (e.g., flag regulations, pledges of allegiance, national anthems). In Hong Kong, Chinese history is an elective (not a required subject) and schools are not required to fly the national flag (Edit: In late 2021, the government did announce that schools will be required to raise the national flag at least once per week).
4.2.3 Slow Pace of Electoral Reform and the Umbrella Movement (2014)
As mentioned earlier, the Basic Law states that the ultimate aim of electoral reform is universal suffrage. Many Hong Kongers feel that they have waited long enough. The 79-day Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 saw the occupation of streets in three districts. The sole aim of that protest movement was to win universal suffrage. The protests ended without any concessions being made and without Beijing’s proposal being implemented. Had the pro-democracy camp agreed to Beijing’s 2014 proposal, the 2020 LegCo elections would have been be fully democratic. For more information on this protest movement you can refer to my photo essay: The Umbrella Movement.
4.2.4 Extralegal Renditions (2015)
Five men associated with a Hong Kong bookstore specializing in publications concerning politics in China were detained by Mainland authorities. One of the five men was taken from Thailand and two were taken from Hong Kong in mysterious (and apparently extralegal) circumstances.
4.2.5 Disqualification of Legislators (2016-17)
After the Legislative Council Elections of 2016, six elected members were disqualified for taking their swearing-in oaths in a disrespectful manner. Instead of getting the legislators to retake their oaths, the government disqualified them. The disqualifications came after an interpretation of the Basic Law by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) stating that legislators were required to take the oath in an accurate, serious and solemn manner.
Most Hong Kongers had no qualms with the first two disqualifications. Those legislators, Sixtus Baggio Leung and Yau Wai-ching, went overboard in changing the oath, inserting curse words, declaring that Hong Kong was not a part of China and referring to China using a derogatory term dating back to the Japanese occupation of the country.
As mentioned in 4.2.1, Hong Kongers had already set a precedent for such interpretations when they welcomed the interference of the NPCSC in the right of abode case.
4.2.6 Extralegal Rendition (2017)
A Chinese billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, was spirited away from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong and taken to the Mainland, where he is now awaiting trial on charges of ‘manipulating stock and futures markets’ and ‘offering bribes on behalf of institutions’.
4.2.7 Fake Kidnapping (2017)
Democratic Party founder Howard Lam Tsz-kin made international headlines when he claimed he was kidnapped and tortured by Mainland agents. However, when investigating the case, police found security camera footage of Lam walking freely around town during the time he had claimed to be kidnapped. He was instead charged and later convicted of making a false report. He recently lost his appeal.
4.2.8 National Anthem Law (2017)
In October 2017, China’s National People’s Congress passed a law criminalizing abuse of the country’s national anthem and also added a requirement in an annex of Hong Kong’s Basic Law that the territory’s government would need to pass a similar law. This bill was tabled in 2019, but pro-democracy legislators held a filibustering campaign in order to prevent it from being passed. At least some Hong Kongers view the law as a violation of their freedom of speech. The law was eventually passed in 2020.
The law itself is not really a big deal. Some countries (e.g., France, Singapore, Malaysia, India and Germany) have laws regarding national anthems while others (e.g., America, Britain, Australia) just have protocols (i.e., even if you behave improperly, you don’t face fines or imprisonment). What was significant in this case is that Beijing was requiring Hong Kong to pass legislation.
4.2.9 Press Self-Censorship
In addition to the above cases, it is commonly understood that there has been a decline in press freedom, generally as a result of self-censorship (www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/article/1495138/press-freedom-hong-kong-low-level-journalists-study-finds).
4.3 Perceived & Real Losses of Freedom: Measures Taken after and/or in Response to the Protests
Starting in 2020, the Hong Kong and the central governments enacted several measures in response to the protests. These, of course, did not lead to the protests but have led to a general feeling of loss of freedom among protesters and their supporters.
4.3.1 Exam Controversy (2020)
In May 2020, the DSE exam (the secondary school leaving exam) for the subject Liberal Studies contained an essay question in which students were asked if Japan did more good than harm to China between 1900-1945. As part of the question, two readings were given, both of which presented Japan’s relationship with China in a positive light. One must bear in mind that during that time period, Japan invaded China, killing millions of civilians, and even conducted cruel scientific experiments on Chinese citizens. It would be like asking students to discuss whether the Nazis did more good than harm to Jewish people (after all, it led to the formation of Israel) or whether slavery in America did more good than harm to the slaves (after all, the slaves were fed and given shelter). The question, understandably, was thrown out. Approximately a third of the exam-takers did agree with the statement that Japan did more good than harm.
The problem with that exam question with the holocaust and slavery examples is that it is unwise to ask students in primary or secondary school to weigh benefits against massive atrocities. In similar cases overseas, examination questions have also been thrown out (Here is one example from the US: boston.cbslocal.com/2019/04/04/mcas-racism-slavery-question-the-underground-railroad-colson-whitehead/). Many people in Hong Kong, however, interpreted the withdrawal of the contentious question as a repression of academic freedom.
4.3.2 The National Security Law (2020)
in response to the 2019-2020 protests, the withdrawal of the extradition bill, the failure of the Hong Kong government to enact anti-sedition legislation and the unlikelihood that such legislation could be enacted at any point in the near future, Beijing added into Annex III of the Basic Law laws against subversion, sedition, collusion and terrorism. The legislation was enacted on 30 June 2020, a little over a month after Beijing first announced its intentions (On 21 May).
Although basically every country has National Security Laws, there are a few notable points about this legislation:
- It is much more extensive than the laws proposed in 2003.
- It explicitly targets actions that had been used by the protesters such as destroying public utilities and lobbying foreign governments to apply sanctions against China.
- It allows for Mainland law enforcement and intelligence agents to operate openly within the territory (with a newly set-up investigative bureau taking over the role of the colonial-era Special Branch). Of course, this also means the evidence these agents gather can be used in national security trials.
- It allows for extradition to the Mainland for particularly serious cases.
- It criminalizes offences committed overseas (so if you are leading a Hong Kong independence campaign from overseas, it would not be a good idea to visit Hong Kong or the Mainland).
- It gives the Chief Executive power to nominate a pool of judges that would hear cases falling under the law.
By amending the Basic Law directly, Beijing demonstrated its power. The central government showed that its patience was limited and that it would not be deterred by the threat of sanctions.
Some legal experts have argued that the addition of this national security legislation violated the Basic Law, but such arguments are moot because, as mentioned earlier, there is no separation of power between the body that has the power to make amendments to the Basic Law (the NPCSC) and the body that is responsible for interpreting the Basic Law and its amendments (also the NPCSC).
Another important point is that although the national security legislation is not retroactive, what happens if Person X, for example, colluded with foreign agents for several years before the act of collusion was criminalized and then continued the collusion after the national security law was passed? It is likely that ALL the acts of collusion (i.e., those committed before AND after legislation was passed) would be considered a ‘continuous act’ that straddles the enactment of the law. This means that a lot of high-profile activists whose past actions (e.g., calling for independence, lobbying for sanctions against China, calling for the overthrow of the central government, etc.) run afoul of the new law, need to be extra careful.
The first person charged under the new legislation was Tong Ting-kit, a protester who rode his motorcycle (complete with a Liberate Hong Kong flag) into a group of policemen mere hours after the national security legislation came into effect. He was convicted in July 2021 and sentenced to nine years imprisonment.
One obvious effect of the national security legislation has been the dissolution of several political groups and trade unions, most notably Demosisto, Civic Passion. Civil Human Rights Front, the Professional Teachers Union and the the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions. Spokespersons for each the groups claimed that that the groups feared that members would be prosecuted under national security laws and could not perform their roles properly.
One may wonder how a teachers union, for example, could run afoul of national security legislation. The most likely explanation is that the organizations were carrying out antigovernment campaigns while at the same time accepting funds from American state-sponsored organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) and the Open Technology Fund (OTF). Doing so would leave them open to charges of collusion. In some cases, such as the one involving the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, the organizations disbanded shortly after police requested that the they submit their financial records. I suspect that when many of the cases related to the national security law come to trial, financial dealings will be an important part of the evidence.
4.3.3 Postponement of Elections (2020)
On 31 July 2020, the Hong Kong government announced it would postpone the Legislative Council elections (which were scheduled to be held in November of that year) due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though many countries, states and provinces around the world were doing the same, this postponement was treated by many in Hong Kong as a kind of repression of democracy.
4.3.4 Teacher Deregistrations (2020)
Two teachers have been deregistered, a process that effectively bans them from teaching in Hong Kong, after parents complained. The first deregistration occurred in October 2020 and involved a primary school teacher who prepared an hour-long lesson on free speech which centered on Hong Kong independence (and which only included the arguments for independence). The second deregistration occurred in November 2020 and involves the previously mentioned case in which a primary schoolteacher taught his students that Britain started the Opium War in order to stop people in China from smoking opium. If such things happen overseas, a common result is the teacher gets fired (Here is one case from Florida: www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-48927322). Nevertheless, these deregistrations were considered by many in Hong Kong to be a repression of academic freedom.
4.3.5 Amendments to the National Flag Ordinance (2020)
On 17 October 2020, the Standing Committee of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPCSC) endorsed amendments regarding the county’s laws related to flags and emblems. The amendments apply to Hong Kong via the Basic Law (and Hong Kong needed to pass legislation to bring its own laws in line these amendments). Hong Kong has had flag desecration laws since 1997, but the new laws are stricter (e.g., turning a flag upside down would now violate the law). As is the case with national anthem laws, some counties (e.g., France, Germany, Italy, New Zealand) have laws against desecrating the national flag and some (e.g., Canada, Australia, the US, the UK) don’t. Japan has an interesting approach to flag desecration laws—one is not allowed to desecrate the flags of OTHER nations.
4.3.6 Disqualification of Legislators (2020)
In November 2020, four pro-democracy legislators were disqualified by the Hong Kong Government on the advice of the NPCSC. As a show of solidarity, 15 pro-democracy legislators resigned. The four legislators were removed because they had, several months earlier, directly, openly and explicitly appealed to American government officials to apply sanctions to Hong Kong and the Mainland. Their actions would be similar to Hawaiian state legislators travelling to Moscow, meeting with Russian officials and asking Russia to apply sanctions to Hawaii and the US.
4.3.7 Arrests (2020)
There have been over ten thousand arrests during the protests themselves, but after the protests died down in 2020, there have been a large number of arrests of people supporting the protests behind the scenes. Several legislators from the pan-democratic camp have been arrested for their disruptive tactics in legislative sessions. Several activists and legislators (and media mogul Jimmy Lai) have been charged with incitement. Several people, including Jimmy Lai and radio host Wan Yiu-sing, have been arrested on charges of money laundering and/or conspiracy to defraud. Choy Yuk-ling, a freelance journalist working for RTHK who had produced a documentary on the Yuen Long incident, was arrested for allegedly making false statements under the Road Traffic Ordinance (when she was searching for the personal details of car owners in a government database). She was convicted and fined HKD 6,000.
4.3.8 Arrests of legislators (2021)
On 6 January 2021, 53 pro-democracy politicians and activists were arrested for alleged violations of national security legislation mentioned in section 2.11, and 47 of them were later charged . Most of the arrests were for a kind of primary election held on 11-12 July. The purpose of the election was to identify candidates that would be more popular and increase the chances of pro-democratic candidates winning a majority of seats in the Legislative Council elections that were to be held in September 2020 and which were postponed that year.
The 53 people were arrested for subversion, which according to the national security legislation is: “undermining or overthrowing the power of the PRC Government or that of the Hong Kong Government, by force, threat of force or other unlawful means.” Among those arrested 47 have been formally charged with the majority of those being denied bail.
There are no laws against holding a primary election, so how could doing so break the law? The government’s argument is that the primary election was part of an explicitly stated plan to destabilize Hong Kong and that this plan involved the threat of force. The primary election was part of a ten-part plan outlined by activist Benny Lai in an article published in Apple Daily on 28 April 2020 called Ten Steps to Mutual Destruction (真攬炒十步 這是香港宿命 – 戴耀廷). Apple Daily seems to have removed the article in March 2021 (and now even the cached version has been removed). The ten steps were:
真攬炒十步 這是香港宿命 - 戴耀廷 按我的推算，這條香港攬炒宿命路的時間線可能是這樣。 第一步（2020年7至8月）。政府廣泛取消民主派人士參選立法會資格，包括現任議員。民主派由Plan B繼續參選。 第二步（2020年9月）。因兩辦干預及DQ，刺激更多港人投票支持民主派，及配合策略投票，使民主派成功取得35席或以上。 第三步（2020年10月）。特首及律政司開展司法程序DQ民主派議員，但因法庭需時處理，故民主派繼續主導立法會。 第四步（2020年10月至2021年4月）。政府向立法會提出的所有撥款申請都被立法會否決。政府只能維持一般運作。 第五步（2021年5月）。立法會否決政府《財政預算案》，特首解散立法會，並以臨時撥款方式維持政府運作。 第六步（2021年10月）。立法會重選，民主派或要派出Plan C參選，因Plan B也可能被DQ，但仍取得35席以上。 第七步（2021年11月）。立法會再次否決《財政預算案》，特首辭職及特區政府停擺。 第八步（2021年12月）。全國人大常委會宣佈香港進入緊急狀態，中央政府把國家安全法直接適用於香港，解散立法會、成立臨時立法會、下屆特首由協商產生，大舉拘押民主派領袖。 第九步（2021年12月後），香港社會街頭抗爭變得更加激烈，鎮壓也非常血腥，港人發動三罷，令香港社會陷入停頓。 第十步（2022年1月後）。西方國家對中共實行政治及經濟制裁。
The final four steps of this plan are:
- the Hong Kong government will be paralyzed
- the central government will be forced to respond by declaring a state of emergency
- this will lead to mass protests and bloodshed (香港社會街頭抗爭變得更加激烈，鎮壓也非常血腥)
- other countries will sanction China
There are no calls for how to improve society. The end goal is simply ’cause bloodshed; get sanctions placed on China’.
Revealingly, in this Twitter thread (twitter.com/michaelmohk/status/1479913281540272129), opposition politician Michael Mo doesn’t complain about his colleagues being unfairly prosecuted. Instead he complains that someone snitched on them and and that some parties did not destroy the evidence. He states:
“Even many parties told the media that they’ve destroyed the data of the primaries, some are not. Documents in relation to primaries, incl. app. form, contracts, signed undertakings of candidates, were found in organiser’s office during NSL police raid. A person, who claimed to be campaign manager of a radical pan-dem party, gave a statement to the NSL police on what happned in one of the prepartory meetings, and importantly, who attended it. That person leaked almost everything to NSL cops as I know….I’ve been living with guilts as if I had not given my best to convice people I really care to skip the primary. Now, they have to stay behind the bars for years & seemingly forgotten by many. It’s sad. with some organisers & candidates pled guilty, things look grim.”
Complaints about snitches and people not destroying evidence does imply that the participants may have indeed been breaking the law.
4.3.9 Proposed Electoral Reforms (2021)
In March 2021, Beijing announced that it would be reforming Hong Kong’s electoral system. In general, these reforms will significantly roll back democracy. The reforms mainly affect the Legislative Council.
- The number of seats in the Legislative Council will increase from 70 to 90.
- The five seats that go to District Council members will be scrapped.
- The number of directly elected seats will be reduced from 35 to 20.
- The number of Functional Constituency seats remains the same: 30,
- A new category comprising 40 seats will be introduced. These will go to legislators selected by a 1500-member election committee. More than two-thirds of this election committee will be appointed by the government or selected by pro-establishment groups.
- A vetting system will be set up to screen out candidates that are not patriotic.
The reforms significantly reduce the influence of directly elected legislators. Why did Beijing do this? Likely it has to do with the victory of pro-democracy district councilors in 2019 combined with the ‘Ten Steps to Mutual Destruction’ plan. Unlike the councilors elected the last time the pro-democracy camp did well in District Council elections (after the unrest in 2003), many of the newly elected councilors were political newcomers who ran on an explicitly antigovernment (and anti-Mainland) platform. In the past, many proponents of universal suffrage in Hong Kong had argued that Hong Kong people were too practical and sensible to elect leaders that would aggressively go against Beijing. However, with the success of the ‘if we burn, you burn with us’ politicians and the significant support for the ‘mutual destruction’ plan, it was clear that Hong Kong people might indeed elect anti-Mainland leaders.
4.3.10 National Education Proposals
The government has resurrected the idea of National Education and has come with a plan to teach students about things like the national security legislation. The proposals have not been finalized, but some form of national education is definitely going to be implemented in the near future.
4.3.11 Civil Service Oaths
In 2021, a new rule was introduced requiring civil servants to swear to uphold the Basic Law and also pledge allegiance to the Hong Kong government. As of 19 April 2021, 129 out of approximately 170,00 civil servants refused to make the necessary oaths and faced dismissal.
Some of the perceived encroachments on freedom described in Sections 4.2 and 4.3 are real threats, but some are self-inflicted losses of freedom, some are similar to measures taken in Western countries like the US or France, and some are exaggerated or even fabricated. To many hardcore protest supporters, however, everything mentioned in the above two lists (except for the first interpretation of the Basic Law) is considered a serious encroachment on freedom.
It is important to note that the most serious encroachments on freedom—Beijing’s addition of the national security legislation and its imposition of electoral reforms—were brought about by the protests themselves.
4.4 Lack of Government Representation & Accountability
There is a general feeling among many that the Hong Kong government is unrepresentative, and that if Hong Kongers, whom the government is supposed to serve, want one thing, but the central government wants the opposite, the government will simply obey the wishes of Beijing.
I have heard critics of this view cite isolated cases in which the Hong Kong government went against Beijing’s wishes (such as Hong Kong’s decision to grant right of abode to people born in Hong Kong to non-residents). However, incidents like the lack of a strong response from the Hong Kong government over the cases of extralegal rendition to the Mainland indicate that when push comes to shove, the Hong Kong government is not willing or able to shove back against the central government.
This lack of representation has been accompanied by a lack of accountability. A good example of this was in 2018, when Teresa Cheng was appointed as Justice Secretary (the highest ranking post in that department). The day before her appointment, it was revealed that the homes she shared with her husband had several illegal structures and additions. Ironically, her expertise was in building law and she had previously led the appeals board for cases related to illegal structures in buildings, so there is no way she could reasonably plead ignorance. Despite the controversy, the appointment went ahead. Therefore, Hong Kong’s Justice Secretary ended up being a person who had already shown little respect for the rule of law.
(Edit: More recently, In July 2021, it was found that three senior security officials—Commissioner of Customs and Excise Hermes Tang Yi-hoi, Director of Immigration Au Ka-wang, and Undersecretary for Security Sonny Au Chi-kwong—broke COVID social-distancing rules at a luxury dinner event on 2 March 2021. That only came to light during a sexual assault investigation focusing on an attempted rape by one of the attendees of the event. The suspect in that case has been arrested. One can’t help but wonder whether at least some senior Hong Kong officials consider themselves above the law.)
4.5 Rising Radical Localism
There have long been activists seeking to protect and preserve Hong Kong’s culture. For example, in the early 2000s, there were peaceful protests and campaigns to save sites which represented Hong Kong’s shared cultural memory: Edinburgh Place Ferry Pier, Queen’s Pier and Wedding Card Street.
During the last several years, however, militant rightwing political parties with an anti-Mainland agenda have appeared on the landscape, starting with the formation of the Civic Passion political party in 2012.
One of the side-effects of the failure of the 2014 Umbrella Movement was a subsequent increase in the number of:
- Radical localist political parties (e.g., Hong Kong Indigenous and Youngspiration, both of which formed in 2015)
- Groups calling for self-determination (e.g., Demosisto, which formed in 2016) or independence (e.g., the Hong Kong Independence Party and the Hong Kong National Party, which formed in 2015 and 2016, respectively).
These groups hovered around the outer fringes of Hong Kong politics but members of localist parties were involved in a series of protests against parallel traders in Tuen Mun, Shatin and Yuen Long in 2015 that involved clashes with police.
The rise in localism coincided with the emergence of several independent (but clearly anti-China) media organizations such as Stand News (founded in December 2014) and the Hong Kong Free Press (founded in June 2015).
In 2016, there was a violent riot in Mong Kok during the Lunar New Year holiday when an attempt by the government to crack down on unlicensed hawkers led to localists rallying people to fight against the police. The riots ended with 90 police officers injured and 61 people arrested. The Mong Kok riot served as an appetizer (or test run) for the more recent protests and riots.
In the current round of protests, this rightwing, nativist movement is no longer on the margins; their aims, methods, propaganda and ideology are now firmly at the heart of the protest movement.
4.6 Other Pressures
Young people, who make up the bulk of the radical protesters, are facing a lot of pressure.
4.6.1 Normal Pressures of Adulthood
Young adults in Hong Kong are facing the normal pressure of growing up and trying to find careers and a purpose in life—just like every generation everywhere has faced before them.
4.6.2 Unaffordable Housing
High property prices put owning (or even renting) an apartment out of reach for most young people. If you are earning Hong Kong’s median income, it will take you twenty years of saving every penny you earn before you can save up the price of a small apartment in the territory. These high property prices are basically the result of longstanding collusion between the government, which controls the distribution of land and whose revenue largely depends on land sales and taxes, and property developers, who snap up the land that is released and hoard it to keep property prices artificially high. Some Hong Kongers also blame rich Mainlanders for buying up local property and driving up prices and blame poor Mainland immigrants for contributing to a shortage of public housing. For young people in Hong Kong, the problem is not so much one of not being able to afford to buy an apartment right now; the problem is facing the prospect that they won’t be able to afford a home for at least a couple of decades, if at all.
4.6.3 Social Inequality and Poverty
Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient, a measure of a society’s social equality in which zero represents maximum equality and one represents maximum inequality, is 0.54, which indicates high social inequality. It is even higher than America’s 0.41, which is the highest Gini coefficient among major developed economies. Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient has been rising while its poverty rate has also been increasing, with an estimated 20% of its residents now living below the poverty line.
4.6.4 Work-life Balance and Other Quality of Life Issues
There are other quality of life issues that Hong Kongers have been facing for a long time such as overly long working hours, crowded living environments and noise, light and air pollution.
4.6.5 Degree Inflation
In the relatively recent past, if you had a degree in Hong Kong, that was something special and it was quite easy to get started in a career. Since the handover in 1997, the percentage of young people in government funded degree programs has remained relatively stable—around 18%—but there has been a vast increase in the number of places in higher diploma, associate degree, top-up degree and self-financed degree programs. At the same time, there has also been a large and steady decline in the actual number of eligible students (due to decreasing birth rates) to fill those places. With a glut of tertiary education programs, graduates of Hong Kong universities are now coming to the same realization that university graduates in countries like the US or Canada have understood for years—having a degree by itself doesn’t guarantee anything.
4.5.6 Competition from the Mainland
Young people are facing increasing competition from Mainlanders for university places and jobs. I would argue that the top Hong Kong students match the top students from the Mainland. The problem for Hong Kong graduates, however, lies in the sheer number of Mainland graduates.
4.6.7 Lack of Opportunities and Hiring Trends
There has been a worldwide trend for companies to rely more on temporary, contract and part-time staff. Thus, it can be challenging for young people to get settled into a career. To make matter’s worse, China’s trade war with the US has had a negative effect on Hong Kong’s economy and the protests themselves greatly exacerbated the problem. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong slid into a recession, with many small businesses closing while larger ones laid off staff, requested staff to take unpaid leave and/or froze recruitment and/or pay rises.
Contributing to this problem is a rigid exam-oriented education system that was originally designed to identify a relatively small number of high achievers, who would then go on to take up posts at the government and prestigious international firms (or pursue law or medicine). This societal focus on examination results combined with low salaries for many manual labor and service jobs means it will be extremely difficult for academically underachieving students to earn a living wage once they start work .
Once young people in Hong Kong start working, they will likely still be living with their parents and are expected to start giving a significant portion of their salary to their parents. This monthly contribution is expected to continue even once the young people eventually move out. This has long been a tradition, but it just adds another burden on young Hong Kong people, one that that their peers in the Western world usually don’t have to deal with (though it should also be pointed out that few Hong Kong university graduates are saddled with large student loans as tertiary education in the territory is relatively inexpensive).
4.6.9 Political Uncertainty
As previously mentioned, no one has a clue about what will happen to Hong Kong in 2047. This uncertainty also adds to the pressure to young people, many of whom will have their own families to take care of by then.
4.6.10 Changing Expectations
All these issues have created a big change in Hong Kong. In the past, there was a kind of unwritten social contract between the government and the people. That contract can be summed up as follows:
‘You can endure a hard life. Work hard. If your salary is low; don’t worry, we have public housing (48% of the population lives in public or subsidized housing) and you won’t have to pay much (if any) tax. If your kids study hard, they can get a university place and start a professional career and they can have a nice life and they will help take care of you.’
This idea of slaving away for the benefit of future generations does not seem to resonate very strongly with young people today—not with all the pressures listed above.
4.7 Powder Keg and Spark
To conclude this section on the background to the protests, it is clear that the extradition bill was only the spark. The powder keg consisted of a highly combustible mix of:
- Uncertainty over the long-term future of Hong Kong
- The growing influence of the Mainland
- The threat that influence poses to Hong Kong’s culture and identity
- Longstanding anti-Mainland sentiments
- A growing sense of localism
- Real and perceived threats to freedom and autonomy
- Dissatisfaction with an unrepresentative, unaccountable government
- Quality of life issues like unaffordable housing, poverty, environmental problems and crowded living conditions
- The normal pressures of growing up in Hong Kong
- Lack of opportunities to start and develop careers due to degree inflation, hiring practices and the economic downturn (a downturn further exacerbated by the protests)
- A weakening of the ‘work hard for future generations’ mindset.
When Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, the territory was in fairly good shape, but many of the above issues were inherited from colonial days, as were things like a conservative and unresponsive civil service and a moribund education system.
Social unrest was always on the cards.
The long list of factors leading to the social unrest also means that there is no easy solution.
4.8 Unwillingness to Negotiate and Compromise
Something I only realized after writing this section is that not one of the political disputes since the 1997 handover have involved any negotiated compromises. In each dispute, one side was victorious, forcing the other side to concede. Sometimes the protesters ‘won’; for example, the proposed anti-sedition laws and national education curriculum were shelved. Similarly, the proposed extradition law was formally withdrawn. And sometimes the government ‘won’; for example, the Umbrella Movement protests for universal suffrage ended without the government making a single concession.
In contrast, the only major labor dispute during the post-handover period—the dock workers strike of 2013—was settled by compromise. Dock workers were demanding a 12% pay increase and better overtime pay, and the strike ended when a deal was made for a 9.8% pay increase and a promise of betting working conditions.
Surely, there should be some way to compromise in the current situation. The Hong Kong government offered to start a dialogue with protesters, but it is impossible to guess how sincere the offer was. A similar offer was made during the 2014 protests. The government invited student leaders for a televised meeting held in October 2014 and then, during the meeting, straight-out rejected everything the student leaders had to say. There was no attempt at negotiation. Carrie Lam, then the Chief Secretary, was one of the government’s representatives at that meeting.
For their part, the protesters stated many times in 2019 and 2020 via their representatives that they would not negotiate under any circumstances and rejected the governments offer to start a dialogue.
4.9 Freedom & Democracy Fantasies
At least some Hong Kongers have unrealistic expectations concerning democracy and freedom. To these people, democracy is considered as a kind of panacea—that once Hong Kong is fully democratic, all its problems will be solved. Some people also fail to realize that many of the measures that restrict freedom in Hong Kong—national security laws, laws against rioting, laws against incitement, disciplinary actions against teachers who push their own political views in the classroom, laws prohibiting foreign interference in politics, etc.—are also common in Western democracies.
Q5. What are the aims of the protesters?
This question is not as easy to answer as you may think.
5.1 The Five Core Demands
The protesters’ original demand was for the extradition bill to be withdrawn; however, an additional four demands were added early on. The five demands were:
Demand 1: Full withdrawal of the extradition bill
The Chief Executive announced a suspension of the bill on 15 June (6 days after the first large-scale protest), a declaration that the bill was dead on 9 July and an announcement on 4 September that the bill was to be officially withdrawn, which did happen on 23 October. This demand has been fully met, though definitely not in a timely manner.
Demand 2: A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality
Governments typically set up independent inquiries after periods of extreme social unrest, so a wide-ranging independent inquiry will likely be held, but that will likely happen only AFTER the protests end. (Edit. As of May 2022, there are still arrests being made for things like manufacturing explosives, so the protests are still ongoing; they have just moved underground.)
Also, it is likely that such an inquiry would not only focus on alleged police brutality, but will also deal with issues related to governance, journalism, social media and education as well as quality of life issues. Some of the findings might lead to new laws and restrictions that the protesters disagree with. For example, at many of the smaller protests, large numbers of journalists would stand between protesters and police. Therefore, I wouldn’t be surprised to see a verification and identification system for journalists being set up (along with strict guidelines regarding where journalists can operate during protests).
The Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) did carry out an investigation into alleged police misconduct during the initial phase of the protests. Its report had been expected to be published by end of 2019, but it was delayed by a legal challenge (from the anti-government camp) concerning the scope of its investigative powers. The IPCC investigation suffered a setback when the foreign experts added by the government to bolster the ‘independent-ness’ of the investigation resigned because they felt the body lacked powers necessary to conduct a proper investigation. One of these experts later published his own report in which he blamed the police for escalating the violence.
When the IPCC report was finally published in May 2020, its conclusion was that although the performance of the police could have been improved:
- there was no evidence of systematic misconduct,
- the use of force by the police was in response to the use of violence and vandalism by protesters,
- there was no evidence of collusion with criminals,
- much of the criticism of the police was based on online disinformation campaigns.
However, a judge ruling in the Court of First Instance on 19 November 2020 stated that: “The existing complaints mechanism involving the Complaints Against the Police Office, with oversight by the Independent Police Complaints Council, is inadequate to discharge this obligation.”
This demand for an independent commission of inquiry will likely partially be met at some point in the future, but not in a manner that satisfies protesters.
Demand 3: Retracting the classification of protesters as rioters
This is important to protesters as under Hong Kong law, participating in a riot is punishable by 5 to 10 years in prison. The Hong Kong government has responded by stating that it doesn’t automatically classify participants in a protest as rioters (even if the protest itself is declared a riot) and that it is up to the legal system to determine if a person is guilty of rioting. Due to the increasing violence of the protests, this demand is on very shaky ground. One can argue that the protest on 12 June (which this demand originally referred to) was not a riot, but when groups of masked protesters assault people in the street and set shops and train stations on fire…well…those are clearly riots. This demand seemed to be a kind of power move—an attempt to force the government into saying ‘black is white’—and will likely never be met.
Demand 4: Amnesty for arrested protesters
The Hong Kong government refuses to consider this, stating that such a move would interfere with the independence of the judiciary. The idea of an amnesty is a hard sell as some of the protesters have been (or will be) charged with serious offences (e.g., murder, attempted murder, wounding with intent, assault causing bodily harm, arson, possession of explosives, etc.). Like the demand to retract the ‘riot’ classification, this demand made more sense early on in the protests.
There are precedents for this kind of general amnesty in South Africa’s post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission and Spain’s post-Franco Amnesty Law. It should be noted, however, that this kind of amnesty is usually offered by the winning side after a regime change and, more importantly, such an amnesty normally applies to all sides in a conflict. Thus, an amnesty for protest-related offences would also apply to any police found guilty of excessive violence (or collusion with organized gang members) as well as to people who physically attacked protesters.
If police actually committed horrendous crimes like systematic torture, rape and murder (like they have been accused of by some protesters), it is possible that an ‘amnesty for all’ could be on the cards, but I doubt the protesters would be satisfied with this kind of amnesty, and so far there is no evidence of such atrocities having been committed.
Demand 5: Dual universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council
This is something the Hong Kong government would have to work out with the Central People’s Government of China. As explained in Section 6, the protesters lack the leverage necessary to push Beijing to concede to their demands. In my opinion, it would have made more sense to demand to restart the process of democratic reform.
5.2 Unachievable Aims
For people not associated with the protesters, it was clear from the outset that not all the demands could or would be met.
However, what is not clear is exactly where the additional four demands came from. Critics of the protests have suggested that the demands were purposefully formulated so that they would not be met—that is, they were formulated to simply prolong the social unrest.
It is also possible that the protesters simply overestimated their bargaining position.
5.3 Missed Opportunities & the Sunk Cost Fallacy
There were three moments when the protesters could have declared victory as their main objective—the withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill—had been achieved:
- On 9 July 2019, when the Chief Executive announced that the proposed extradition bill was ‘dead’.
- On 4 September 2019, when, after a summer recess of the Legislative Council, the bill was tabled to be officially and formally withdrawn.
- On 23 October 2019, when the bill was formally withdrawn.
Unfortunately, many protesters felt they had sacrificed so much (in terms of effort, personal costs like friendship problems and study problems, arrests, and even deaths) for their five demands that there was no turning back and there were no compromises that could be made. This situation—one in which you continue to do something that no longer benefits you solely because you have already spent a lot of time, effort or money on it—is known as a sunk cost fallacy.
5.4 Auxiliary Demands
The five demands are termed ‘core’ demands, but there have been a host of other demands. Other demands have included calls for:
- The Chief Executive to resign (this is sometimes tagged on to the core demand for universal suffrage). Ironically, there had been rumors circulating in late June 2019 that the central government was about the pressure Carrie Lam to resign due tor her mishandling of the extradition bill and the initial protests; however, all such rumors stopped dead after protesters stormed the LegCo building on 1 July. It is possible the protesters played a large part in ensuring Carrie Lam stayed in office.
- A ban against wearing masks in legal and illegal assemblies to be revoked. The ban was made under the Emergency Regulations Ordinance on 4 October 2019. Hong Kong’s High Court later overturned the ban, and the government appealed the decision. However, the COVID-19 outbreak lead to basically everyone in the city wearing masks. The Court of Appeal later mainly sided with the government, but struck down the ban against wearing masks in legal assemblies.
- The police to be disbanded.
- A great reduction in the number of Mainlanders allowed to immigrate to Hong Kong.
- Action to be taken against parallel traders who cater to Mainland tourists.
- Action to be taken to prevent middle-aged ‘aunties’ from the Mainland from dancing noisily and somewhat provocatively in a local park.
- An inquiry into the death of a fifteen-year old girl, whose body was found in the sea (the speculation was that she was murdered by police, though her mother went on the record to state that the girl had been suffering from psychological problems and had committed suicide) and the public release of all security camera footage related to the case. An enquiry was held in 2020. It was inconclusive, but the main takeaway was that the girl was troubled and had been behaving very erratically before her death. Just before she disappeared, she had removed her shows, wandered around her college’s campus barefoot, tried to access the rooftop of one of the campus buildings, and when she left the campus, she left her belongings (e.g., mobile phone) behind. There was not a single shred of evidence indicating any police involvement.
- An inquiry into the supposed deaths of at least three people at the Prince Edward MTR station at the hands of police (the speculation was simply based on inconsistent initial reports of the number of casualties, a common occurrence at incidents involving multiple casualties) and the public release of all security camera footage related to the case.
- A condemnation by various university heads of police brutality. Often this demand for condemnation came with a set of other demands. For example, a relatively small number (around 4,000) of students, alumni and staff of the University of Hong Kong demanded that the university’s president (a) issue a statement to condemn police brutality, (b) provide concrete assistance to arrested students, (c) hold a forum to listen to students’ concerns, and (d) promise not to permit police searches on campus.
- The withdrawal of the national anthem bill.
- The withdrawal of the national security legislation.
During the COVID-19 virus crisis, the protests abated somewhat but there were still protesters demanding to completely close the border with the Mainland as well a series of Nimby (Not-In-My-Backyard) protests demanding that the government not use certain sites as quarantine centers or clinics. There were also several incidents of police stations being attacked with petrol bombs.
Regarding the border closure demand, some medical staff did go on strike for a few days in January 2020. The staff members claimed they were doing so to protect Hong Kong. However, when there was a much more serious flare-up of coronavirus cases in March 2020 from people returning from countries like the US and England, there were no such protests and strikes. It appears that the strike had been motivated by anti-Mainland sentiment.
When the government organized a campaign of widespread COVID-19 testing in early September, activists and antigovernment unions called on Hong Kong residents to boycott the testing and demanded that the 60 Mainland medical staff who had come to the territory to help administer the program be deported.
5.5 Hatred against the Mainland
One unstated aim is simply to reduce the influence of Mainlanders in the territory. The national flag has been burned, Mainland-owned banks and businesses have been trashed and set on fire, parallel trading companies and mobile phone shops that cater to Mainlanders have been vandalized and Mainlanders working in or visiting Hong Kong have been insulted and physically assaulted. Then there were the protests against parallel traders catering to Mainlanders and against the Mainland ‘aunties’ dancing in the park as well as the demands to close the border completely and to deport a team of Mainland medical workers
5.6 The Unstated Aims of Independence & Regime Change
When I asked protest supporters about their long-term aspirations (e.g., What do you want for Hong Kong after 2047?), most of the people I asked refused to answer. The few who did answer mentioned three things (and nothing aside from these three things): independence from the Mainland, self-determination (or total autonomy) and the overthrow of the Communist Party of China.
If you suggest that the protests are a kind of color revolution ultimately aimed at regime change or an independence movement, most protest supporters will strongly deny this. They will follow the official line and say something like ‘No, we just want our five demands to be met.’ Since the enactment of the national security legislation, however, protesters have been less shy about expressing calls for independence, with a new slogan being “Independence, the only way”.
The now-banned main slogan of the protest movement is ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times’ (with the slogan also frequently featuring ‘free’ instead of ‘liberate’). Many protesters will argue that by ‘liberate’, they mean ‘to liberate people from traditional ways of thinking’ and that ‘revolution’ refers to an ideological revolution, not an actual armed resistance movement. They treat the slogan in a metaphorical way. However, the slogan was originally the 2016 election campaign slogan of a pro-independence candidate.
In addition, there are some pro-independence organizations and politicians involved in the protests, calls for independence are frequently made at rallies, independence slogans are frequently chanted by protesters and ‘Hong Kong Independence’ flags have been flown at protests. Clearly, at least some of the protesters take the slogan ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our Times’ literally; to them the protests are the opening salvos—the Hong Kong version of the Boston Tea Party—of a revolutionary war of independence.
A survey suggests that around 20% of protesters were in favor of independence (www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3046451/new-survey-hong-kong-protesters-says-80-support-one-country).
5.6.2 Regime Change
The regime-change idea, which a few protesters I spoke to admitted was their main aim, involved helping to spread a revolution that would eventually overthrow the Communist Party of China. This scenario, essentially a color revolution, relied on the very small chance that ALL of the following conditions will be met:
- China would be beset by unrest AND
- Chinese citizens would team up with Hong Kongers, who had been villainizing them, and rebel against the central government AND
- They would be successful AND
- Hong Kong people wouldn’t suffer horribly during the power struggle AND
- Hong Kong’s economy would remain mostly intact AND
- Whoever emerged victorious and finally gained control of China (or the section of a fragmented China in which Hong Kong finds itself) would either follow a Western style democratic system or would magnanimously give Hong Kong independence or complete autonomy OR that Hong Kong would become a US protectorate.
Let’s assume there is a very generous 50% chance of each step actually happening. If that is the case, the chance of ALL six conditions being met would be a very slim 1.6%.
Another problem with the regime-change idea is that it is built upon a foundation of three common misconceptions shared by many people in Hong Kong and in the West:
- that Mainland Chinese are strongly dissatisfied with their government and are itching to overthrow it,
- that there is strong demand for Western-style democracy among people in China and
- that the Chinese government is just barely clinging to power by brutally suppressing its opponents.
These misconceptions (and the history behind them) are the described by historian James Bradley in his book The China Mirage (YouTube Video Link). Independent research from the Harvard Kennedy School has shown increasingly strong support for the central government (Understanding CCP Resilience: Surveying Chinese Public Opinion Through Time), with around 95% or respondents reporting that they were satisfied with the government. Similarly, in a report called the Edelman Trust Barometer 2019 (www.edelman.com/trust), China has the highest score for trust in government (at 79). The US is at 49. The UK, France and Germany are at 43-44. (Edit: I have written an article describing this support and explaining the reasons behind it: Do People in China Support the Government).
5.6.3 The Economic Pain Theory
Many of the protesters assume that if enough economic pressure is applied to China, Beijing will be forced into allowing Hong Kong to become completely autonomous and enjoy self-determination or even independence. People who propose this scenario greatly overemphasize the importance of Hong Kong to China and to the international community.
The economic-pain approach involved making China suffer so much economically that a severely weakened Beijing would be forced to concede to the wishes of Hong Kong people. There were two proposed methods of doing that:
- Ruining Hong Kong’s economy
- Getting other countries to apply sanctions to China
Regarding the first method, the protesters were willing to ruin their own city in order to ‘free’ it (one of the protest movement’s slogans, borrowed from the Hunger Games, is ‘If we burn, you burn with us.’). This protest movement refers to this principle as ‘Laam Chau’, which in English means something akin to ‘burn together’.
To me, this strategy would be like ripping off your own arm in order to club someone with it before you bleed to death. Sure you might cause a little damage to your target, but you still bleed to death! Hong Kong can slightly bruise China economically—but only by completely sacrificing its own economy.
People advocating this approach fail to understand a few key points:
- Hong Kong’s GDP is less than 3% of the Mainland’s total GDP.
- Hong Kong’s GDP isn’t even included in Mainland China’s GDP.
- Hong Kong businesses and residents don’t pay tax to the central government.
- While it is true that 70% of foreign investment flows through Hong Kong, if Hong Kong were to become unlivable, much of this investment would continue to flow into China—just not via Hong Kong.
Hong Kong can be considered irreplaceable—there isn’t any one place that offers the same characteristics: rule of law, good English skills, stability (until recently), a well-educated work-force, freely convertible currency and proximity to the Mainland. However, Hong Kong is not indispensable. Many of its gateway-to-China functions can be taken over by competitors like Singapore, Shenzen, Shanghai and London.
The second method—getting other countries to apply sanctions, much like the eventually successful efforts to ostracize South Africa during the apartheid era—is also unlikely to succeed. You can see this approach in the lobbying of Hong Kong protesters to the USA to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. From my point of view, foreign powers may take some action, but these actions won’t be aggressive enough, unified enough and strong enough to make much of a difference.
What people calling for foreign intervention fail to understand is that for most countries in the world, China is now a bigger trading partner than America is. This time-lapse graphic illustrates the point perfectly: howmuch.net/articles/trade-timelapse-usa-china. This point is important for two reasons. First, it is impossible to suddenly ostracize China from the world economy without causing catastrophic economic damage worldwide. Second, if the US tries to pressure other countries to make a choice—do business with America or do business with China—only its closest allies will go along with that kind of pressure. Simply put, China in 2020 is not the South Africa of 1990.
There is an element to the protest movement that just wants to see the territory burn. It isn’t a main goal of the protest movement, but there are anarchists on the fringes.
5.8 Thrills, Status & a Sense of Purpose
Many of the front-line protesters are young teenagers. According to Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, Matthew Leung, over 30% of the protesters that have been arrested are under the age of 18, with some being as young as 12 years old (these figures were released in October 2019).
With the age of front-line protesters skewing so young, one has to wonder if other motivations besides the desire to preserve Hong Kong’s autonomy come into play. No doubt, many of the protesters are keenly aware of why they are fighting for democracy, but some may be motivated by the thrills and camaraderie of battle or they may simply feel that it is a cool thing to do—something that can elevate their social status among their peers.
At the school where I teach, many students participate actively in the protest movement. I know some of them are extremely earnest and are keen to improve society via political activism. Others, however, never indicated an interest in political issues and seem to be more motivated by trying to look cool and gain status.
In a video by the New York Times, one protester likened taking part in the protests to playing Grand Theft Auto (GTA) in real life. One could argue that he was half joking, but towards the end of the video, he expresses genuine disappointment that he was not able to test out his new gear against the police (twitter.com/carlzha/status/1170612438422573056)
Similarly in an article in the SCMP about teen protesters, some of the interviewees mention the thrills and sense of camaraderie they get when battling police:
“But the increasingly dangerous stand-offs with police have sometimes also been thrilling, they admitted, giving their weekend protests an almost addictive quality.
Henry, a fit athlete, gave a sheepish smile as he recalled how he felt he was in a ‘Korean drama’ when he had to sweep a female teammate into his arms and rescue her from smoldering tear gas.
For Bosco, who described himself as an introvert, the feeling of unity on the front lines is intoxicating. No one from his school or family would have thought he would be a hard core protester, he said.
‘In a group, we hurl bricks together, he said. Wouldn’t you be happy if you get to hit a police van?”(www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3034113/hong-kong-protests-throwing-bricks-police-vans-becoming)
I wonder if this particular genie—the use of teenagers addicted to the thrill and drama of playing GTA in real life—can be returned to its bottle.
Some young people found motivation to join the protests in the sense of purpose they received. They felt that they were part of an unstoppable wave that would change the world. There were certainly protesters who were motivated by a longstanding desire to improve the world. However, the nature of the protests also attracted people who weren’t really getting anywhere in life. It is difficult to build a career, difficult to build a family. difficult be innovative and creative. It is very easy, however, to smash up a shop or join a group of men in beating up a woman and then get applauded for being a ‘valiant’. For example, a man convicted of inciting violence by spreading false news online admitted that his main goal was getting likes on his social medial account. A woman convicted of helping run a doxxing website admitted that she was driven by a desire for peer approval. They weren’t political idealists; they were just young adults seeking validation from their peers.
5.9 Summary of Aims
The situation is complicated. At the moment, the protesters are united behind their five demands, but they have a wide range of aims. I would consider these three to be the main aims:
- To protect Hong Kong’s way of life and push back against perceived encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms by China’s central government
- To get a more representative and responsive government via democratic reforms
- To evade punishment for their actions
However, there are also several other aims that at least some of the protesters have. These include:
- To push back against all Mainland influence in the territory
- To get as many Mainlanders out of Hong Kong as possible
- To get rid of the Chief Executive and her officials
- To overthrow the Hong Kong government
- To reform the police, take revenge on them, punish them or get rid of them entirely (to be replaced by some kind of citizens’ law enforcement group)
- To start on the path to self-determination or independence
- To start on the path to overthrowing the Communist Party of China
- To get revenge on life’s unfairness by burning everything to the ground
- To satisfy more personal motivations like the thrill of battle, the sense of camaraderie and the sense of purpose and peer validation that participating in the protests could bring
- To simply keep fighting because too much has been sacrificed already
Their aims are…complicated.
The constant repetition of the slogan ‘five demands, not one less’ was used to keep the protesters ‘on message’ and unified. With such diverse goals, however, this unity may not last indefinitely.
One important point to note is that the list of aims does not match up very well with the list of reasons for dissatisfaction among young people in Hong Kong. Many of the items in list of combustible materials that make up the powder keg—like unaffordable housing, lack of opportunity, social inequality, poverty, poor work-life balance, pollution—are not addressed at all. The pan-democrat politicians who have attached themselves to the protest movement have given no indication of what they would do to address those issues if elected.
6. What were the problems with the protesters’ strategies?
There were four clear elements of the strategies used by protesters and each one came with its own set of problems:
- No negotiation + violence & intimidation
- No splitting & no condemning
- No leadership
- A mutual-destruction mindset
6.1 No Negotiation + Violence & Intimidation.
Protesters stated that ALL of the five demands are non-negotiable and must be met before the protests would stop.
From 1 July 2019 to 30 January 2020, there were protests every week (with the sole exception of one week when the District Council elections were held) and those protests usually descended into violence, with protesters frequently attacking police with petrol bombs, bricks and iron rods, smashing up and setting fire to train stations, government offices, private businesses and banks and even assaulting people who disagreed with them and attacking Mainlanders (or even just people presumed to be Mainlanders). Protesters killed one man and set another on fire after dousing him with inflammable liquid. While it is true that the vast majority of protesters did not commit acts of violence and vandalism, it is also true that the vast majority of protests did devolve into violence and vandalism.
Intimidation methods like doxxing and bullying people who express opposition to the protests or bullying people who are simply related to the the protest ‘opponents’ (e.g., the children of police officers) were commonly used.
The first problem is that this aggressive approach was always unlikely to succeed. All governments are loathe to concede to non-negotiable demands accompanied by violence. The Hong Kong and central governments will have a lot of contentious decisions to make in coming years and will want to avoid sending the the message that having a few thousand people out in the streets trashing businesses, beating up people and setting fire to trains is an effective way to influence government policy.
Some protest supporters may argue that it was only though the use of violence on June 12 that the extradition bill was not passed in the first place. However, it would have been possible for peaceful protesters to also encircle the legislative council buildings and stop the reading of the bill (which is what happened in the morning). People making such arguments are also overlooking the fact that the government’s decision to declare the bill ‘suspended’ (on June 15) would have been influenced by the looming specter of another massive march due to take place the very next day.
Since 15 June, the only thing the protesters accomplished in several months of often violent protest is to have the extradition bill that the Chief Executive had already declared ‘dead’ being officially withdrawn. More importantly, without those several months of protesting and rioting, Beijing would not have enacted the national security legislation and would not have implemented electoral reforms. The protesters’ aggressive approach has so far proven to be entirely counterproductive.
The second problem is that universal suffrage is something that Hong Kong would NEED to negotiate with the central government, and Beijing will not be forced to agree UNCONDITIONALLY to universal suffrage in Hong Kong.
The third problem is that some of the demands became outdated. The demand for the reclassification of riots and the demand for amnesty for all protesters made more sense when they applied only to the protest actions from 9 June to 16 June—before many of the more violent actions took place.
A fourth problem is that this approach offers no middle ground for compromise. In many political struggles and civil rights movements there are distinct violent and non-violent factions. Examples include the American civil rights movement, which contrasted Martin Luther King Jr’s non-violent movement with the more militant approach of Malcolm X. Similarly, while Gandhi was advocating for peaceful civil disobedience, other figures like Subhash Chandra Bose, Bhagat Singh, Bagha Jatin and Surya Sen called for armed uprisings. In South Africa, while the ANC did not shy away from violence, there were a number of other organizations that promoted non-violent resistance (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internal_resistance_to_apartheid). In these kinds of situations, the violence of one group can push the ruling power to negotiate with their less extreme counterparts. However, since the entire protest movement in Hong Kong is determined to remain unified, there is no such ‘push-to-negotiate effect’. There is no moderate group to negotiate with.
(Edit: After the National Security Law was passed in 2020, the Democratic Party, has been been trying to establish itself as a more moderate group that is opposed to violence; however, while the protests were at their height, Democratic Party members did nothing to distance themselves from the violence, vandalism and intimidation used during the protests. The party’s sudden return to moderation seems like a case of too little, too late. The party’s wishy-washy approach is likely to alienate protest supporters and the pro-establishment camp.)
The fifth problem is that some of the methods being used, such as the attacks on private businesses and the attempts to silence opposing voices via intimidation, are wholly incompatible with two of the cornerstones of democracy: the right to have and express opposing points of view and the right for minority groups (in this case Mainlanders) to live and do business in safety. Thus, there is a significant mismatch between the protesters’ stated aim of increasing democracy and some of their actual methods.
6.2 No Splitting & No Condemning
The protesters very rigorously followed a no-splitting no-condemning principle, meaning that if one supports the protest movement, one cannot condemn any action by any of the protesters (www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/short-reads/article/3026830/why-hong-kongs-protesters-do-not-want-cut-reed).
There is a certain amount of strength in numbers gained by this no-splitting approach. There is room at the table for everyone, pro-democracy activists, thrill-seekers and independence-seeking revolutionaries.
One main problem with this no-splitting approach is that it emboldens and empowers the hotheads and extreme radicals in the group. Some stated on social media that there were no lines that could not be crossed (and under the no-splitting, no-condemning policy, no protest supporters dared to argue against them). We’ve already seen, for example, acts of terrorism like protesters throwing petrol bombs into train carriages containing passengers, gangs of male protesters beating up women and a protester dousing a man with inflammable liquid and then setting him on fire. Such actions destroyed the moral legitimacy of the protest movement.
A second problem is that the no-splitting approach relies on having people of varying levels of ideological commitment remain unified even at great personal cost. The movement was destined to start fracturing at some point. At least some of the arrested protesters are not really committed revolutionaries, but they are now facing charges that could lead to lengthy prison sentences and they also have plenty of evidence against them. It is likely that at least some of them have become informants (especially in light of the number of times police have successfully conducted raids on sites containing bombs, bomb-making supplies and/or firearms).
6.3 No Leaders
The movement is officially leaderless. Protesters and their supporters discuss potential strategies and actions using online forums like LiHKG and apps like Telegram and try to come to a consensus.
The purpose of using this ‘anonymous’ approach is that there is no leader to arrest. After the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014, many of the organizers and leaders were eventually arrested, tried and imprisoned. The anonymous approach was meant to help prevent this from happening again.
The disadvantages of this approach were:
- There was no Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi there to set ground rules (e.g., “Let’s not involve young teens in confrontations with the police”), to get hotheads in line (e.g. “Let’s not firebomb private businesses and beat up women”) or to stop people from going off-message (e.g., “Put those independence flags away”).
- There was no one for the government to negotiate with.
- There was no one to provide a vision for the future (I don’t know of any protest representatives who have explicitly and publicly stated what they envision for Hong Kong’s post-2047 future).
- The combination of being surrounded by like-minded voices (i.e., the echo chamber effect) and anonymity created an environment where extreme viewpoints, false news and emotion-laden messages thrived.
- There was no one to re-calibrate the aims and demands. For example, the initial call for amnesty for all protesters might have made sense when it was first formulated, but since then, protesters have done things like set a man on fire and killed another with a thrown brick. That amnesty demand would make sense if it were adjusted to something like an amnesty for non-violent acts.
- There was the risk of outside agents infiltrating the movement and influencing discussions. For example, if the petrol bombs the protesters are making were not powerful, which was definitely the case early on, what was to stop someone with vested interests giving helpful tips on how to ‘properly’ produce petrol bombs?
- Putting something online anonymously doesn’t make one immune from the law (in any country). Two people have already been arrested for running social media accounts that allegedly incited others to commit violence. Another man was arrested for inciting unrest by posting false allegations against the police (He has since been convicted).
After the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests ended, it was mainly the movement leaders who were arrested. They served relatively short terms for things like ‘conspiracy to cause public nuisance’ and ‘inciting others to cause public nuisance.’ During the 2019-2020 protests, thousands of people have been arrested, with some of them facing long prison terms for things like arson and possession of explosives. A man was sentenced to 12 years in prison for possession of explosives with intent to cause injury and a woman just received a 4-year sentence after being convicted of arson (for burning things in the street). I doubt many protesters were aware the kind of prison sentences they would be facing.
Protest ‘representatives’ (as opposed to ‘leaders’) like Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow are still facing the same kinds of incitement charges that the Umbrella Movement leaders faced Therefore, the use of a leaderless approach as a method to avoid criminal prosecution was a complete failure.
6.4 Mutual Destruction
As mentioned earlier, the strategy of trying to destroy Hong Kong’s economy in order to put pressure on the Mainland was never going to work because even if the protesters did manage to wreck Hong Kong’s economy, the effect on the Mainland economy would be minimal.
6.5 The Cost of Silence
Because of all the problems with strategies that I mentioned in this section, it was clear from the very early on that the protests would (1) get out of control and (2) fail. In 2021, some protest supporters are slowly starting to acknowledge their shortcomings regarding strategizing. For example, in an article looking back at the protests, a strongly pro-protest writing collective known as Lausan has written about several of the problems I have highlighted here and has given more details and examples (lausan.hk/2021/confronting-new-big-platform-part-one/). However, the writer of the article appears to have, during the duration of the protests, followed the no-condemning and no-splitting strategies. For example, the writer apparently disagreed with the use of violence (particularly against civilians), but the strongest action he/she took during the protests to show his/her objection was to quit a chat group.
By aggressively supporting the protests while remaining silent on its many problems, Lausan, like the vast majority of the protest supporters, was complicit in allowing the protest movement to be dominated by its most radical members, which in turn led to the protest movement’s failure and to measures like the national security legislation and electoral reforms that followed.
That is the cost of their silence.
7. What are the Central Government’s (Mainland China) aims?
Ostensibly, the protesters are engaged in a struggle against the Hong Kong government. However, the core demands of universal suffrage and many of the auxiliary demands involve the central government. The protesters simply lack leverage with the central government because:
- The central government’s chief priority in making decisions is the country’s 1.4 billion citizens, not hundreds of thousands of angry Hong Kongers.
- The protesters are threatening to bring Hong Kong to ruin, but as far as the central government is concerned, there are quite a few benefits to the self-destruction of Hong Kong. Therefore, even the protesters’ most dire threats lack any real weight.
7.1 The Central Government’s Attitude
Beijing seems to have an attitude of: ‘We would prefer it if we can all get along and work together, but if you really want to destroy yourself, we are OK with that, too. We have big plans for you, but you have to take your medicine, sort things out and come on board. We’re waiting for now, but we won’t wait forever.’
Comments by Beijing officials and advisers after the Communist Party’s Central Committee meeting in early 2020 suggested that a strategy had been decided. First, they mentioned the need for Hong Kong to enact national security legislation (which Beijing largely took care of already) and to implement a national education program for students (which Hong Kong started to implement in 2021).
Second, the Hong Kong and central governments announced a series of new initiatives related to the Greater Bay Area (making it easier for Hong Kongers to work, live and invest there).
7.2 The Benefits of a Smoothly-functioning Hong Kong
Hong Kong, with a high degree of autonomy under the one country two systems policy, benefits China economically and politically.
Economically, Hong Kong helps bring foreign investment in and it offers a opportunities for Mainland investors to connect with international businesses and investment opportunities.
Politically, a thriving Hong Kong can serve as a model for reunification with Taiwan and can show the world that the Mainland can work well with more Westernized societies.
7.3 The Damage Being Done to These Benefits
Regarding the economic benefits, if political instability continues, international investors (and their Mainland counterparts) will start to consider moving their operations to competing, financial centers like London, Singapore, Shanghai or Shenzen as their base for operations in China.
Regarding the political benefits, at the moment, Hong Kong is definitely not serving as an enticing model for Taiwanese people. I can’t imagine that anyone in Taiwan is looking at Hong Kong at the moment and saying ‘Yes, this is what I want for Taiwan.’
7.4 The Benefits of Chaos
One important point to bear in mind is that while Beijing would benefit most from a smoothly-run and prosperous Hong Kong, a ruined Hong Kong also has significant benefits:
- The self-destruction of the territory would serve as a great cautionary tale for other regions who might at some point start clamoring for more freedom (especially when the fall of Hong Kong is contrasted with the rise of Shenzen and the increased prosperity of Macau). It could also be used as retroactive justification for past crackdowns and could serve as a get-out-of-jail-free-card for future restrictions (‘Well, you wouldn’t want another Hong Kong, would you?’).
- The self-destruction of Hong Kong could be used by Beijing to demonstrate to its citizens that the Mainland system is the superior system—politically and economically—of the ‘two systems’ in 1C2S.
- As Hong Kong protesters are fond of flying the Stars and Stripes and the Union Jack and have gone to great effort to appeal for support and intervention from both the US and the UK, it is easy for Beijing to portray the unrest as the work of foreign ‘black hands’ scheming to destabilize and contain a rising China. This can increase the sense of patriotism among Chinese citizens.
- Hong Kong’s misfortune can help competing Mainland cities like Shanghai and Shenzen become even more prosperous.
The benefits of chaos—accompanied by the weakening of Hong Kong’s economic and political benefits—mean that the protesters in Hong Kong do not have (and never had) the leverage to make far-reaching, non-negotiable demands.
7.5 The Chances of Military Intervention
So far, Beijing has refused to get involved militarily. It is apparent from the protesters’ violent actions targeting Mainland interests that at least some of them want to see Mainland troops (from the People’s Liberation Army or the People’s Armed Police) in the territory actively putting down social unrest. This would draw many more supporters in Hong Kong and overseas to their cause.
That ploy is transparent, so Beijing has been content to make threatening gestures such as publishing a video showing a training exercise in which soldiers practised putting down riots by Cantonese-speaking protesters who were dressed like Hong Kong protesters.
A tanks-in-the-street crackdown seems unlikely, but three things could cause this to change:
- If unrest starts spreading through China, which is highly unlikely,
- If Mainlanders start getting killed or abducted,
- If protesters start engaging in large-scale terrorist attacks.
However, protesters should really think carefully about Article 18 of the Basic Law. The last paragraph of that article is:
In the event that the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress decides to declare a state of war or, by reason of turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the government of the Region, decides that the Region is in a state of emergency, the Central People’s Government may issue an order applying the relevant national laws in the Region.
Thus, it would be possible for the central government to declare a state of emergency, have their security forces arrest people under Mainland law and try their cases on the Mainland.
7.6 Other Actions
Beijing has been applying leverage to private companies. Early on in the protests, for example, a pilot and flight attendant from Cathay Pacific were arrested (separately). The pilot had allegedly leaked flight details of a police soccer team while the flight attendant was accused of shining a laser pen at police during a protest. There were also incidents of oxygen cylinders being tampered with on several flights. Originally, airline officials stated that staff were free to express their views. Beijing reacted by banning any arrested Cathay staff members from flights over the Mainland’s airspace and by reminding Cathay Pacific that a large portion of its business involved flights to and from the Mainland and that over a third of Cathay Pacific’s shares are owned by CNAC (a Chinese state-owned company) and Citic Pacific (whose parent company is mostly owned by a Chinese-state group). In response, Cathay Pacific sacked the arrested staff members, and its CEO (Rupert Hogg) and Chief Customer and Commercial Officer (Paul Loo) resigned.
Beijing has also pressured the major property developers to release some of the unused land that they have been hoarding (in order to lower property prices).
It criticized the Mass Transit Railway (MTR) for acting as a shuttle service for protesters. The MTR Corporation, which has large projects on the Mainland, responded by shutting down stations in areas where protests were taking place, actions which placed it firmly in the protesters’ crosshairs.
Beijing does have a lot of leverage over major companies, almost all of which have extensive business deals on the Mainland. It is possible that the Cathay Pacific treatment—pressuring companies to get rid of staff who have been arrested or who actively and openly support the protests—will be extended to other companies.
Mainland authorities have also detained individuals travelling to or residing on the Mainland. For example, Simon Cheng, a British consulate staff member who was actively involved participating in and monitoring the protests on behalf of the consulate (so…spying, basically) was detained for prostitution-related offences while visiting the Mainland. Alexandra Wong, the elderly woman known for flying Union Jack flags at protests, was also detained on the Mainland (for her role in the Hong Kong protests) and then kept from returning to Hong Kong for several months.
Summary of Part 1
In Part 1, we have looked at the main issues behind the social unrest in Hong Kong. Part 2 will focus on answering questions such as who the protesters are, how much support they receive, how accurate their accusations of police brutality are, what the protesters’ justifications for their own violent acts are, what the government is doing to deal with the situation and the extent to which other countries have been interfering in the protests.
The main takeaways from Part 1 are:
- There were many underlying causes for the social unrest. Therefore, there are no easy solutions, and the aims of protests didn’t address most of the causes.
- There is an unwillingness to compromise from both sides, further decreasing the chances of finding a solution.
- The protesters had many different aims, not all of which were held by all protesters, not all of which were actually stated and not all of which were obtainable.
- To a large extent, the direction of the protest movement is led by what had previously been a fringe element—nativist, anti-Mainland radicals.
- Some of the protesters’ methods (e.g., the use of intimidation and violence to suppress opposing voices) didn’t match up well with their stated pro-democracy aims.
- The protesters lacked the leverage over the central government necessary to successfully use a no-negotiation, meet-our-demands-or-else approach.
- The protesters lacked long term goals and strategies.
- The no-splitting-no-negotiation-no leadership policy was effective in the short term in keeping the protest movement’s momentum, but it also means that the movement has becoming radicalized as it has pandered to its most extreme members.
Q8. What about Police Brutality?
Much of the protesters’ anger has been directed at the police, whom they accuse of brutality. The protesters viewed the police as rabid, out-of-control beasts. In contrast, opponents of the protesters felt that the police were too restrained and lenient.
Protesters have set up a ‘Police Misconduct’ database here (you can visit the site and form your own opinion): tl.hkrev.info/en/police-timeline/ (This site seems to be voluntarily offline at the moment. I suspect that this is because some of the video footage there could be used to prosecute protesters).
Problems with policing started during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. During those protests, demonstrators did stick closely to a principle of non-violent civil disobedience. There were quite a few instances, however, when police used excessive force. These would range from spinning an idle protester around so that he could be pepper-sprayed in the face to the widely publicized case in which several officers assaulted a man who had poured liquid onto other police officers. Not knowing they were being filmed by a local TV crew, several officers carried the handcuffed man to a dark corner and assaulted him.
The officers involved in the beating were later tried and some of them were convicted and imprisoned. What the police administrators and union officials should have done was to unequivocally denounce them for their illegal conduct. Instead, they tried to paint the convicted officers as victims who were being given unfairly harsh sentences.
Also, during the Umbrella Movement, there was a case in which officers seemed to be working in collusion with triad members. On 3 October 2014, a group of masked men attacked protesters and pulled down stalls. The attackers were later recorded on video being ushered away by police and into waiting taxis.
There was also a case just after the Umbrella Movement ended in which a 14-year-old girl was arrested for drawing a small umbrella in chalk at what had been the Admiralty protest site. The prosecutors took the unusual step of recommending that she be removed from the custody of her father. Usually this kind of request is reserved for serious crimes involving drugs and/or violence (and not for chalk graffiti).
It is clear that the police and prosecutors had become politicized. They were no longer just trying to maintain order, but were also working to quash dissent. After the Umbrella Movement protests, although the government was ‘victorious’, the reputation of the police was in tatters.
The effect of this became evident during the one-night Fishball Revolution of 2016. During that riot in Mong Kok, protesters managed to isolate a small group of police officers and attacked them, leading to one of the officers justifiably firing a warning shot in the air as protesters were looking to severely injure or kill one of his colleagues, who had fallen to the ground. For the first time since the 1967 riots, police had become ‘fair game’ as targets.
8.2 The Role of the Police
If such large-scale riots occurred in another city in the world, it would be that the state police, the federal police and/or the country’s military (either the army or armed forces reserve) that would be called into action. Hong Kong has no military, so the government would need to call on the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), something which the government would only do as a last resort. Thus, in Hong Kong, the police are performing a role that would normally be taken over by the military, with many officers on the front lines being drafted in from units, like the Traffic Branch, that don’t regularly deal with violent situations. This has lead to situations where some police have been operating out of their depth and have made mistakes.
The role of police as the only entity standing between protesters and authorities means that the government was loathe to take any action that would demoralize the police (such as by charging individual officers for overly aggressive actions).
The strategies used by police during the protests have been wildly inconsistent. The police alternated between a timid passivity that emboldened the protesters (e.g., by withdrawing completely on 1 July, police allowed protesters to storm and ransack the Legislative Council chambers) and a callous belligerence that inflamed the public (e.g., striking protesters in Prince Edward station on 31 August without bothering to arrest them). Later on, the police adopted a pro-active approach—intercepting people before they arrived at protests and searching them. This pro-active approach proved to be very effective in reducing incidents of violence and incidents of excessive use of force but raised concerns about whether people’s rights of assembly are being infringed upon.
8.3 The Difference between Force and Violence
First, one thing should be made clear. The police in Hong Kong are not wandering around the streets randomly assaulting people who are just going about their normal daily lives.
I have heard people say, ‘well, there is equal violence on both sides.’ However, they are failing to distinguish between force and violence.
As in any other jurisdiction in the world, police in Hong Kong are authorized to use force when dealing with riots and when arresting people who are resisting arrest. For example, if you are setting up an illegal roadblock and resist arrest and a police officer knocks you down and presses your head to the ground, that is ‘force’, so the question is whether the use of force is excessive in that particular situation.
In contrast, if you are a private citizen dismantling a roadblock and a protester comes along and knocks you down and presses your head to the ground, that is simply ‘violence’.
It is not a question of whether the police have the right to use force to restore order—they obviously do; it is a question of whether they are using too much force. On 12 June, for example, although protesters did throw bricks and poles at police officers, the police response seemed disproportionately heavy.
8.4 Actual Incidents
Incidents of excessive use of force (or selective law enforcement) by the police have included:
- Incidents where the the police actions are wrong from any viewpoint. The most notable example of this is when a police officer riding a motorcycle attempted to run down several protesters. There was another case early on in the protest in which an officer violently threw to the ground a woman who was just passing by. During the 12 June protest, a man who was sitting down because he was slightly injured and feeling unwell was repeatedly pepper-sprayed in the face by police who wanted him to move away immediately. There was another case in which a protester was being dragged away by one police officer when another officer, unprovoked, rushed over to step on the protester’s head. In these kinds of cases, it seems that individual officers went out of their way to harm people. Charges should be laid in at least some of these cases.
- Applying more force than is absolutely necessary when restraining people. There are many cases of people getting a few extra baton strikes, punches, slaps or kicks, while of after being restrained. I would argue that the majority of cases of excessive force fall under this category.
- Striking out at protesters with batons but not even bothering to arrest them. This most notorious incident of this was on 31 August 2019, when the police rushed into a train in Prince Edward Station after a fight broke out between protesters and passengers inside a train carriage.
- Failing to protect protesters, most notably in an incident in Yuen Long (which is discussed later in this section).
- Excessive use of tear gas and pepper spray and occasional inappropriate use of tear gas and pepper spray (e.g., in closed areas or confined spaces).
- Overly casual of ‘less lethal’ ammunition like bean bag rounds and rubber bullets. There are too many examples for me to count here. The main thing here is that all forms of less-lethal ammunition can cause severe injuries and fatalities, so if you are going to fire a rubber bullet off or hit someone in the head with a baton, you need to accept that there is a small chance you will kill someone. That means those kinds of actions should only be used in very serious situations. Let’s look at one case—the Indonesian journalist who was blinded in one eye after being shot with a rubber bullet. She shouldn’t have been standing in front of protesters, and the protester who jumped out in front of her just before the police officer shot shouldn’t have been using members of the press as cover. However, the police officer was also was at fault. There simply wasn’t a clear shot there to take (especially with a rubber bullet, which is not that accurate), and the situation didn’t really warrant a shot. Was the shooting unlawful? No. However, it did seem to be a poor decision made in the heat of the moment and an example of what I would call an overly casual use of less-lethal ammunition.
- Arresting people who are just bystanders.
In an article published in the SCMP on 21 March, the Commissioner of Police Chris Tang Ping-keung stated that complaints have been filed for around 1,600 incidents and that some of these complaints have been substantiated. Even the police admit there have been some inappropriate actions.
To date, a few police officers have been disciplined, but none have been arrested or charged. The Commissioner of Police did not rule out further action take against those were were disciplined. As mentioned earlier, some police officers were arrested for the actions during the Umbrella Movement protests, but those arrests were made after the protests (and not while the protests were still ongoing).
Compounding the problems mentioned above is the lack of sincerity shown by some police spokespersons. For example, when video emerged of police apparently kicking a detained protester, a spokesperson simply said that the video was not clear and only showed a ‘yellow object’ being kicked.
8.5 Privacy Violations and Lack of Identification
There are also concerns about police identification. In many instances, police have covered up their Police UI (Unique Identification) numbers. This lack of transparency is likely intended to prevent doxxing (which has been a serious problem), but it also makes it difficult for people to lodge complaints about the actions of individual officers. The police have tried to compromise by issuing operation-specific ID numbers, but these have not always been visible. In a ruling in the Court of First Instance on 19 November 2020, the judge ruled that the failure of police to display ID numbers contravened the Bill of Rights. The police are now appealing this ruling.
There were a couple of cases in which police were asked to identify themselves by reporters and instead requested that the reporters show their own identification (which the police held up to the camera filming the scene). Those two officers were disciplined, but were not charged.
8.6 The Yuen Long Incident
Police have also been accused of inaction (or selective law enforcement), most notably in an incident in Yuen Long on 21 July when dozens of men wearing white shirts and carrying rods attacked protesters and journalists . Police then were extremely slow to respond. There were initial reports of attacks on people in the streets starting at around 10:00. At 10:30, the gang of men started attacking protesters in the train station. Three officers arrived at the station at around 10:52, but left. The police department later explained that they did not have the manpower or equipment required to deal with the situation (due to having to handle protests on Hong Kong Island) and that the police were instructed to wait for reinforcements. Police arrived in force at 11:20, but the attackers had already left and the station was closed. The police then left.
A large group in white shirts returned after midnight, forced the train station shutters open and attacked people inside.
A total of 45 people were reported injured. The assailants tended to use weapons like thin wooden rods that functioned more or less like whips, so it appeared they were attempting to ‘teach the protesters a lesson’ rather than than kill or maim them.
This case definitely should be looked into as there were reports earlier in the evening of gangs of men congregating in Yuen Long. Also, it is clear that protesters had planned a confrontation in Yuen Long via social media and that someone had earlier in the day issued a warning to protesters telling then not to set foot in Yuen Long. In short, it wasn’t a random confrontation. It was more like two rival groups purposefully confronting each other.
There appear to be five possibilities (none of which make the police look good):
- The police were unaware of the situation (which implies a lack of competence).
- The police were aware of the situation but chose to look the other way.
- The police were aware of the situation but were too slow in taking things seriously.
- The police actively coordinated with the assailants (as I understand it, the ICAC did investigate the case, looking for possible collusion between police and triads).
- The police were aware of the situation and really lacked the manpower to deal with it, but also neglected to inform the public of the dangers (i.e., they did not immediately warn the general public to avoid going to Yuen Long).
However, it should also be noted that in this case:
- Video footage of the incident shows that protesters in the station, perhaps believing that they were safe inside the paid area of the concourse, did taunt, antagonize and throw things at the white-clad men for several minutes before the men entered the paid area of the concourse to attack them (see YouTube video: Debunking Yuen Long 7/21 or journalist Nury Vittachi’s YouTube video: What we’re not told about the ‘Yuen Long 721’ incident). At one point, a protester even sprayed the white-clad men with water from a fire hose. Similarly, before the white-clad men forced open the shutters to enter the station a second time, a protester rushed up to the shutters and rammed an umbrella through the shutters in an attempt to stab one of the men. Thus, some commentators liken the situation more to a gang fight in which one gang lost.
- Video footage shows that citizens NOT dressed in protest gear were allowed to leave the paid-area of the concourse unmolested.
- Many on-duty police were assigned to handle a large protest far away on Hong Kong Island (where protesters had been vandalizing the China Liaison Office, a politically sensitive location).
- Earlier in the evening, a van driver was beaten up by protesters when he argued with them to allow him to get through their roadblock. The injured man was left lying in the street for an hour before an ambulance showed up. The police never arrived to help him.
During the early weeks of the protests, the police tended to be very slow to take action. For example, when protesters broke into the Legislative Council building on 1 July and ransacked it, the breaking-in process lasted for several hours. Protesters were already smashing doors and windows in an effort to break in during the middle of the afternoon. They only managed to get inside at around 9:00 p.m. Police arrived in large numbers at around 11:00 p.m. and the protesters ran way without any confrontations or arrests. Of course, the difference is that in this case only property was being damaged while in the Yuen Long case people were being injured. Still, the two cases are similar in that they are indicative of the very slow and overly cautious approach adopted by the police at that time. The police would show up in massive numbers long after the damage had been done. And, as was the case of the van driver who was beaten up by protesters that same night, sometimes the police just didn’t show up at all.
To date, over thirty of the assailants in the Yuen Long attacks, most of whom did not wear masks, have been arrested, but only seven of them of them have been formally charged. In June 2012, five of the men were convicted of rioting.
8.7 Incitement on the Part of Protesters
On many occasions, the police seemed too emotional, which is not surprising since they are frequently being goaded by protesters using foul language, calling them ‘dogs’ and ‘black police’. (In response to being called dogs, the police and critics of the protests have labelled the protesters as cockroaches. Both sides seem intent on dehumanizing their opponents. The ‘dog’ label was already in use during the massive initial protests.)
Police are frequently getting projectiles and molotov cocktails thrown at them and officers have been stabbed while on duty and off duty. In many cases, there is an obvious intent to kill on the part of the attackers. Police officers have been slandered on social media and in propaganda posters. Their homes, where they live with the wives and children have come under siege (with catapulted stones and petrol bombs) and even their children have been threatened and bullied at school.
That is a lot to handle; however, as professionals, they should keep their emotions under better control.
One of the myths of the protest supporters is that things only kick off when the police arrive. Having watched numerous live feeds and after having visited protests to see things for myself, I could see that it was clear that if police didn’t appear, protesters would start blocking roads and setting things on fire in order to provoke the police to come to the scene.
8.8 Problems with Deployment and Strategies
In several cases, individual officers or small groups of police have been left isolated or in exposed positions and have been attacked by protesters, leaving them no choice but to draw their firearms or fight their way out. One notable example was in New Town Plaza. Protesters had been throwing things at police from the shopping mall. Police then entered the mall and walked across the main podium—an open square. They were then showered with bottles, umbrellas and other items thrown at them by protesters occupying the upper floors, which looked down on the square from all four sides. In essence, the police walked straight into a kill zone. This attack on police led to brawling between officers and protesters. There have been several similar incidents—when poor operational decisions have left police in vulnerable situations and which eventually led to physical altercations between protesters and police and to officers sometimes using their firearms.
8.9 Recklessness on the Part of Protesters
There have been three shooting incidents by police under attack, but those cannot really be characterized as excessive force.
In one case, for example, one police officer had been isolated, chased down, overpowered and pinned to the ground and was being beaten by protesters wielding hammers and metal rods. Another officer came to his aid with his sidearm drawn and raised when one of the attacking group of protesters lunged forward (instead of backing off) and used some kind of pipe or rod to take a swipe at the officer’s shooting arm. The pipe/rod grazed the officer’s arm, leaving the officer, who had no way of knowing that a few officers coming from behind were seconds away from arriving on the scene, no choice but to shoot his attacker, injuring him.
Another case was similar. An isolated police officer unwisely chose to arrest one of a group of at least four protesters. He drew his weapon, grabbed an 18-year-old protester and pointed his revolver it at him threateningly. In this case, in my opinion, the officer made the wrong decision to arrest one man out of a group of at least four without any support. He had apparently felt threatened (there are reports one of the men said something like ‘don’t let him get away’). What the officer should have done was back off until he was closer to his colleagues instead of trying to make the arrest. However, this decision was a poor decision, not an illegal or unlawful one.
In order to deal with the threat posed by four potential adversaries, the officer drew his sidearm and aggressively threatened the protester he was arresting with it. Similarly, this was a tactical decision that I disagree with, especially as the officer was very aggressive, but it was not an unlawful action. At that point, the three other protesters advanced on the officer from different sides, with the closest one reaching out towards the officer’s sidearm. At this stage, there was no choice but to shoot at point blank range at the protester reaching out for the sidearm. Who advances towards a police officer who has a firearm drawn and then reaches out toward the officer’s shooting arm? The normal result of such an action in any country of the world is ‘get shot’.
It is worth noting that the officer in this case was a traffic policeman who had been temporarily re-assigned to help with the riots. This may partially explain some of his questionable decision-making.
Despite clear video evidence showing what happened in both incidents, many Hong Kongers still blame the police for both shootings. The policeman in the second case was the target of a private prosecution launched by legislator Ted Hui, but the case was thrown out in August 2020.
The third shooting case occurred when a plainclothes police officer was attacked in his car and he shot one of the attackers—a 14-year-old—in the leg. In response, the protesters tried to set the officer on fire using petrol bombs. For some unknown reason, protesters have not tried to play up that incident. The teenager, later tried for rioting, did not blame the police officer.
This kind of recklessness on the part of protesters was also on display in several incidents in December:
- There is a video showing a fleeing protester sprinting through a shopping mall, bowling over a police officer and then leaping over a railing and falling several meters to the floor below (of course injuring himself in the process).
- A 16-year-old grabbed an officer’s shotgun and tried to shoot police officers with it (the firearm was unloaded). He has since been convicted.
- An 18-year-old, already on bail on weapons charges, was arrested after firing on officers with a pistol.
- A 16-year-old fell from the roof of a restaurant when trying to hide from police.
I don’t know the age of the person who jumped over the railing (one newspaper identified him as a ‘youth’), but it is worth noting that in all the other cases mentioned in this section, the protesters involved were teenage males.
Thus, some instances of ‘police violence’ are simply police dealing with unexpectedly reckless behavior by some very hyped-up male teenagers.
8.10 Unproven Allegations
There have been allegations of sexual abuse and torture in detention centers and police stations. It is of course possible that some of these things did happen. However, it is up to the victims to file a report with the police, take the matter up with the ICAC (Independent Commission against Corruption) or the IPCC (Independent Police Complaints Commission) and/or initiate a civil suit. Of course, if you have suffered abuse while in police custody, you might be reluctant to turn to the same police force for justice, but Hong Kong has independent courts, so civil suits would be a good option. A good example of such a lawsuit is the successful class action lawsuit filed on behalf of the students who were pepper sprayed at the University of California, Davis during a peaceful protest.
To date, none of the people who have accused the police of rape, sexual, abuse and torture have initiated such a lawsuit and no evidence has surfaced showing systematic abuse of prisoners.
There was a court case, however, in which the defendant was convicted of knowingly posted fake reports of torture and rape. He had told officers that he did this in order to get ‘likes’ on his social media posts.
8.11 Conspiracy Theories
Several Sandy-Hook-style conspiracy stories have been used to drum up outrage.
- Many people still believe the theory that a 15-year-old girl, whose body had been found floating in the sea, was killed by police despite her mother coming forward and telling people that it was a suicide and that her daughter had been suffering from psychological problems. The mother asked people to let the family to mourn in peace. There is also video footage showing the girl leaving her personal belongings behind at her school’s campus and walking barefoot towards the sea.
- Many people still believe that three people were killed by police in the Prince Edward MTR station despite the absence of any bodies or relatives or friends coming forward. Initial reports from first responders indicated that 10 people were injured and in need of hospital treatment. As is the case with many initial reports from a scene with multiple casualties, that figure was wrong. When the number was reduced to 7, the ‘logical’ conclusion was that three people had been killed by police, who then conspired with other first responders to secretly remove and hide the bodies (and also silence all of the supposed victims’ relatives).
- Many people still believe a man who fell to his death in a car park near a protest site was killed by police despite video evidence showing no police anywhere nearby (or any tear gas in the car park). A formal enquiry was held and there was an open verdict (meaning there was no clear proof as to what cause the death. During the inquest, however, there was no evidence whatsoever that the police had anything to do with the death. During the inquest, two videos were shown of other protesters hurdling over the same short barrier that the young man fell from. In those two cases, the protesters managed to stop and catch themselves before plummeting to the next level. The two protesters in those videos had apparently thought that the floor plan of that that level was similar to the level below and that there was a floor to jump onto (instead of a drop straight down to the level below).
- Many people still believe there have been dozens of murders by police, who then stage scenes to make it the cases look like suicides (In one social media post I read, the writer was claiming that just under 12,000 people had been murdered in this way). This is why protesters, when arrested, often shouted out their names and issued a declaration that they do not intend to commit suicide. It was very dramatic, but had no basis in reality.
- Many people believe that all violent acts committed by protesters were actually false flag attacks being carried out by Hong Kong police officers and/or Mainland agents in order to discredit the protest movement.
Images of the girl who committed suicide and the man who fell were routinely used by pro-protester propagandists to stir up outrage even though not a shred of evidence has been produced that could implicate the police.
8.12 Lack of Knowledge about Police Procedures
Many people simply lack understanding of police procedures.
- Police are trained to aim for center mass when shooting and not for the limbs.
- Police are authorized to deadly force when trying to protect their own lives or the lives of others and are not required to fire a warning shot.
- If police officers are acting as a group, only one officer needs to show his/her ID if requested (not all of them).
- Police can freely enter private property if they suspect a crime is being committed or that a person to be arrested is inside (a warrant is necessary to conduct a search).
- Police sometimes operate undercover (and are not simply plainclothes police).
- When restraining someone who is resisting arrest the idea is to apply pain—generally by twisting a limb—and increasing the pain if the suspect increases his/her efforts to break free. Restraining people who are trying to break free usually does not look pretty.
- Initial police reports concerning numbers of casualties and suspects are often inaccurate.
- Bean-bag rounds are very inaccurate (one can’t fire from a distance, ‘aim’ at someone’s eyes and actually expect to hit the eyes).
- Putting on a reflective vest that says ‘First Aid’ or ‘Press’ doesn’t make one immune to getting arrested. There was an uproar when police detained ‘First Aiders’ leaving the campus of Hong Kong Polytechnic University when it was occupied. In response, police stated that the ‘First Aiders’ detained were questioned and many of them lacked any knowledge of basic first aid. There are also videos on social media showing front-line protesters slipping on press and first aid vests when trying to evade police.
- If you are treating an injured ‘enemy combatant’ (bear in mind that the more radical protesters may be armed with knives, iron bars, petrol bombs, hammers, other improvised weapons and even firearms), the first priority is to ensure your own safety—which means securing the scene and ensuring the injured person or his/her comrades don’t have the means to attack you—before you begin treating him/her. This looks very callous, but it is the proper way of doing things
This lack of knowledge often led to people being outraged by relatively routine police actions.
8.13 Social Media and Media Portrayals
The Western media, many local media outlets (like Apple Daily), independent local media organizations like Stand News and the Hong Kong Free Press and the protest movement’s own propagandists tend to focus on the police’s use of force while ignoring or downplaying the reason for the force to be used.
One example of this occurred when I was watching live video footage with a young protest supporter. In the video, a young man was being brutally restrained, beaten and pepper-sprayed by police. The scene was so violent that the person viewing the video with me was driven to tears. However, what that video footage didn’t show was that the young man had just moments before ambushed from behind a police officer who had been trying to arrest someone else. The young man had hit the officer in the back of the head (or neck) with a rod (which allowed the person being arrested to escape) before being chased down (and then very roughly apprehended as he struggled to break free) by other officers. The use of force, even under the circumstances, did seem excessive. If you live outside of Hong Kong, however, you can ask yourself how your own country’s police officers would act in the same situation. If you hit a policeman in the back of the head with a blunt object while he was trying to arrest someone and then you tried to resist arrest, would his colleagues restrain you with the minimum amount of force required?
An obvious example of media bias concerns an incident in Kwai Chung in which a police officer raised a shotgun and pointed it at protesters. Western and local media showed video footage starting from the moment the officer raised the firearm. They presented the story as something along the line of ‘out-of-control policeman threatens citizens with a gun’. In contrast, Mainland media showed the whole unedited video, including what happened before that moment. Before raising his firearm, that officer and two colleagues, who had left the police station to respond to a (possibly fake) call about a person in distress outside the building, were surrounded by protesters. Two of the officers, including the one who later raised his firearm, were knocked to the ground by protesters. The officer only raised the firearm when the situation was getting completely out of control.
The Mainland media, perhaps sensing the opportunity to discredit Western media outlets, played up the incident, presenting the police officer as a hero. Anyone on the Mainland could check the reports from the overseas news agencies and easily see how the story was being distorted by the Western media.
The media in western democracies is SUPPOSED to be relatively unbiased; however, this has not been the case when it has come to reporting on the Hong Kong protests. The Western media has its own preferred narrative, presenting the protesters as noble, outgunned freedom fighters battling against an oppressive, evil empire. This bias is discussed in more detail in this article by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, a US organization: fair.org/home/with-people-in-the-streets-worldwide-media-focus-uniquely-on-hong-kong
When it comes to social media, the narrative becomes even more one-sided. My own Facebook feed has been filled with wild conspiracy theories, images of protesters being roughly subdued (with no context as to what they had been doing beforehand), vitriolic anti-government and anti-China comments as well as comments doxxing police officers and threatening their families.
Because of the bias on all sides, the only way for someone to get the full picture of what is happening in the protests is to access a wide range of news sources: pro-protester local media, anti-protester local media, independent online media (on both sides), Mainland media and even media like RT (from Russia) and Al-Jazeera (from Qatar). Unfortunately, many people tend to choose the news sources that best match their own ideologies and just stick with that information.
8.14 Blind Hatred
If the police are involved, any incident can be used to stir up outrage among the anti-government supporters. For example, many people in Hong Kong were outraged when the police chief, at a dinner attended by police personnel and entertainment figures, jokingly said to actor Jackie Chan that he had learned everything about policing by watching the actor’s movies. Where else in the world would this cause offence? The only reasons that antigovernment protesters in Hong Kong were outraged were: (1) the police were involved and (2) Jackie Chan was involved (the actor is despised by some people in Hong Kong for his pro-China views).
8.15 Conclusion of Police Use of Force
To sum up, the police definitely haven’t been angels. They have:
- Often been too emotional and disrespectful towards protesters,
- Often have often used more than the minimum amount of force required,
- Often used things like tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds too casually,
- Often ended up using force because of poor operational decisions or because poor personal decisions left them no choice,
- Sometimes simply been violent (these officers should face criminal charges),
- Sometimes lacked sincerity in addressing complaints.
However, much of the public outrage has been stirred up by:
- Biased media coverage and the protest movement’s propaganda,
- Incidents where it was the protesters’ reckless actions that led to heavy force being used against them,
- Lack of knowledge concerning rights and procedures,
- Outlandish conspiracy theories and blind hatred.
Q9. How are the violence, intimidation and vandalism by the protesters related to their aims?
One of the key features in this protest is how readily Hong Kong people (who are generally very peaceful) have adopted violence and vandalism as strategies. At the beginning of the protest movement, there were two massive almost entirely peaceful protests in 9 June and 16 June. There was one protest in between those on 12 June that was marred by clashes. However, since then, most protests have descended into vandalism and violence by protesters against a wide variety of targets.
There is an online database of protester violence: www.truth-hk.com
Violence by protesters is shown in a video produced by the Hong Kong government: YouTube Video Link. This video is definitely one-sided, but it also accurate. All of those things did happen and all of the ‘facts’ mentioned in the video are true, except for one: the police have not always used the minimum amount of force required.
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong used to be committed to non-violent civil disobedience, so the widespread acceptance of violent tactics is quite surprising. There had been violent riots in 1967 as part of a leftist Cultural-Revolution-inspired campaign, and those riots were forcefully put down by the British. However, since then, most protests in Hong Kong have been peaceful.
For example, once when I was visiting one of the protester-occupied streets during the 2014 Umbrella Movement, a young protester rushed up to me and breathlessly and anxiously said:
“Have you seen any bricks? No? We found a pile of some bricks over there. We think an outsider brought them to cause trouble. If you see any bricks don’t touch them…just tell us and we’ll take them away. Whatever you do, don’t throw them!”
In contrast, one of the first things protesters did during the 2019 protests when they arrives at a site (for the illegal assemblies) was to start tearing up sidewalks and gathering bricks and paving stones to throw at police and to scatter around the road to block traffic.
Even the use of umbrellas has changed. During the Umbrella Movement protests, umbrellas were used primarily as a protection against the elements and as a shield against police pepper spray. Now umbrellas are often used to conceal illegal activities. For example, if the protesters decide to beat someone up, some people will do the actual beating while others hold up umbrellas to conceal the act, with the beating often being preceded with a command to ‘open umbrellas’.
9.1 Acts of Violence and Intimidation against People
By identifying the targets of violence and vandalism, one may get a clearer picture of what the protesters actually stand for. Acts of violence and intimidation against people include the following:
- Police have frequently been attacked with a variety of mostly improvised weapons: petrol bombs (i.e., Molotov cocktails), bricks, arrows, flaming arrows, metal rods, metal bars, knives and other kinds of blades, hammers, spanners and sharpened poles. In one case, an 18-year-old secondary student sneaked up behind a police officer and stabbed him in the neck. On July 1 2021, a man snuck up behind a policeman and stabbed him in the back before committing suicide. In many of these cases there was obvious intent to kill.
- In a shocking incident on 11 November 2019, a protester poured petrol on a man and set him on fire. The man was confronting protesters after chasing away a group of protesters who had been vandalizing a train station.
- The next day, a seventy-year old street cleaner was killed by a brick thrown by a protester while he was using his phone to record a conflict between protesters, who had blocked a road, and other citizens who were trying to remove the roadblocks. In April 2020, two male teenagers (one 16 and the other 17) were charged with participating in the murder.
- Dozens of people have been beaten up simply for expressing opposition to the protests, for arguing with protesters to be allowed to pass through their roadblocks, for trying to remove roadblocks or for taking photos of protesters. These incidents have only sometimes been reported in the mass media. People have been beaten up simply for speaking out in Putonghua (the official spoken dialect of the Mainland). In one example, a man who tried to dismantle a roadblock was hit on the head with a manhole cover by a protester (who has recently been convicted for the attack). There are several examples of women being assaulted by gangs of male protesters. Video of these incidents can be found on the www.truth-hk.com website.
- There have also been apparently random beatings. For example, there is video footage showing a group of male protesters beating up a young woman for no apparent reason other that they she appears to have displeased one of them (Age-restricted YouTube Video).
- Staff members of a local television station, TVB, have been assaulted.
- A Mainland reporter and another man from the Mainland (suspected by protesters of being Mainland agents) were tied up, beaten and then denied medical attention by protesters at an airport protest.
- A controversial legislator, Junius Ho, known for his strong anti-protester views, was stabbed in the chest. Protesters had accused him of being behind the Yuen Long attacks. In September 2021, the assailant, Tung Pak-fai, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to nine years imprisonment.
- A remote-controlled improvised explosive device (IED) was detonated as police were passing by, though the explosion was not powerful enough to cause injury. Other IEDs were seized by police before they were deployed, who have also seized pistols and an AR-15 rifle. After two universities were occupied and then abandoned by protesters, police recovered over 10,000 petrol bombs from the campuses. In March 2020, police arrested 17 people for their alleged involvement in bomb plots.
- Many street-level businesses have been firebombed, threatening the lives of people in the residential apartment units above the businesses. For example, the Spicegirl restaurant in Sham Shui Po was firebombed while people were inside. A Best Mart 360 store, one floor below a home for the elderly, was gutted by fire set by protesters. The offices of Xinhua, the main Mainland press agency, were firebombed while staff were working in the floors above.
- Objects have been thrown onto train tracks (the intention was likely to block trains, but the objects could have led to train derailments), petrol bombs have been thrown at cars and into train carriages (with people still inside), and one petrol bomb was even thrown near a school bus with primary school students inside. In one case that recently went to trial, a 12-year-old boy pleaded guilty to throwing bamboo poles onto a railway track.
- Heavy objects have been thrown from bridges and overpasses onto the streets below, threatening the safety of civilians and sometimes injuring them.
- Doxxing, the publication of someone’s personal information so that others can harass that person, has been a tactic used against people deemed to be against the protest movement, including police, their families, a group of doctors who signed a petition supporting the government and people who expressed pro-government views at a televised townhall-style meeting. Protesters seem to feel that anyone standing in their way as they fight for freedom deserves to be harassed, intimidated, doxxed and/or assaulted.
- Children of police officers have been threatened, harassed and assaulted.
- Protesters have attempted to snatch officers’ firearms on several occasions.
Regarding vandalism, protesters have severely damaged businesses, government buildings and infrastructure. The total cost to repair and replace things damaged by protesters has not been added up, but it is safe to say that this cost will be at least in the hundreds of millions USD. The protesters’ targets have included:
- The territory’s Mass Transit Railway (MTR) system (for allegedly assisting the police and government): The MTR estimates that protesters have caused over 10 million USD in damages to its facilities to date.
- Government buildings, most notably the Legislative Council Building, which was ransacked on 1 July, and numerous police stations. Court buildings and other government offices have also been vandalized.
- The liaison office of the Chinese central government
- Banks from Mainland China (for being from China and having links to the Communist Party of China) and bank ATMs.
- A branch of the Bank of East Asia (mistakenly assumed to be from China)
- Chinese owned-businesses, such as Xiaomi (a mobile phone store), Mini-sou (a household products store), Tong Ren Tang (a traditional Chinese medicine shop), HeyTea (a beverage shop), Chung Hwa Bookstore and C.L.I. (China Life Insurance).
- The offices of the Xinhua, an official state-run Mainland news agency. The offices of the news agency were firebombed while staff were still working in offices located on the floors above.
- Businesses whose owners have expressed opposition to the protests or who have denied the protesters support: This happened to the Japanese restaurant chain Yoshinoya, after its management walked back a pro-protester corporate tweet and stated that it wanted to remain politically neutral. In the case of Maxim’s, a large company that manages Chinese restaurants, bakeries, sushi restaurants and local Starbucks shops, protesters were enraged when the elderly daughter of one of the company’s founders expressed opposition to the protests, called the protesters rioters and said they were unrepresentative of Hong Kong people. Many of the company’s restaurants and bakeries have been vandalized. In a minor case, an Adidas shop was messed up simply because the brand had used in one of their advertising campaigns a Mainland actress, Liu Yifei, who had earlier expressed support for the Hong Kong police.
- A chain of shops (Best Mart 360), restaurant chain (Fulum) and a mahjong parlor the protesters believed to have ties to a criminal organization which they believed was involved in the Yuen Long attack.
- Apartment complexes housing members of the disciplined services (e.g., police, firefighters, customs officers) and their families.
- Branches of the HSBC: This is because in November, the bank closed the account of Spark Alliance, who had been raising money ostensibly to help pay the legal fees of arrested protesters. The account was closed as the bank noticed unusual transactions. The bank later froze the organization’s assets (that had not been withdrawn) at the request of the police and the Hong Kong Monetary Authority after four members of the organization were arrested on money laundering charges.
- Offices of pro-establishment politicians.
- Shopping malls: A shopping mall (New Town Plaza) has been frequently vandalized because its staff member let police enter to arrest protesters (even though this particular mall is considered public property during operating hours and even though police have the right to enter private property if they have reason to believe a crime is taking place of if someone to be arrested is inside). Another shopping mall, Festival Walk was heavily damaged (it had to close for a few months for repairs) for no apparent reason other than because it was next to a university (City University of Hong Kong) with a lot of protesters.
- University and college offices, facilities, residences and equipment: This vandalism occurs when protesters decide to occupy a university campus or when university administrators do not meet with students (or simply do not meet them in a large enough venue) or do not immediately concede to whatever demands the students come up with. The damage has been extensive. Estimates for repair work to facilities and equipment include: tens of millions USD (City University of Hong Kong) over 13 million USD (Hong Kong Polytechnic University) and 7 million USD (Chinese University of Hong Kong) Sometimes, individual staff members are targeted. For example, one lecturer’s office was vandalized because he banned students from making political statements in their marketing course presentations.
- An office building where a pro-China newspaper USED to have offices.
- Hundreds of traffic lights: I suppose the idea was to slow down police response times. This contributed to at least one death, with a man in a wheelchair being struck by a vehicle while crossing an intersection where the traffic lights had been broken.
- Vehicles and equipment owned by a local television station, TVB, which protesters think is biased against them in its news coverage.
- Streets & street furniture: Whenever protesters set up barricades, they will add anything they can find (e.g. guardrails, rubbish, signage, etc.) to the barricade and will also dig up bricks and paving stones to scatter in the street to slow down traffic as well as to use as projectiles. The estimated cost to repair and replace damaged traffic lights and street furniture is 1.3 million USD (www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/transport/article/3036607/hong-kong-protests-bill-hits-hk105-million-repair-or).
- Random buildings and walls: Anti-police slogans, anti-China slogans and pro-protester slogans have been spray-painted around the city.
- Clinics and quarantine facilities: In February 2020, newly constructed public housing apartment buildings were firebombed in NIMBY (Not-In-My-Backyard) protests against using the sites as quarantine centers during the COVID-19 outbreak. Medical clinics were also vandalized and a bomb was also set off in a hospital washroom.
Symbols of Chinese sovereignty, like the national flag, are also frequently targeted.
It is difficult to put the cost of vandalism into perspective. Hundreds of millions of US dollars worth of damage seems like a lot, but this figure probably won’t quite match the damage done to the territory by Typhoon Mangkhut in 2018 and is miniscule in comparison to the billions of dollars of economic losses caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
9.3 Lack of Media Coverage
It is important to understand that the mass media, when reporting on the Hong Kong protests, has tended to overlook or downplay violence and vandalism committed by protesters. In my opinion, this is mainly due to the fact that showing scenes of violence BY protesters does not fit well with the narrative the press have applied to the protest movement: young, idealistic freedom fighters battling bravely against a brutal, authoritarian government.
This bias was noticed by a Canadian vlogger Toby Gu who came to Hong Kong and posed as a reporter with a fake press badge and a press vest bought from Amazon, as a kind of stunt (www.cbc.ca/news/canada/toronto/toby-gu-hong-kong-1.5296008). However, he ended up getting a lot more than he bargained for when on his first night in the city, he witnessed an innocent man getting beaten up by a a crowd of protesters, wanton vandalism and protesters trying to goad the police into action. It made him question the narrative the mass media reports had led him to believe (YouTube video link) . He remained neutral on the politics, but pointed out that there was another side to the story that was not being covered.
For posing as a reporter and giddily looking for action, he received criticism and ridicule. For showing the very real violence of protesters, he received death threats. (www.theglobeandmail.com/world/article-with-fake-press-pass-and-youtube-video-canadian-man-goes-into-hiding/).
Even social media platforms such as Twitter seem to be discouraging reporting on the protesters’ use violence. Users who do that often find themselves facing account with restrictions, suspensions or terminations. For example, in January 2022, a Twitter user named Jen (aka fivefeathers_) posted a series of videos showing some of the violent acts mentioned in Section 9.1. Her account was immediately restricted and most of the posts were removed (see the below image).
People who criticize the protesters and/or their methods on social media have often reported finding themselves the target of coordinated reporting campaigns. This kind of harassment is incompatible with the principles of democracy the protesters claim to be striving for.
9.4 Violence and Protest Aims
There a few key points here that should jump out from these lists of violence and vandalism actions. The protests have been marked by:
- A great deal of violence and vandalism, much of which goes unreported or is downplayed by the mass media;
- Many incidents of what can only be described as terrorism (i.e., “the use of intentional violence, generally against civilians, for political purposes”);
- Strong anti-police sentiment and anti-government sentiment;
- Strong pro-localist sentiment and anti-Mainland sentiment;
- Anti-free speech behavior such as doxxing, arson attacks, vandalism, assaults and other forms of intimidation. Since the national security legislation, protesters complain that they have lost the freedom of speech. While it is true that some freedom of speech has been lost (e.g., you now cannot advocate for Hong Kong independence), the protesters were doing far more to actively suppress freedom of speech, so they are now being hypocritical;
- People acting on emotions, often in response to hearsay, rumor and Sandy-Hook-style conspiracy theories spread on social media;
- Anti-government protesters hijacking other issues (like campaigns against parallel traders, medical centers and potential quarantine sites).
The protests and riots evolved far beyond their anti-extradition-bill roots and can also no longer become considered as a pro-democracy protest movement. The anti-extradition bill protest movement turned into an anti-police, anti-government and anti-China crusade.
There do not appear to be any lines that cannot be crossed. Anyone or anything deemed to be against the movement is viewed as an obstacle to be removed and/or punished.
This use of violence and acceptance of violence seemed to increase gradually, with protesters seemingly testing the waters as to what was acceptable. Attacking riot police on duty was considered ‘OK’ from the very beginning, with one officer attacked during the early morning hours of 10 June 2019 (the very first protest) and many others attacked on 12 June during the first siege on the LegCo building. Savage attacks against civilians didn’t come until 21 July 2019, when a van driver was beaten up by a gang of protesters when he argued with them for blocking the road. An off-duty policeman was stabbed on 31 August in Kwai Chung. By September, you had gangs of male youths beating up lone women. By November 2019, beatings of civilians had become quite common, and a man was doused with petrol and set on fire on 11 November. On the same day, protesters threw two petrol bombs into a train carriage that had people inside. Fortunately, everyone escaped unharmed, but it was clear that the use of violence had progressed and was clearly in the realm of terrorism.
Similarly, petrol bombs first started appearing in protests in July 2019. The use of petrol bombs (i.e., Molotov cocktails) attracted a lot of media attention (as fiery photos can be dramatic), but no media criticism. As a result, petrol bombs soon became a weapon of choice. Rather than simply vandalizing shops, protesters took to firebombing them.
9.5 The Problems with Violence
In the case of the Hong Kong protests, the use of violence ultimately did not succeed. There were several reasons for that:
- The use of violence severely harmed the chance of gaining concessions.
- Violence only works if the opponent lacks the strength and/or the resolve to suppress it.
- There was a mismatch between the protesters’ stated aims and their methods.
- The use of violence made it difficult to assess whether police use of force was excessive. For example, if you are with a group of people who are sitting in the middle of the road and doing nothing but blocking traffic, and then police come along and bash you in the head with truncheons, that is clearly excessive use of force. However, if you in a group attacking police with petrol bombs and bricks—primitive, but potentially lethal weapons—and then you resist arrest, are those truncheon blows still excessive?
- The protesters could have tried numerous other methods of non-violent protest before resorting to violence (Here is a list of 198 possible methods: www.brandeis.edu/peace-conflict/pdfs/198-methods-non-violent-action.pdf).
- Once the protesters take up violence by reasoning that ‘violence is the only way we can get people to listen to us’, anyone who disagrees with them can use the same reasoning to justify using violence against them.
Another problem is simply the human cost. Lives are being ruined.
A man has been killed.
Another faces years of painful recovery.
Many victims will suffer from mental trauma.
Many protesters will eventually face criminal convictions and some of them face long prison sentences. For example, firebombing a shop can bring charges of rioting (punishable by 5-10 years in prison) and arson (which can draw a sentence of life imprisonment) as well as other possible charges like possession of explosives and reckless endangerment or attempted murder if people are in the shop. I am not sure how many of the young protesters were aware of the severity of the crimes they were committing.
Q10. What about violence by others?
Protesters were also at risk of being attacked by others, most notably in the incident in Yuen Long when dozens of men carrying rods attacked protesters as well as some passers-by. There was also a brawl between protesters and counter-protesters in North Point. In Tsuen Wan. a protester on his way home was chased down and stabbed with a knife, receiving very serious injuries.
Participants in illegal protests soon learned not to gear up until they are on-site, and they knew which districts are protester friendly (e.g., Shatin, Wong Tai Sin) and which districts were not (e.g., North Point, Yuen Long).
In one incident, a young man pasting a protest poster on a wall was assaulted by passer-by. In a similar incident another young man was stabbed when putting up a poster (the culprit, a visitor from the Mainland, turned himself into the police after the incident and has since been convicted). Jimmy Sham, a leader of one of the main protest groups, was hospitalized after reportedly being attacked by hammer wielding South Asian men (however, in this case, the victim only received a minor cut to his head and he recovered completely within a couple of days, raising suspicions that this case was simply publicity stunt). Another young man was hospitalized after he was slashed in the neck and stabbed in the stomach. Protest supporters and journalists for the Apple Daily, a pro-democracy paper, have been doxxed.
During the Christmas holiday period in 2019, two videos emerged showing a black clad protester attacking a small mobile phone shop that was catering to Mainland customers. The assailant was apprehended very quickly and very roughly by the shop owner and other men while the assailant’s accomplices fled.
I would argue that the protesters need to be careful. Aside from the Yuen Long incident there has only been sporadic violence against protesters. People opposed to the protests have generally left things up to the police. If the protests resume, is is possible that people opposed to the protests will say ‘enough is enough’ and start taking matters into their own hands.
Q11. Do the protest supporters condone the use of violence?
They do, which is surprising given the peaceful nature of Hong Kongers for the past half century.
Even when one man was set on fire and another killed with a thrown brick, protester supporters and pro-democracy politicians refused to unambiguously condemn the attacks.
In a poll conducted by the SCMP, 20% of those who voted in the most recent District Council elections supported the use of violence by protesters. You might argue that this means 80% do not support violence; however a large portion of this 80% would be people who refuse to condemn the use of violence.
In a poll conducted by Hong Kong University in the summer of 2019, only 1% of protesters disagreed or strongly disagreed with the statement “the use of violence by protesters is understandable when the government fails to listen”, with over 90% agreeing or strongly agreeing (www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-violence-analysis-idUSKCN1VB2LV).
In another SCMP poll, 31% of of the pro-democracy supporters surveyed approved of the throwing of bricks and petrol bombs, 30% supported attacking opponents, 32% supported damaging public property and 42% supported damaging private property. The likely reason for the higher figure for private property is that protesters were targeting businesses owned by Mainlanders (or Mainland ‘sympathizers’) or catering to Mainlanders.
Early on in the 2019 protest movement, as soon as things turned violent, there was a strong push to ensure that no one within the movement condemned the use of violence. The idea was that people could use different means to achieve the same goal (following the Chinese idiom ‘Two brothers walking up the same mountain’), and that no one could condemn someone else’s methods (the no-splitting principle).
I have spoken to over a hundred people who in general support the aims of the protesters. Only three have expressed opposition to the use of violence.
11.1 The Protesters’ Justifications for Violence
As the protests themselves have become increasingly more violent, this created a huge amount of cognitive dissonance among their supporters. After all, while fighting for freedom and rights and the rule of law, the protesters are breaking the law and denying other people their freedoms and rights. A variety of methods are used to handle this cognitive dissonance:
11.1.1 Deflection (Blame others)
Any protester violence can be blamed on the Chief Executive, the police and/or the lack of true democracy. Protest supporters routinely say things like ‘It was the police brutality that was to blame for the man being set on fire’. This deflection argument goes something like ‘We protested peacefully and the government didn’t listen.’ To people using the deflection strategy, the government and the police are to blame for any violence. This argument ignores the fact that the protests went straight from two peaceful marches to violent actions without any other attempts at different forms of non-violent civil disobedience.
11.1.2 Deflection (Reverse the cause and effect)
A variation on the deflection technique is to reverse cause and effect. The way this argument is presented is that the police initiate violence by firing tear gas and rubber bullets and then protesters respond by setting things on fire and hurling bricks: ‘Everything would be peaceful if the police did not show up.’ This argument ignores the assaults, vandalism and arson that the police are responding to in the first place.
Some protest supporters deny that the violent events actually happened or they state that police or Mainland agents are dressing up as protesters and committing ‘false flag’ violent acts. If a man is set on fire, he is called a stuntman who had covered himself in flame retardant. If a man is killed by a brick thrown by a protester, protest supporters will claim the brick was thrown by an ‘anti-protester’ despite the existence of clear video evidence showing the thrower (a protester) and the brick flying from his hand and striking the man in the head. Similarly, if an MTR entrance is set on fire with a petrol bomb, undercover police are blamed. If police discover a cache of weapons, it is called a false flag operation. The denial approach has not held up well as there has been trial after trial in which evidence has been presented and people have pled guilty.
11.1.4 Selective Blindness
When viewing videos that justify police actions or present protesters in a bad light, some protest supporters will simply not see certain things in the video—a protester taking a swipe at a police officer’s gun before getting shot, a protester jumping out in front of an Indonesian journalist just before the latter gets shot with a rubber bullet. There are a few times where I have had to sit down with someone and physically point out things in a video. After this process, they finally saw what was there.
Many protest supporters will get their news directly from inherently biased sources like pro-protest Reddit threads, pro-protest Twitter accounts, pro-protest online media (e.g., Hong Kong Free Press, Stand News) and pro-protest traditional media (e.g., Apple Daily) and ignore all other information sources. They simply won’t see the other side of the story. Of course, a similar problem will occur if one only gets information from pro-Beijing sources.
11.1.6 The End Justifies the Means (Version 1. Righteousness)
Some protesters believe that their cause is so noble—fighting for freedom—that any act which furthers that cause is acceptable. This is perhaps the most common justification.
11.1.7 The End Justifies the Means (Version 2. At War)
As some of the protesters and their supporters believe that they are in a war for independence (like the American Revolutionary War) any acts of violence are justifiable and there is no line that cannot be crossed. This argument would be logical (though foolishly optimistic) except for one thing—the protesters publicly insist on stating that independence is not a goal.
11.1.8 The End Justifies the Means (Version 3. Self-defense)
In this interpretation, Hong Kong is under attack by the government and police via a violent and systematic campaign of suppression, so any action taken that harms these two bodies or anyone supporting them is justifiable as a form of self-defense.
11.1.9 Justification out of Guilt
Some supporters justify the use of violence out of a combined sense of gratitude and guilt. This justification is quite common among middle-aged supporters. It typically goes something like ‘Those brave youths are fighting for Hong Kong’s future and fighting for me. They are so young. I am sorry that I didn’t do more to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom before. I am sorry that I am not doing more now. How can I condemn them when they are taking the actions I was afraid to take?’
11.1.10 But We Are Angry
Quite often when I have criticized protesters’ actions or strategies on social media, I will get a reply stating ‘You don’t understand. We are angry.’ sometimes followed by an explanation of why the protesters are angry, but not an actual rebuttal of my criticism.
11.1.11 The Peaceful Movement was Hijacked
This is a relatively new justification that started appearing in 2021 by commentators such as Lausan and the South China Morning Post’s Peter Kammerer. In this interpretation, a peaceful movement was hijacked by violent extremists. This is a revisionist view that ignores the basic fact that protest supporters (following their no-splitting principle) supported, encouraged or at the very least refused to distance themselves from the violent protesters while the protests were ongoing. You cannot present yourselves as a unified group for over a year and then suddenly say, “Well actually, we were peaceful; it is those other guys that were violent, not us.”
Obviously, some of the justifications are completely at odds with one another. On a typical social media thread about a violent incident, you might see one protest supporter denying it happened, another calling it a false flag operation and another saying is was a justifiable response to repression.
To get insight into some of these lines of thinking, you can watch this interview with one of the protesters’ representatives: Joey Siu. The interviewer asks her tough questions about the protesters’ strategies, long-term goals, leadership and use of violence and her answers are muddled and irrational.
Similarly, in another video interview, well-known activist Joshua Wong was asked by Shaun Rein to condemn acts of violence against Mainlanders and Mainland businesses after video emerged of protesters assaulting a Mainlander working for JPMorgan. His evasive response seemed to go for the self-defence argument
“I love the remark on solution right, especially we know the tension between protester and Mainlanders happen in the past few months. Yesterday is not the first incident and not the first accident that no one hope, hope it to happen. I would say instead of blame or condemn on any behavior of protester, I prefer to find out the solution and through the trial and error process and to let us to realize that even protester, they will have the incentive or intention to have self defence or self-protection, but how to use force and how to keep and maintain public support is also a matter for us. ”(Joshua Wong, twitter.com/liamstone_19/status/1181368865235668993)
In this twisted logic, beating up a businessman from the Mainland becomes a form of self-defense. This kind of irrational justification of violence is, unfortunately, typical of the protest movement.
In a symposium in the US, protest representative Nathan Law was asked for his views on whether he thought it was acceptable to set people in fire. His ends-justifies-the-means response was:
“Regarding to…ah, well, the incident on the innocent people and I propose I think well particularly that incident of setting a a a like old man on fire. That is definitely inappropriate in eh ah um unproportional…. With this occasion well with these occasion I think um ‘yes indeed it happens and I think that is pro-appropriate [sic], but at the end of the day we are…that are well a group of people were working on Hong Kong’s democracy and I I think that it is very important that we remain united…And they are actually fighting the rights, not for themself, but for the whole Hong Kong seven million population.”(Nathan Law, twitter.com/DanielDumbrill/status/1440409392965320711)
Here is another example of a protester rationalizing violence. In this case a self-proclaimed journalist and activist defends the actions of a group of mostly male protesters, who beat up a woman for trying to remove some of their roadblocks (The video is here: twitter.com/sumtingwong2019/status/1264516835615010816. The victim-blaming comments appear in this thread: twitter.com/Sky_Blue168/status/1337211088555843584.
“Also happen to know that the protesters in the video kept telling her to stop removing the blockade, but she kept trying to provoke them. She was looking to cause a conflict, she could have just called police instead.”
“I don’t support any violence and can agree that attacking her wasn’t the best of choice, but she did deliberately try to cause that fight. If you keep provoking someone and they will retaliate. What would you done if someone kept interrupting what you doing and provoking you?”
You can also view this video from Mainland (government-run) news network CGTN (YouTube Video Link) in which a fifteen-year-old protester describes his rationale for beating up opponents of the protest movement. In another video a Mainland woman challenges Hong Kong protesters in Cologne, Germany to explain their stance (YouTube Video Link).
11.2 The Egg and Wall Delusion
Some literary-minded protesters will justify violence by quoting an excerpt from a speech by Haruki Marukami (full text of speech link):
Between a high, solid wall and an egg that breaks against it, I will always stand on the side of the egg.
Yes, no matter how right the wall may be and how wrong the egg, I will stand with the egg. Someone else will have to decide what is right and what is wrong; perhaps time or history will do it. But if there were a
novelist who, for whatever reason, wrote works standing with the wall, of what value would such works be?
What is the meaning of this metaphor? In some cases, it is all too simple and clear. Bombers and tanks and rockets and white phosphorus shells are that high wall. The eggs are the unarmed civilians who are crushed and burned and shot by them. This is one meaning of the metaphor. But this is not all. It carries a deeper meaning. Think of it this way. Each of us is, more or less, an egg. Each of us is a unique, replaceable soul enclosed in a fragile shell. This is true of me, and it is true of each of you. And each of us, to a greater or lesser degree, is confronting a high, solid wall. The wall has a name: it is “The System.” The System is supposed to protect us, but sometimes it takes on a life of its own, and then it begins to kill us and cause us to kill others—coldly, efficiently, systematically.(Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, JERUSALEM POST, Feb. 15, 2009)
Yes, the system—the government, the police, the business oligarchy—can be considered a kind of wall. However, the systematic oppression and intimidation of individual citizens by protesters is another kind of wall—a small wall bashing itself against a larger one and crushing any eggs that get in its way.
If you are being backed by American Republican hawks like Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley, John Bolton and Mike Pompeo, you are not an egg; you are part of a wall. If mothers tell their children not to speak Putonghua in public because they are afraid that you will attack them, you are not an egg; you are part of a wall.
The protesters would do well to bear in mind the ideas of inclusiveness and togetherness in the conclusion of the same speech:
I have only one thing I hope to convey to you today. We are all human beings, individuals transcending nationality and race and religion, and we are all fragile eggs faced with a solid wall called The System. To all appearances, we have no hope of winning. The wall is too high, too strong—and too cold. If we have any hope of victory at all, it will have to come from our believing in the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls and from our believing in the warmth we gain by joining souls together.(Haruki Murakami)
Q12. Who are the protesters and how much support do they receive?
There are two main groups:
- Front-line protesters and on-site supporters. These people take part in illegal assemblies and strikes. I would estimate that there are fewer than ten-thousand people in this group.
- Supporters who will take part in some legal marches or assemblies and will offer support and encouragement online and also may provide financial support or do low-risk actions like put up posters. I would estimate at least a million people belong to this group.
12.1 The Initial Protests
The opposition to the proposed (and already withdrawn) extradition bill was massive, and protesters came from all walks of life. There were likely over a million protesters taking part in two massive marches held on 9 June 2019 and 16 June 2019. Organizers estimated that 2 million people took part in the second march, with police putting the figure at 338,000. In reality, the attendance was likely somewhere in between. In any case, it is safe to assume that several hundred thousand people took part in the march on 16 June. Given that Hong Kong’s population is around 7.4 million people, several hundred thousand people in the streets is a huge number of people when you are talking about protest movements.
These two protests were mostly peaceful, though there was a clash between rioters and police on 12 June as protesters encircled the Legislative Council building. Those two massive protests were only about two things: protesters wanted the extradition bill removed (the main focus) and wanted the Chief Executive to resign.
12.2 Later Protests
The much smaller protests since then have focused on the five core demands and have been marked by violence. During the summer of 2019, what usually happened was that a protest would begin with a peaceful rally or march, normally with thousands or tens of thousands of participants (not the hundreds of thousands who came out before). Again, the participants in these marches and rallies came from all walks of life, and all age groups were represented, including the elderly and families with young children.
As the peaceful part of the protest would wind down, smaller groups of hardcore (and relatively young) protesters would gear up with gas masks, goggles, petrol bombs, slingshots and metal rods and start blocking roads, tearing up bricks and vandalizing train stations and shops. The people in the larger peaceful process served as human shields, allowing the radical protesters plenty of time to prepare. If police didn’t show up, the radical protesters sometimes moved on to directly targeting police stations.
From the beginning of July to the end of October 2019, the protests were normally held on weekends and public holidays. During the weekdays, the movement’s propagandists would work hard at churning out posters, online posts, memes and videos decrying police violence in order to inflame emotions leading up to the next protest.
In mid-November, the protesters switched strategies. They started protesting on weekdays, trying to prevent people from getting to work and school, and violent actions were common.
12.3 Occupation of University Campuses and Fickle Support
This ‘disruption phase’ of the protests culminated in November 2019 with protesters occupying the campuses of the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). During the PolyU occupation, police surrounded the campus and cut off access, effectively trapping the protesters inside. Fearing what they called an impending massacre, protesters called on people to march on the university to free the protesters. They begged the international community to take action over what they said was a ‘humanitarian crisis’. However, only a few thousand people took to the streets in order to prevent this ‘massacre’, and these people were easily dispersed by the police. During that time, my Facebook feed was filled with emotional posts from protest supporters beseeching the US to intervene or calling on people to pray to ‘save the children’ from being massacred. Yet only a relatively small number of people actually showed up to ‘save the children’.
In the end, most of the protesters inside surrendered to police while some managed to escape. There was no massacre.
This reveals quite a lot about the nature of the support. When things got serious—a perceived life and death situation—and people were asked to stand up and actually confront the police head on, the protesters could only drum up minimal support–a few thousand people. This is why my estimate for the number of hard-core protesters is less than 10,000.
The PolyU standoff also revealed quite a lot about the protesters.
First, there were obvious issues with decision making. It was an unwise decision to occupy a walled campus that had only a handful of exits and was surrounded on all four sides by very wide roads. It was also an unwise decision to activate the sprinkler systems in many of the buildings (as a kind of vandalism), flooding the floors and making many rooms unfit for use as sleeping quarters.
Second, the protesters couldn’t really take care of themselves for any length of time. Protesters were trapped, but they were in a large campus with electricity, water and plenty of food. However, after about four days, there were problems with sanitation and hygiene and there were reports of protesters suffering from psychological distress. There were volunteers to cook the food, but dishes were left unwashed, food was left out to rot, rubbish was strewn around the campus and toilets were clogged (though protesters did have the time to make several thousand petrol bombs). Though temperatures were generally hovering a little over 20 degrees Celsius during an unseasonably warm winter and only fell to a low of 17 degrees Celsius, over 40 protesters still ended up suffering from hypothermia.
This helplessness and lack of resilience shown during the PolyU occupation is in stark contrast to self-reliance shown by protesters during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At that time, protesters made huge efforts to keep the environment clean and livable, even setting up recycling centers. The front-line participants during the Umbrella Movement were young adults who were able to take care of themselves. There were no hygiene and sanitation problems during the 79-day occupation, an occupation that took place in the street and not in a relatively cozy university campus.
It should also be noted that the vast majority of protesters arrested at PolyU were not actually PolyU students.
12.4 A Hiatus and a Return to Previous Strategies
Immediately, after the campus siege, the protests died down briefly to ensure that the District Council elections could be held on 24 November. The district council is a kind of municipal advisory body. Due to disenchantment with the government, pro-democrat candidates swept to power, winning a strong majority of the overall votes (55% compared to the 40% of votes won by pro-establishment candidates), which translated to a vast majority of the seats.
Shortly after this hiatus, protesters went back to their initial strategies: legal marches and assemblies combined with more violent actions.
12.5 Failed Attempts at General Strikes
There have been at least seven attempts at holding city-wide strikes. The goal on each occasion was to paralyze Hong Kong. These strikes all fizzled out. The protesters did manage to close the airport on one occasion, but this was the result of the protesters occupying the airport and was NOT the result of people actually going on strike.
People have the right to go on strike in Hong Kong, but that legal protection only applies to strikes related to improving their working conditions; it doesn’t apply to politically motivated strikes. Therefore, anyone going on strike for political reasons could face disciplinary action from their employers. In organizing the general strikes, the protesters sought to shut down the territory, but most people simply went to work as usual. On some of the ‘general strike’ days, protesters attempted to prevent people from going to work by disrupting transportation systems. They blocked roads, threw objects on train tracks and prevented train doors from closing. Still, most people went to work as normal.
12.6 Failed Boycotts and Economic Actions
There were a few occasions when protesters tried to support large companies that had expressed their support for the protesters and many occasions when they tried to punish companies for supporting, the government or simply trying to remain neutral.
- In June 2019, local public relations staff members for Yoshinoya (a Japanese restaurant chain) and the company that distributes Pocari (a Japanese sports drink manufacturer in Hong Kong) expressed support for the protests on social media. The messages delighted protest supporters, who praised the companies and pledged to spend more money on their products, but caused a backlash on the Mainland. As the Mainland market is much more important for those companies, both companies soon apologized. In response, the Hong Kong protesters repeatedly vandalized many Yoshinoya outlets (there was not much they could do to show their displeasure with the other company besides not buying their drinks).
- Protesters boycotted restaurants under the Maxim’s chain (as the founder’s elderly daughter had criticized them) as well as other businesses with connections to China. However, if they thought a boycott was effective, they wouldn’t have resorted to vandalizing and firebombing those businesses.
- In August 2019, protesters tried to start a run on banks. That completely fizzled out.
- The protesters developed a Yellow Economic Circle of protest-friendly businesses. This consisted of small local restaurants and retailers. It still exists, although many of the businesses dropped out after the national security legislation was implemented in 2020. That has largely proven ineffective in the long term.
- When Apple Daily owner Jimmy Lai was arrested in August 2020, stocks in the parent company Next Digital Ltd, soared by over 300% in one day. However, the stock slid right back down in the following weeks.
- (Edit: In July 2021, in response to one its staff members committing suicide after stabbing a policeman in the back, drinks manufacturer Vitasoy issued a tone-deaf memo in which they offered their support to the man’s family, which is fine, but failed to wish a speedy recovery to the police officer he had attempted to murder, which is not so fine, and just called it an unfortunate incident. The memo was leaked to the public. Protest supporters expressed their delight on social media and predicted that the company’s stocks would soar when the markets opened after the weekend. Instead what happened was (1) Mainland retailers immediately removed Vitasoy products from their shelves after Mainland netizens called for a boycott, (2) the company issued an apology and blamed the staff member for issuing such a tone-deaf memo, (3) the company’s stocks suffered their biggest ever one-day drop and (4) the staff member responsible for writing and distributing the memo was fired.)
There were two main problems with the protesters’ economic strategies. The first is that the protesters vastly overestimate how much economic clout they have, especially when compared to the Mainland market. The second problem is that while ‘boycotting’ can be a good strategy, in many cases, the protesters did not limit themselves to boycotting. Instead they went for intimidation—smashing up restaurants, setting shops on fire and threatening patrons.
12.7 Broad, but Limited Support
Based on the complete failure of the all of the attempted strikes, the lack of response to the calls to ‘save the children’ at PolyU and the failure of all their economic actions, it appears that although the radical protesters do receive widespread support, the average person is not going to put his or her own livelihood at risk for them.
12.8 The Front-line Fighters and Support Teams
The more radical group of protesters is mainly comprised of people in their teens and twenties. Based on the arrest reports published in the media, the radical protesters tend to be university and secondary school students, blue-collar workers, service industry workers, and the unemployed. Of course, the occupations of people arrested are varied and include social workers, teachers, pilots, flight attendants and even civil servants.
The front-line fighters (called ‘Valiants’ or ‘Braves’ by their supporters) are heavily geared up. Behind them and among them are a support team responsible for bringing supplies, documenting the protests, providing first aid and creating weapons like petrol bombs. Some people have set roles, others shift their role depending on the need. Some people are given specialist roles like smothering tear gas canisters or setting things on fire (arsonists are called ‘fire magicians’ by protest supporters).
One unsettling thing about the front-liners and their support teams is that a large proportion of them are very young. According to Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary, Matthew Leung, over 30% of the protesters that have been arrested are under the age of 18, with some being as young as 12 years old (these figures were released in October 2019). At the PolyU occupation, many of the protesters trapped inside were under the age of 18. A group of around 300 people under 18 were eventually escorted off the campus by a team of secondary school principals. These students were photographed and had their names recorded by police, but were not arrested (although police reserved the right to arrest them later).
There have been a few notable cases involving teenagers. In one case, an eighteen-year-old secondary school student was shot when he tried to strike a policeman who had drawn his sidearm in order to rescue a colleague who had been isolated and chased down by protesters and who was already on the ground being pummeled by several protesters armed with hammers and metal bars. In a separate incident, a 14-year-old student was shot when a plainclothes policeman was being attacked by a mob. A third incident involved an 18-year-old secondary school student being arrested after stabbing a police officer in the neck. The two people arrested (so far) for the murder of the street cleaner were 16 and 17.
12.9 The Encouragers
The frontline troops receive widespread support from the community, with support being especially strong among educators, lawyers (barristers in particular), medical professionals, journalists and social workers. Why these professions? In my opinion, there are four reasons:
- Many people in these professions have gravitated towards those careers out of a desire to contribute to society.
- In Hong Kong, these professions have long been associated with pro-democracy activism.
- These professions are, at present, mostly insulated from the Mainland (unlike professions in industries like finance, trade, banking, insurance, manufacturing, tourism and entertainment, which are all heavily dependent on their ties to the Mainland), but if the ‘two-systems’ part of Hong Kong’s special status becomes weakened or disappears, these professions will be directly affected.
Coincidentally, people in the professions of teaching, social work and journalism are the ones who would have the ability to influence young people the most (aside from immediate family members and close friends).
Though many of the protesters are in their teens, twenties or thirties, they get considerable support from older adults, many of whom who feel guilty about not having done enough to fight for freedom and democracy when they were younger.
12.10 The Question of Exploitation
With the extreme youth of many of the frontline protesters and the apparent unwillingness of many of their older supporters to put their own livelihoods on the line by taking part in illegal protests or going on strike, I do feel that many of the younger protesters are being exploited. They have become child soldiers—with their hatred of the police, the government and the Mainland being inflamed by a large army of keyboard warriors, supporters and propagandists.
In addition, most of the adult protesters brought to trial so far (who are not full-time activists or politicians) have been manual laborers, service industry workers, clerical workers, low-level IT workers or the unemployed. They seem to be bearing the brunt of the risk while their comrades in white-collar professions seem content to cheer from the sidelines.
12.11 The Role of Schools
The extreme youth of many of the protesters also raises questions about the role of schools in the protests. This is because:
- Many of the arrested protesters are high school students.
- Over 80 primary and high school teachers have been arrested.
- The proportion of high school students being arrested started rising as soon as students returned to school in September 2019.
- A kindergarten teacher and a high school lab technician were arrested in separate incidents on charges related to bomb-making. Two other education center staff members were arrested on charges related to possession of explosives and cyanide (some of which was stored in toy Pokeballs at the education center where the two men worked) in July 2020.
- There have been cases involving the bullying at school of children of police officers.
- According to a paper submitted by the Education Bureau to the Legislative Council in April 2020, the bureau received 171 protest-related complaints against teachers. 125 investigations had been been completed and the complaints were substantiated in 78 of those cases.
- (Edit: In July 2021, nine people were arrested for an alleged bomb plot targeting law courts and public transportation. Six of the arrestees were secondary school students, 1 was a school staff member and 1 worked for Hong Kong Baptist University).
Things I have seen personally include:
- A teacher using Facebook to doxx a police officer’s family;
- A teacher on social media calling on the families of police officers to die;
- A teacher helping disseminate a spreadsheet for collecting the personal details of people opposed to the protests (so they could be doxxed);
- A primary school teacher rewarding good exam performances by stamping students’ papers with the image of a mascot of a virulently anti-government website.
What would happen in the US for example, if a teacher who supported the Black Lives Matter movement doxxed a police officer online? The US is considered a beacon of free speech, but some things are still off limits.
There was also the controversial exam question that I mentioned in section 4.2 (in which students were asked whether Japan brought more benefit to harm to China between 1900 and 1945). The DSE is an important territory-wide exam, so I had been wondering how such a poorly considered question could have made it through the entire process of checks and double-checks that would have been conducted by the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority (HKEAA). Later on, I was speaking to a senior staff member of the HKEAA. During the conversation, the staff member casually mentioned that he/she had told his/her child not to talk to any students from the Mainland. With this kind of casual anti-Mainlander prejudice coming from a senior staff member at the HKEAA, is it any wonder that the inappropriate bias (and lack of respect for the millions of victims of military aggression) shown in the setting of the exam question went unchallenged?
At the school where I teach:
- There was a lot of peer pressure among students to support the protests. Students felt safe to express their support for the protests at any time and were free to post supportive messages of the protests on classroom boards and the school’s democracy board (but were not allowed to post hate speech). Students who opposed the protests, in contrast, were afraid to express their opinions and would only express such sentiments privately or if anonymity was guaranteed.
- During the 2019-2020 academic year, arrangements were made to allow students to be involved in peaceful actions like strikes, human chains and sit-ins and students were permitted to attend lessons while wearing the black masks associated with the protest.
- On the first day of school in 2019, several students wearing the school uniform were video-recorded early in the morning before and after they pasted protest posters up in the school’s neighborhood.
- There were no pro-establishment or pro-China activities during the 2019-2020 school year. National Day celebrations, such as the annual flag-raising ceremony, were canceled. Similarly, during the school’s annual graduation ceremony in 2019, China’s national anthem was not played (unlike in past years) and many students demonstrated their support for the protesters by wearing black surgical masks as they took to the stage.
- During one recess, on the school’s outdoor basketball court, members of the band and orchestra (mainly using instruments provided by the school) performed an anthem—’Glory to Hong Kong’— that had been written for the protests.
- At a staff development day in 2019 with five other schools all under the same Christian sponsoring body, the theme was ostensibly about how to communicate better with teenagers, but the content, provided mainly by a Christian group known as Breakthrough (突破), instead focused on pro-protest speakers, messages and videos. The unmistakable message of the workshop was ‘teachers and schools should support protesting students no matter what happens.’
- A teacher belonging to a pro-establishment political party (the DAB) was subjected to an online campaign of harassment against him (by alumni and current students) early on in the protests. He left the school to pursue further studies after many years of teaching at the school (Edit: In the 2021 Legislative Council election he was elected as a legislator representing the Labor functional constituency)
- Some teachers at this school supported the protests on social media and shared articles that were critical of the Mainland, the government and the police, but did not directly say things like ‘kill all police’. For example, when a policeman was diagnosed with COVID-19, one teacher posted a message about karma, another about popping champagne corks and another just posted laughter. None of the posts directly mentioned the case in question. One teacher posted an online message that stated how much he/she regretted not being able to take the streets to rescue the protesters trapped at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and later posted an online message questioning the demotion of a vice principal in another school who had posted a poem on social media that contained a hidden message wishing death upon the families of police officers.
- A teacher was arrested at the Polytechnic University occupation but has not yet been charged.
- An alumni member stood across the street from the school every morning (during school days) for a couple of months that he could distribute protest literature to students and try to recruit them into what he called a ‘support group’.
- Students who were not supportive of the protests complained on Facebook that they were being intimidated.
The official school policy is that it is politically neutral (and I do believe the school principal was aiming for neutrality), but is the situation described above really indicative of neutrality?
During the 2020-2021 school year, the situation improved. The school as a whole seemed a lot more neutral. For example, staff development days were devoid of politics entirely and the national anthem was played without incident during the graduation ceremony. Before the 2021-2022 school year, a few of the more senior pro-protest teachers emigrated to England.
It is obvious that many school administrators in Hong Kong tried their best not to antagonize protesters (either because they fully supported the movement or simply because they didn’t want to see their campuses vandalized) and to allow for a certain amount of free speech. However, in doing so, have the administrators allowed their schools to become incubators for hatred against the government and against the Mainland?
The following video shows a student at Ying Wa Girls’ School complaining about the one-sided nature of political discourse on campus. It is worth noting that a teacher from the same school was later arrested during one of the protests and convicted on charges of false imprisonment—for her role in the assault of a female passerby who took photos of the protests—and illegal assembly.
The following four photos show teachers and students at three different schools—Diocesan Boys School, St. Bonaventure College and High School and Pentecostal Lam Hon Kwong School—posing for class photos while making protest-related gestures or while wearing the black (pre-pandemic) masks associated with the protest movement. The hand-covering-the-eye gesture references an eye-injury suffered by a protester in Tsim Sha Tsui in August 2019. At first it was reported that she had been permanently blinded by a police bean bag round. It was later revealed that her eyeball had not been injured and that her eyesight was unaffected and that is was just as likely the injury she did suffer had been caused by a friendly-fire slingshot hit as from a beanbag round (https://www.thestandard.com.hk/section-news/section/11/230544/Protest-eye-girl-‘left-HK-with-no-serious-injury’). The young woman took the police to court to prevent them from accessing her medical records, but when that failed, she disappeared completely from public view.
In the above photo, you can see that a few students are not participating. You should be able to imagine the intense pressure they would have felt to go along with their peers AND their teachers.
A turning point for school administrators seemed to come when a group of secondary school principals took the initiative to escort students who were under 18 years old out of the Polytechnic University campus during its occupation by protesters in November 2019. Those young students were not arrested, but the police took down their personal details and did not rule out the possibility of laying charges in future. The school principals who participated in that effort could clearly see (1) how young some of the protesters were, (2) how they were being exploited and (3) the ragged emotional state of many of the student-protesters. During the occupation of the campus, many young teenagers had been tasked with preparing petrol bombs and, in the siege-like atmosphere, many were suffering from emotional distress. That rescue mission likely served as a wake-up call for school administrators. After that, pro-protest activities on school campuses seemed to largely die down.
Some people opposed to the protests stated that the the subject Liberal Studies, a mandatory subject in secondary school, was being used to brainwash students to develop anti-China attitudes. However, there is nothing specifically anti-China in the curriculum. If there was a problem, it would be that the nature of the subject may have allowed allow teachers to push their own personal beliefs onto students in their classrooms. Of course, teachers are not supposed to do that, but…
Here it may be worth pointing out what the situation under British colonial rule was. Students were woefully uneducated when it came to politics. When I arrived in Hong Kong in 1989, the Chief Executive was appointed by Britain and there were no direct elections for legislators. However, when I asked a class of Form 6 (Grade 12) students in a top school if Hong Kong was a democracy, every student said that it was. Now, students tend to be much more knowledgeable about politics. I don’t think it would be wise to go back to those days of widespread ignorance, but if you are wondering why there were no huge calls for democracy during the colonial period, there is your answer. Even elite students were very uninformed about politics.
In response to the situation in Hong Kong schools, the government’s Education Department has reminded teachers to remain politically neutral in the classroom and has warned principals that they need to investigate complaints against teachers and respond appropriately.
From my point of view, this open, one-sided support for the protest movement by many teachers and schools is unwise in the long term. These educators are making it clear to Beijing that the entire education system will need to be overhauled at some point in the future, with the possibility of staff being sacked, religious sponsoring organizations being banned and national education programs being implemented.
This half-hour video by the Mainland government’s external news arm, CGTN, focuses on the role in the protests of schools and the mass media. Of course, it is presenting Beijing’s point of view, but I am adding it here to show that Beijing is well aware of the influence of schools and teachers during the protests: Lost in Hong Kong: YouTube Video Link
The government is starting to take action regarding schools, with newly-recruited primary and secondary school teachers now being required to attend 30 hours of workshops within three years on things like values, conduct and national education. In addition, the Education Department has now effectively banned protest slogans, chants and songs on school campuses (though it is unclear the extent to which schools will comply). In February 2021, the Education Department announced that it would be mandatory for all students to learn about the recently enacted national security legislation. Starting in January, 2022, schools were required to have flag-raising ceremonies at least once a weak. As mentioned earlier, one primary school teacher recently had his teaching credentials revoked for developing a teaching unit on free speech that focused almost entirely on the arguments for Hong Kong independence and why people should be allowed to make them. Another was dismissed for teaching outlandish concepts such as presenting the Opium War as an attempt by the British to STOP the opium trade in China.
If schools fail to rein in their more radical staff members, such measures will likely become more commonplace.
12.12 At Universities
In universities, the situation appears to be even more serious. One video shot at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) shows students taking an interest class in physically combating police. Another video shows students at the same university using a swimming pool on campus as a site to practice throwing petrol bombs. When CUHK was occupied by protesters, students from the Mainland, fearing for their safety, were evacuated on a police boat (as roads had been blocked by protesters). After the occupations of CUHK and Hong Kong Polytechnic University, police recovered several thousand petrol bombs with more petrol bombs, dust bombs, and nitric acid bombs discovered later at City University of Hong Kong.
At City University an assistant professor in the Marketing Department instructed students to keep politics out of their marketing presentations. In response, students vandalized his office. At the community college associated with Hong Kong Polytechnic University, a lecturer in social sciences mentioned that people convicted of rioting should receive harsh sentences. Enraged students confronted him and wouldn’t let him leave for a couple of hours after the lesson (when other staff members arrived to intervene).
At the beginning of the academic year in September 2020 , the University of Hong Kong’s Student Union Campus TV got in hot water for producing a parody of the institute’s welcome video, a parody that largely focused on insulting the university’s Mainland students. The students removed the video and apologized for ‘inaccurate wording’, but it was surprising that an official university organization would publish such an inflammatory video. The equivalent in the US would be a university student union publishing a video about the negative qualities of the institute’s Black or Latino students.
(Edit: The HKU Student Union got in hot water again in July 2021 when they passed a motion to mourn a man who committed suicide after stabbing a police officer in the back on 1 July 2021. The officer had been severely wounded. One of his lungs had been pierced and he was in critical condition for a while. After the student group issued the ‘mourning statement’ praising the attacker for his sacrifice, the head of the university stated that the university would cut off all ties with the Student Union and that it was considering whether or not the students should be expelled. Four of the student leaders were later charged with advocating terrorism and all the students in that group are currently banned from the campus.)
Some Christian religious organizations were also active in supporting the protests. For example,
- Many of the pro-protest schools seems to be sponsored by Christian bodies. for example, the five schools organizing the pro-protest staff development day (see 12.11) are all sponsored by the Anglican Church, Ying Wa Girls’ School (see the video in 12.11) is sponsored by the Hong Kong Council of the Church of Christ in China and all three schools in the photo of students and staff members making protest-related posted (see the photo in 12.11) are sponsored by Christian bodies—the Anglican Church, the Pentecostal Church and the Catholic Church.
- Cardinal Joseph Zen of the Catholic Church is well known for his disdain for the Communist Party of China, even using his Twitter account to refer to the Chinese government as ‘Chinazi’ during the 2019 protests (Edit: In May 2022, he was arrested and for failing to register an organization—the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund (an organization that helped pay medical bills and legal fees of protesters.
- Two members of the Good Neighbour North District Church were arrested on money laundering charges related to the protest movement, and there is a warrant for the arrest of the pastor, Roy Chan, who fled to England.
- A few pastors fled Hong Kong due to fears of prosecution under the national security legislation, with one of these activists/pastors, William Leung, later dying from COVID-19 in Scotland in September 2021.
- A variety of church groups participated in the protests. They presented themselves as mediators trying to prevent violence, but during the protests, they mainly just tried to talk the police into not taking action.
- Early on during the protests, the three most senior members of the Anglican Church wrote a public letter criticizing the government’s attitudes toward protesters (anglican.ink/2019/06/19/hong-kong-church-reverses-course-backs-peaceful-pro-democracy-protests/) and basically blaming the government for everything (“The whole incident was caused by the government’s ignoring of the real worries and fears among the citizens”).
As with the case with pro-protest school administrators, churches that actively supported the often violent protests seem to be putting themselves in the crosshairs.
12.14 Logistical Support
The logistical support network is, at the moment, unclear. Much of the support is provided informally at the grassroots level, but there are questions over things like:
- Financing: In December, the police and Hong Kong Monetary Authority recently order 70 million HKD of the activist support group HK Spark Alliance frozen (for allegedly misusing the funds). Was the money all from small donors or is someone pumping millions of dollars in the protest movement behind the scenes? Sometimes when protesters are interviewed in the press, they mention that they quit working to work for the protest movement full-time. Strangely, the journalists never seem to ask the obvious follow-up question: ‘Are you getting paid for any of this new full-time work?’ In February, an unemployed 18-year-old was arrested on money laundering chargers and is alleged to have been paid $40,000 HKD by Spark Alliance with the money allegedly being used to pay his friend for participating in the protests. It will be interesting to see where this case leads. In April, Mainland police arrested a Chinese person with a Belize passport, accusing him of helping finance the protests.
- Equipment: Obviously many protesters are buying their own equipment, but there are others receiving free equipment. For example, when I was walking towards one protest site, a young woman stepped out of a car and asked if I needed a mask. How common are such donations? Who is providing the equipment?
- Smuggling: In Hong Kong, people don’t have access to firearms. However, police arrested an 18-year-old (who shot at them) for possessing pistols and an AR-15. How did the young man acquire the weapons? How did other protesters who have been arrested for possession of explosives obtain those explosives?
- Transportation: After the stand-offs at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the police retrieved over 10,000 unused petrol bombs. First, where did all those bottles come from and how did they get to the campuses? Second, where did all that petrol (gasoline) come from. Assuming, there is about half a liter of petrol in each bomb, that means the protesters had around 5,000 liters of petrol at their disposal. How was that delivered to the campuses?
- Coordination: Police arrested five people for running a kind of call center coordinating protester’s movement. Were there many such operations?
In terms of logistical and financial support, there are more questions than answers at this point in time.
The protesters, even the radical ones, receive widespread support in the community. This support, however, is very limited in that the typical supporter is not willing to endanger his/her own livelihood by going on strike or participating in illegal assemblies. Also, three issues that are often overlooked are
- the use of very young students as front-line protesters
- the fact that the working class protesters are bearing the brunt of the risks
- the open support of schools, social work organizations and Christian groups for the protests
Q13. Is there a silent majority against the protests?
There does not seem to be, although there is still a sizable number of people in opposition to the protests.
The 2019 District Council elections served as a kind of referendum. The District Council is a kind of advisory body on local affairs and are responsible for setting up programs and activities at the community level. Normally, pro-establishment parties do very well in this election, though they did poorly in the elections held after the 2003 protest.
- 2.94 million out of 4.13 million registered voters (out of a total population of just under 7.4 million) actually voted.
- The pro-democracy camp took in around 57% of the vote. They received around 1.7 million votes, which is very impressive, but that still represents less than a quarter of the total population.
- Candidates from Pro-establishment parties, who had expressed support for the extradition bill before it was withdrawn, took in around 42% of the votes.
- As a first-past-the-post system was used, the pro-democracy candidates ended up winning in a landslide (winning 388 out of a total of 453 seats).
There have been a few large pro-government and pro-police rallies, but attendance is usually measured in the tens of thousands.
The pro-establishment camp claims that they received over three million signatures in support of the national security law. Personally, I feel that this number is grossly inflated, but it is worth noting that a fair number of Hong Kongers are in support of the legislation.
One issue is that due to the intimidation tactics used by protesters, people are reluctant to publicly criticize them (or any of their actions); therefore, it is difficult to determine how many Hong Kongers are opposed to the protests. In any case, it is safe to say three things:
- There appear to be more Hong Kongers who support the protest movement than there are those who support the government;
- The support for the protest movement is much more visible and vocal;
- Most people who oppose the protest movement have been reluctant to speak out.
Q14. Can the government negotiate with moderates in the pro-democracy camp?
Moderates no longer seem to exist as a force. As soon as the anti-extradition bill protests escalated into the ‘five-demands’ movement, protesters were very successful in getting everyone on board with the idea that even if you disagreed with protesters’ methods, you could not condemn these methods as everyone was fighting for the same thing (i.e., the no-splitting principle).
This approach—either you are are 100% with us or you are our enemy—was a huge gamble, but it has paid off (for now) for the more radical protesters.
There is a pan-democrat camp of elected legislators including Tanya Chan, Roy Kwong, Ted Hui (who fled the territory in 2020), Claudia Mo and Gary Fan, but, perhaps sensing how the winds had shifted and not wanting to become considered irrelevant (which was the fate of previous pro-democracy stalwarts like Martin Lee and Emily Lau), they all leapt aboard the ‘we won’t negotiate and we will do whatever it takes’ train. They appeared to be hanging on to the tail of the protests, not leading them.
Q15. What is the Hong Kong government doing?
The government has been passive—reacting rather than leading. They seem to have adopted the ‘successful’ strategy used to combat the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014. The government simply waited until the protests ran out of steam. I used quote marks for ‘successful’ because although the government managed to wait out the protests without making a single concession, that strategy helped lead us to the current predicament.
The government has taken the following actions:
- It did ultimately withdraw the proposed extradition bill.
- It set up relief measures for businesses affected by the crisis.
- It announced very modest and not particularly effective ideas for dealing with quality-of-life issues like high property prices.
- The Chief Executive did set up one town hall meeting, but the two participants who expressed pro-government views were doxxed and harassed, so it is unlikely that there will be similar meetings.
- The government has called on protesters to negotiate.
- Using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, a law from the colonial era, it enacted a new law outlawing the wearing of masks in illegal assemblies. This law was overturned by the High Court, but The Court of Appeal later upheld it (but removed the part that made the wearing of masks illegal at legal assemblies). Of course, the COVID-19 pandemic has made this a non-issue for the time being.
As mentioned already, no government would want to concede to demands accompanied by violence, so they are unlikely to concede to the other demands. In addition, it is not clear how much latitude the Hong Kong government has to make such concessions. Any concessions regarding universal suffrage, for example, would have to be negotiated with Beijing. Similarly, it is difficult to see Beijing giving its blessing for the Hong Kong government to grant amnesty to protesters after attacks on the country’s liaison office, official news agency, banks, businesses, citizens and symbols of sovereignty. The Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, even admitted, in a surreptitiously recorded private meeting with business leaders, that her hands were tied.
The government is obviously hoping to weather the storm until the protests die down or until public opinion turns against the protesters.
There is a lot that the Hong Kong government CAN do, however, it it decides to take a firmer stance.
- It can declare a state of emergency and invoke The Emergency Regulations Ordinance to do things like declare curfews and give police powers to arrest and detain people without bail (much like the Canadian Prime Minister’s use of the War Measures Act during his nation’s October Crisis in 1970 and like the measures used by the British colonial government in Hong Kong during the leftist riots of 1967).
- It can invite the People’s Liberation Army soldiers stationed in the territory to help restore order.
- It can say ‘I give up’ and allow the central government to exercise emergency powers (under Article 18 of the Basic Law).
Generally the government response was a weird mixture of caution (i.e., not declaring curfews or a state of emergency) and arrogance (e.g., the Chief Executive stating that the protesters “have no stake in society which so many people have helped to build”).
Q16. How have Hong Kong protesters influenced protests in other countries?
In 2019, protests sprouted up all around the world—Chile, Ecuador, Haiti, Spain, France, Iraq and India.
A few aspects of the Hong Kong protests were appealing to their counterparts in other countries:
- The ‘Be Water’ strategy. This strategy was borrowed from a Bruce Lee quote: “…be formless, shapeless—like water. Now you put water in a cup, it becomes the cup; You put water into a bottle it becomes the bottle; You put it in a teapot it becomes the teapot. Now water can flow or it can crash. Be water, my friend.” It is meant to describe a strategy where protesters move to various site unpredictably and adopt a wide variety of protest methods.
- Specific actions like occupying the airport and using laser pointers against the police.
- Specific techniques like the the use of hand signals for ordering resupplies during protests and different methods of dealing with tear gas canisters.
- The leaderless movement + encrypted messaging ethos (which had also been an important part of many of the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011).
- The international media attention.
The influence of Hong Kong protesters on other movements is discussed in these two articles:
However, despite adopting similar strategies, the protesters in other countries were dealt with more harshly and received much less media attention.
To date, in Hong Kong, the only protest-related deaths (that were not the result of suicide) are: the elderly man killed with a brick thrown by a protester and the young man who fell in a car park while a protest was going on nearby. In comparison, in other protests in 2019:
- A week of protest in Ecuador left 8 people dead
- Two months of protests left 42 Haitians dead (this was during the most intense months of the protests)
- 26 people died in protests in Chile
- Over 20 people died in protests in India
- 35 people died in the conflicts that followed the October 20 election and the November 10 overthrow of Evo Morales. (woborders.blog/2020/01/04/2019-crisis-deaths-analysis/)
- Over 500 people were reported killed in protests in Iraq
- Numerous people were killed during the BLM protests in America
The media tended to not be as interested in the other protest movements. For example, FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting) states that:
And since the beginning of the Chilean protests (October 14), while the Times has covered the event 14 times and CNN 22, the two news organizations ran 59 and 92 articles on Hong Kong, respectively. Meanwhile, the Haitian protests have been raging for twice as long as Hong Kong, yet the coverage of the far more deadly repression on the Caribbean island has been minute in comparison, with Hong Kong receiving more than 50 times the total attention Haiti has.(fair.org/home/with-people-in-the-streets-worldwide-media-focus-uniquely-on-hong-kong)
It seems that the effectiveness of the tactics associated with the Hong Kong protests seems largely due to the relative leniency of the local police and authorities and to the extraordinary emphasis the Western media has placed on the protest movement.
There is a so-called Milk Tea Alliance between protesters in Thailand and Hong Kong and their supporters in Taiwan, but this is mainly just a matter of support on social media.
Q17. What are other countries doing about HK?
How are protests being supported and/or viewed by other governments?
17.1 The USA
The US has been directly intervening. For example, the US passed a bill—the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act—which involves punishments such as entry bans and asset freezes if the US determines that China is encroaching on Hong Kong’s autonomy. This was done at the request of protesters, with activists Denise Ho and Joshua Wong testifying before Congress. The US has used already used this legislation to remove Hong Kong’s special trading status and to sanction individuals in the Hong Kong and central governments. Strangely, one of the ‘punishments’ the US has dished out is to stop treating Hong Kong as a separate economic entity. That is, any restrictions or tariffs that apply to the Mainland also apply to Hong Kong. This of course, hurts Hong Kong far more than it does the Mainland.
The US openly admits to directly supporting organizations involved in the protests. There was even open debate when Donald Trump froze funding (an estimated 2 million USD) for a U.S. Agency for Global Media (USAGM) program meant to aid Hong Kong protesters protect their privacy online (time.com/5860163/trump-hong-kong-funding-freeze).
There has also been some financial and logistical support given to organizations and parties that support protesters. This support comes from organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy (NED)—and its branches the Solidarity Center (SC) and the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The Oslo Freedom Forum has also been involved. All four organizations have ties to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and/or the US State Department. Some of these organizations are discussed in this article: www.dimsumdaily.hk/is-united-states-involved-in-the-current-civil-unrest-in-hong-kong-via-its-national-endowment-for-democracy-ned/
The involvement of NED is undeniable as the agency’s own website includes records of its millions of dollars of funding to pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong.
US involvement is described in detail in the second half of this video by Russia-based news agency RT America. Yes, RT has ties to the Russian government and the video, in my opinion, overemphasizes American involvement, but the facts are accurate (Hong Kong Unmasked: YouTube Video Link).
Millions of dollars have been channeled by the US to pro-democracy and anti-China organizations in Hong Kong since the 1997 handover. It is safe to assume that there has also been covert funding as well. If Trump hadn’t frozen the USAGM funds earmarked for Hong Kong protesters, that program likely never would have come to light.
Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley visited Hong Kong in October 2019 in order to express his support and protesters received strong vocal support from senators such as Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton. Democrat Nancy Pelosi famously referred to the Hong Kong protests as a ‘beautiful sight’ on 19 June 2019 (this is before protesters broke into LegCo on 1 July, but after an earlier attempt to rush into the LegCo building failed on 12 June (leading to violent scenes. U.S. Consulate official Julie Eadeh was photographed meeting with in a hotel with protest representatives, including Nathan Law and Joshua Wong. Protest representatives and backers traveled to Washington to meet with politicians like Mike Pompeo, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio and Nancy Pelosi.
One wonders how America would react if Beijing or Moscow were openly financing and supporting Black Lives Matters or Stop the Steal protests.
It is undeniable that the US was helping fund the protests, but how much influence was being exerted? There are three main lines of thought.
- The protests are funded and masterminded by the US intelligence community—essentially the US is acting as a puppet master.
- The US is not directing day-to-day operations but has spent years cultivating anti-government and anti-China assets in Hong Kong and has been actively pushing for a color revolution.
- The US government and intelligence community is merely taking advantage of the situation and giving a lot of encouragement and some financial support in order to antagonize China.
Personally, I would go with the third option. This is mainly because there is long-standing grassroots support for anti-China, anti-Beijing and anti-government movements in the territory. The pro-democracy movement goes back to at least the early 1980s and there are plenty of reasons for residents of the territory to be discontented with the Hong Kong government. In this scenario, this ‘taking-advantage’ scenario, it should be noted that the ultimate aim of the US would not be to create a ‘better Hong Kong’; rather the aim would be to create a disruptive Hong Kong.
I would argue against the puppet-master option because the protesters are not well trained and lack any sense of strategy. For example, after a group of protesters stormed and vandalized the empty Legislative Council building on 1 July, they were arguing among themselves over what they should do—stay in the chambers and get arrested or flee before police arrived. Similarly, when I have visited protest front lines, the protesters are generally in a state of confusion, not knowing where to go or what to do next. There does not seem to be a coherent strategy in place. With their efficient method of bringing supplies to the front lines using hand signals and human supply chains, the protesters give off the appearance of being highly organized, but in reality most of their actions are not well thought out. There does not seem to be a puppet master pulling the strings.
Laura Ruggeri goes for the second option—arguing that the US has been actively nurturing the seeds of a color revolution since before the handover: Agents of Chaos. How the U.S. Seeded a Colour Revolution in Hong Kong. She points out that the US has already been doing this for decades (NED started funding Hong Kong activists in 1994). She also doesn’t see the intervention as a case of a puppet master pulling the strings. From her point of view, it is not a matter of individuals receiving specific instructions; it is more of a case of getting like-minded individuals to follow simple rules.
In a more recent article (Selling a revolution to Hong Kong), Ruggeri describe how a researcher at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology carried out a study with researchers from American universities to pay students to attend an anti-government rally. The aim of the study (home.uchicago.edu/bursztyn/Persistent_Political_Engagement_July2019.pdf) was to see if “incentivizing” (i.e., paying) university students to attend one protest would lead to increased participation in future protests. They found that it did.
So far, there is indisputable evidence of:
- funding from the US being given to pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong in general
- funding from the US being earmarked specifically for use in protests in Hong Kong
- American academics, politicians, consulate staff and private citizens providing training, advice or encouragement to Hong Kong protesters
- Protest representatives (e.g., Joshua Wong) and financial backers (e.g., Jimmy Lai) calling on America to directly intervene and meeting with top US officials
What is missing is clear evidence of anyone pulling the strings from behind the scenes. There is a video showing US politician Mike Bannon and Chinese dissident Miles Guo giving instructions over the phone to Baggio Leung during one large protest: YouTube Video Link, but that may simply be Miles Guo pulling a stunt to make himself look important.
In any case, the new laws against collusion and subversion make it far riskier for Hong Kongers to do things like accept funding from organisations like NED and to actively call upon the US to sanction Hong Kong and/or the Mainland.
In my opinion, the protest movement’s collusion with the US is a bad idea for a few reasons.
- America has shown years to not care at all about democracy in other countries. This is clearly evident in the recent regime-change operations against democratically elected leaders in Bolivia and Venezuela and in its support for non-democratic governments like that of Saudi Arabia.
- Americans also tend to show little interest in the welfare of the people they are helping to ‘liberate’. Iraq and Libya (and now Afghanistan) are good examples.
- America has a history of using people to fight against foreign adversaries and then abandoning them when they are no longer useful. For examples of this, you can refer to the plight of the Kurds in Iraq, the Hmong in Laos, the Degar people of Vietnam and the Free Syrian Army in Syria.
- The sanctions themselves are ineffective and serve only to stiffen Beijing’s resolve to eliminate foreign interference.
- The collusion definitely killed off any support the protest might have had from people on the Mainland and would have been a key factor in Beijing’s decision to enact national security legislation.
British officials have mainly been sitting on the sidelines making noises about how the Hong Kong government must respect protesters’ right to assembly and how China must respect the Joint Agreement. However, they quieted down after Extinction Rebellion protesters in London started adopting some of the tactics of the Hong Kong protesters, When that happened, London’s Metropolitan police banned all Extinction Rebellion public gatherings within the city, conveniently forgetting about the British government’s previous remarks about respecting the right to assembly.
The British government responded to Beijing’s national security legislation by proposing a scheme for Hong Kong holders of the British National Overseas passport to live and work in Britain (as a path towards citizenship). This could potentially attract up to 3 million Hong Kongers. When Macau returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1999, Macanese were offered full Portuguese citizenship. Not only did the British government not offer the same deal to Hong Kongers, but it also tried to persuade Portugal to also not offer citizenship to Macanese.
It is not known how many Hong Kongers will consider the British offer, though there has been noticeable increase in people applying for things needed for emigration (like certificates of no criminal conviction).
At times, the hypocrisy coming from London has been astonishing. For example, British politicians criticized Hong Kong for postponing its elections for one year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) while completely ignoring the fact that the British government also announced it would postpone local elections in Britain for one year (due to the COVID-19 pandemic).
Taiwan has played a significant role in the protests. Before the protests started, Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen was doing poorly in the polls. Her party, the Democratic Progressive Party, suffered heavy defeats in local elections and it looked as if the party would lose in the January 2020 elections.
Tsai’s government stated that it would not recognize the extradition law, stated its support for the protesters in Hong Kong and welcomed to Taiwan protesters who, fearing arrest, had fled Hong Kong. Her election campaign slogan became ‘Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow’ and she used stories from Hong Kong protesters in her election speeches.
Tsai’s popularity increased and her party ended up winning the 2020 elections.
Taiwan has since refused to accept the voluntary surrender of the murderer whose case led to the proposed extradition bill that ignited the protests. Although it has accepted Hong Kongers who entered Taiwan legally, it detained those that entered illegally and eventually sent them to the US.
17.4 Other countries
- In its outward-facing media (like RT), Russia, has been highly critical of the protesters and of American interference.
- Regional competitors like Singapore appear to be trying to contain their feelings of schadenfreude.
- The European Union has expressed concern, but their muted criticisms cannot carry much weight as the Hong Kong government’s handling of the protests is relatively mild when compared to the French government’s handling of the Yellow Vest movement and Spain’s treatment of Catalonian separatists.
- Canada has not done much. The country was already in conflict with Beijing over the detention of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou, and Chinese Canadians are strongly divided on the Hong Kong issue. In addition, the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, is the son of the former Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, who used emergency powers to quell a violent Quebec separatist movement—the FLQ—in the early 1970s. In November 2020, Canada did announce a new immigration scheme, making it much easier for Hong Kong residents to work in Canada and eventually gain citizenship there.
In general, there seems to be a slowly growing awareness of the dangers of glorifying violent protesters. If it is justifiable for people to violently fight for democracy in a faraway place because the cause is noble, then it is also justifiable for people to violently fight for other noble causes—like racial equality or environmental protection—at home.
Q18. What is the likely outcome of the protests?
By adopting a no-splitting and no-negotiating strategy accompanied by violence and blatant anti-Mainland prejudice, the protesters are likely dooming their movement to failure.
At the moment Hong Kong is split into a yellow camp of protest supporters and a blue camp of people who oppose their methods. However, the blue camp is not really a camp at all. There is no ideology there, just a belief that the protest methods are harming society. Therefore, anyone who is not on board with all of the the protest methods and all of the demands automatically belongs to the ‘blue camp’.
I expect that this split between ‘yellow’ and ‘non-yellow’ in Hong Kong may become institutionalized.
There will be a portion of the population who will continue to hate Mainlanders, hate the Chinese government, hate the Hong Kong government and hate the police. I expect they will continue with their demands and will likely slide further into violence (and probably pick up a few more demands). They will try to take advantage of and politicize any dispute or controversy they can. This will go on for years, if not decades.
Their fate may be the fate of China’s lost generation (the sent-down youth of the Cultural Revoution). No, I don’t expect the ‘Yellows’ will end up getting sent to China’s hinterlands. However, I do think they will increasingly be marginalized in society—frozen out of a lot of opportunities by criminal records, questionable social media profiles, extremist viewpoints and/or their own discrimination against Mainlanders.
- Many employers will be wary when hiring people. For example, if you are running a company with a lot of Mainland clients and customers, wouldn’t you think twice before you hired someone whose social media posts openly expressed hatred and contempt towards Mainlanders? It would be like an American company with a lot of black clients and customers hiring someone who openly hates black people. The risks just aren’t worth it. After the Umbrella Movement protests, some Hong Kong firms already started to screen candidates by moving the job interview process across the border to Shenzen (Hong Kong companies adopt Shenzen interview tactic), thus eliminating from the candidate pool any people who hate the Mainland too much to travel there and any people worried that their actions in Hong Kong may lead to them getting detained on the Mainland. This kind of screening will likely become more common.
- Similarly, if you are an employer, can you be confident that the same meet-my-demands-or-suffer-my-wrath mindset that led to students trashing their own university campuses won’t carry over into the workplace? Wouldn’t you be a little wary when hiring fresh graduates?
- Eventually, schools, government departments and hospitals will start reining in the loose cannons who routinely upload inflammatory social media posts that would see them fired in any Western country and will also start firing those convicted of protest-related criminal offences.
- The Mainland government will likely flex its muscles and put pressure on large companies, like it did with Cathay Pacific, to discourage their staff members from participating in illegal protests.
There is already a ‘Yellow Economic Circle’ of protest-friendly businesses (Hong Kong’s ‘yellow economy’ rewards protester-friendly businesses), but these are mainly small independent shops, cafes and bakeries. Most large businesses in Hong Kong, have strong connections with the Mainland in terms of suppliers, customers, clients and/or branches on the Mainland. This Yellow Economic Concept seems to be dying a slow death. One of the most prominent yellow-circle businesses, child apparel retailer Chickeeduck, announced it would shut down its last branch in 2022 (Hong Kong retail chain Chickeeduck, famed for anti-government stance during protests, to close local stores citing ‘harassment).
The non-yellows, in contrast, will be willing and able to travel to the Mainland for work and do business with Mainland firms in industries like tech, tourism, construction, logistics, finance, manufacturing and entertainment. If the Greater Bay Area economy continues to develop, these people will be the ones to take advantage.
This split into yellow and non-yellow camps is also affecting friendships and families and will continue to do so. It is not a mere political difference. For example, in the US, a Democrat can still be friends with a Republican. However, if one of those people becomes very extreme in how they want to achieve their political goals (e.g., It’s a good idea to burn down the shops of immigrants), that friendship is probably going to end.
In the long term, the protesters’ use of violence and their unabashed prejudice against Mainlanders will likely lead to Beijing choosing to severely limit, if not remove Hong Hong’s autonomy after 2047. The protesters’ approach of no-negotiation accompanied by violence will likely lead to less freedom and less autonomy.
To describe this situation, I coined the term ‘espericide’, which means ‘to use methods to achieve one’s hopes that inevitably lead to those hopes being killed off’.
In my opinion, I think the best future for Hong Kong is for the one-country two systems policy to be made permanent (or for the deadline to be extended far in the future).
If you are thinking ONLY in terms economic benefits, it might be best for Hong Kong to just go for 1C1S and join up with Shenzen—the Mainland metropolis across the river—and work towards becoming a global tech hub, but Cantonese language and culture (as well as the local Hong Kong culture) could become diluted and marginalized, and Hong Kong residents would always be chafing against Beijing’s rule.
This leaves the one country two systems framework being extended in perpetuity as the best option. I believe the best way to do this would be to demonstrate to Beijing that the 1C2S policy is working and deserves to be extended and then NEGOTIATE its extension. Even if this extension were to be given, however, Hong Kong would still need to develop its own industries so that it is not so reliant on its role as a China gateway for its economic development and on its property market for government revenue.
For this extension scenario to work, peaceful protests are fine, but violent confrontations (especially when they include attacks on Mainland symbols of sovereignty, Mainland banks, Mainland-owned businesses and even Mainlanders) will make it next to impossible to convince Beijing to extend the 1C2S policy. Prolonged and violent protest will only demonstrate to Beijing that the system is not working and that the best solutions would be to assimilate Hong Kong into the Mainland as soon as possible or to wait patiently, let Hong Kong collapse in on itself and then ride in later and pick up the pieces.
Edit: I had a few paragraphs here about a potential negotiation strategy, but China’s implementation of a national security law legislation removed one of Hong Kong’s bargaining chips.
The best way to show that 1C2S is viable in the long term is to have pro-democracy legislators work on introducing policies and measures that better the lives of Hong Kong people.
Unfortunately, it seems the protesters and pan-democrats have chosen their path—confrontation, not compromise. In the end, whatever happens is what the protesters deserve.
- If Hong Kong becomes a one-person one-vote democracy with a vibrant economy and total autonomy, it will mainly be down to their efforts and sacrifices, and future generations will celebrate them as heroes.
- If Hong Kong moves on and leaves them behind, future generations will regard today’s protesters like we regard China’s Red Guards/Lost Generation—as misguided and manipulated slogan-shouting youth who caused chaos for a while before disappearing into irrelevance. One of the slogans of the Hong Kong protests—’some moved on, but we didn’t’—may very well be the protesters’ entire future. They will become Hong Kong’s lost generation.
- If Hong Kong becomes an economic wasteland, the protesters will be reviled as idealists who ended up destroying their own city.
What will they become—courageous heroes, a generation left behind or tragically misguided idealists?
Time will tell.
Appendix: Have the Protests Run out of Steam?
For the moment it looks as though the protest movement has run out of steam. In August, 2020 for example, there were calls for protesters to turn up to commemorate the Yuen Long assaults (for the 13th-month “anniversary”) and the previous year’s airport occupation. However, in each case only a single protester actually showed up.
A1. Lack of Strategies and Poor Decision-making
Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.Sun Tzu. The Art of War
One common thread running through this article is that the protesters have lacked ideas for things like:
- Hong Kong’s status post-2047
- Ways to improve the quality of life and to resolve problems like high property prices
- Hong Kong’s future economic role (if it is NOT to be tied to the Greater Bay Area)
- Ways to negotiate and work with with the central and Hong Kong governments
In his article, The Revolution Will Not Be Trending, YOSHIMIRED, argues that the protest movement focused too much on clever tactics, social media campaigns (i.e., hashtag activism) and a destruction-oriented mindset and that it ignored constructive strategies to actually implement any kind of change. From his point of view, this lack of strategy and vision doomed the protest movement from the start.
I agree with that interpretation and would add that this lack of medium and long-term strategies led to blunder after blunder when it came to decision-making. The poor decisions included:
- Making non-negotiable demands accompanied by violence, intimidation and vandalism;
- Not adjusting the demands to make it more possible for compromise;
- Mixing up ‘boycotting’ and ‘vandalism’;
- Not splitting with the more radical and violent factions and not condemning things like violence, bullying of school children and doxxing (even dousing a man with petrol and setting him on fire was considered acceptable);
- Using a no-leadership approach;
- Accepting the ‘laam chau’ (destruct together) approach as a strategy;
- Ignoring the chances to declare victory and stop the protests first when the government stated the extradition bill would be withdrawn and later when it was officially withdrawn;
- Adopting a mindset of ‘we might as well resort to violence because we have nothing to lose'(only to end up seeing lengthy prison terms, the enactment of national security legislation, the self-destruction of pro-democracy unions and activist groups and reforms to the election system);
- Flying US and UK flags at protests, appealing for US and UK support, actively colluding with US and UK politicians and agents, appealing for US military intervention and naively believing that American politicians were working with Hong Kong’s best interests in mind;
- Courting US politicians who were soon to lose elections (Donald Trump), lose their jobs (Mike Pompeo) or get mired in controversies over the Capitol Hill riots (Marco Rubio, Josh Hawley). Jimmy Lai especially didn’t help his case when his right-hand man, Mark Simon, used Lai’s money to fund a smear campaign against Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, during the run up to America’s presidential elections;
- Allowing anti-Mainland sentiments and action to run rampant;
- Overestimating the economic clout of its supporters;
- Using a ‘revolution’ slogan from a pro-independence politician and not kicking independence agitators out of the movement;
- Fraternizing with questionable supporters (such as during a visit by members of Azov Battalion, a neo-Nazi Ukrainian group),
- Adding random demands (e.g., to reduce immigration from the Mainland, to get rid of parallel traders, to stop a group of women from dancing in a park, to deport medical workers from the Mainland etc.);
- Glorifying suicide victims (luckily this stopped after about five suicides);
- Using young teens on the front lines and using them to do things like make and transport petrol bombs;
- Manufacturing martyrs from thin air, misinterpreting laws and making up conspiracy theories to gain support;
- Occupying the Legislative Council building, trashing it and then simply fleeing;
- Repeatedly calling for strikes with no public support for such measures;
- Disrupting the airport and harassing travelers;
- Occupying and trashing university campuses;
- Having teachers bring antigovernment views into their classrooms;
- Changing ‘Lennon Walls’ from places where individuals wrote messages and stuck them on the wall (a reasonable protest strategy) into places that were covered by mass-printed propaganda posters;
- Allowing the movement to create Yellow Economic Circle of protest-friendly businesses (a reasonable idea on its own) get corrupted by anti-Mainlander prejudice;
- Planning on being saved from prosecution by either gaining amnesty for everyone (that was never going to happen) or by relying on protest-friendly juries to pervert the course of justice (the government side-stepped that plan by have the trials done without juries);
- Having election candidates explicitly express their agreement to officially follow Benny Tai’s ’10 steps to mutual destruction’ plan;
- Harassing and threatening magistrates (this has continued into late 2021);
- Derailing a Black Lives Matter protest and then harassing the organizer;
- Openly expressing support for a man who stabbed a police officer in the back before taking his own life (an attack that happened on 1 July 2021);
- Disbanding political parties (Demosisto, Civic Passion), the largest protest organization (Civil Human Rights Front) and trade unions (Professional Teachers Union, The Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions). I suppose the organizers were trying to send a message (‘Look how repressed Hong Kong is!’); however, the groups all disbanded voluntarily after the introduction of the national security legislation. The decisions to dissolve the groups can also suggest that (1) the groups had been involved in activities that could now be considered to fall under sedition and/or collusion and (2) the organizers felt that they wouldn’t have much to offer if they had to NOT be subversive, seditious or traitorous. Similarly, a few groups, most notably the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions, disbanded immediately after receiving police requests for their financial records. That suggests the financial records were problematic.
The protesters did a great job of getting the media on their side, but other than that one success, the protest movement was marred by an uninterrupted string of poor decisions. When I have brought up these issues with protest supporters, a common response has been ‘no political movement is perfect’.
In terms of getting more autonomy and greater political representation for Hong Kong, the protests have failed spectacularly. The protesters have left Hong Kong with less autonomy and less political representation than before the protests. The protesters managed to stave of an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kong people to be extradited to the Mainland for NON-POLITICAL crimes, but in return ended up with legislation that allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to the Mainland ONLY for serious POLITICAL crimes.
If the main goal of the protests was to mess up Hong Kong and cause a headache for China, the protests were somewhat successful. Similarly, if the goal was to dissuade the people of Taiwan from considering unification with the Mainland and improve the election chances of the Democratic Progressive Party, the protests were very successful.
How did Hong Kong end up with so many intelligent people with good intentions making so many awful, counter-productive decisions? Most of the Hong Kong protest supporters that I communicated with in 2019 and 2020 seemed to strongly believe three things:
- They were part of an unstoppable, morally good social movement that would reshape society,
- Whatever stood in the way of this movement should be swept away by any means necessary,
- Because they would be victorious and because their goals were just, they would face no consequences for their actions.
The strength of their beliefs seemed to blind them to the poor decision-making of the protest movement as a whole.
The arrival of COVID-19 largely put an end to large-scale protests. This was a result of social distancing measures which automatically made such assemblies illegal as well as to people growing tired of the year long protest-and-virus-related disruptions to their lives and livelihoods.
A3. Deterrent Sentencing & Defendants’ Pleas
Due to the rather slow nature of Hong Kong’s justice system, people arrested during the protests several months ago are now coming to trial. People are starting to go to jail, and that is likely having a deterrent effect.
Many of the cases that have been resolved so far are for people pleading guilty. There haven’t been many ‘give me liberty or give me death’ moments. Instead, the defendants have been expressing their remorse and presenting mitigating factors such as ‘acting on impulse’, ‘overcome with emotion’, ‘suffering from ADHD’, ‘diagnosed with schizophrenia’, ‘just doing what I was told’, ‘just holding a petrol bomb that someone else gave me’, ‘the reasoning ability of a child’ and ‘of below average intelligence’. The two exceptions so far would be Alexandra Wong, the elderly lady who waves the Union Jack at protests, who demanded a longer prison sentence during her sentencing, and a CUHK student surnamed Fu who, prior to sentencing, wrote a letter criticizing the justice system.
Of course, expressions of remorse can be written off as practical measures take to reduce sentencing, but it doesn’t look great when so many people in your movement are saying the equivalent of ‘Forgive me; I wasn’t thinking straight’. It doesn’t look great if one of your keyboard warriors admits in court to making everything up just so that he could get more social media attention.
Some of the sentences have been relatively stiff because the starting sentences for crimes like rioting and arson are quite high to begin with (e.g., 7 years and life imprisonment, respectively), even after sentences are reduced for pleading guilty and expressing remorse, the sentences can still quite long. For example, a young man who pleaded guilty of rioting at the 12 June protests was sentenced to 4 years in prison.
The convictions and sentences also show that the protesters are not going to be rescued by their general amnesty demand or by their plan to sit on juries and refuse to convict protesters. In all of the trials so far, the prosecutors have gone for magistrate-only trials. For a rioting charge, the maximum sentence in a trial by jury is 10 years. For a magistrate-only trial, the maximum is 7 years.
Some of the trials have shown that magistrates are reluctant to convict defendants on riot charges unless prosecutors can provide clear and undeniable evidence that the defendants actively participated in the rioting (and weren’t just part of the crowd at the scene). However, a ruling by the Court of Appeal on 31 March 2021 (DoJ secures ‘joint enterprise’ enforcement) established that due to the ‘joint enterprise’ principle, just being present at a riot and not doing anything to remove oneself from the situation can mean that person is guilty of rioting (as the presence of others may embolden the more active rioters).
In general, the future looks bleak for many of the hardcore protesters, and people are starting to learn that doing something like throwing a petrol bomb is considered a serious offence.
A4. Other Protests & Growing Awareness of Western Double Standards
The shining beacons of democracy in America and Britain lost much of their luster due to their governments’ awful handing of the COVID-19 pandemic.
At the same time, the Black Lives Matters protests in America also highlighted a lot of hypocrisy.
- The American politicians offering the most vocal support to Hong Kong ‘protesters’—Republican hawks like Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio and Mike Pompeo—strongly condemned American ‘rioters’. Hong Kong protest ‘representatives’ could not unequivocally support the Black Lives Matters movement without directly contradicting the American politicians they were working with.
- The mainstream Western media also echoed this false dichotomy of peaceful, freedom-loving Hong Kong protesters and violent, thuggish American rioters, and the hypocrisy was obvious.
- People who criticized the Hong Kong police and government for their approach to handling the protests could see that American approach was even more authoritarian (e.g., using curfews and calling in the National Guard) and forceful. Some protesters have argued that ‘but America has democracy, so it is not the same,’ However, this argument is extremely wobbly. It is basically saying that democratic governments, because they have the mandate of the people, have the right to stifle dissent as forcefully as they want.
- It also proved difficult for Hong Kong protesters—who have shown a strong prejudice against Mainland Chinese—to express solidarity with the anti-racism message of the Black Lives Matters movement. The Hong Kong antigovernment protesters even managed to derail the only planned Black Lives Matters protest in Hong Kong when their attempts to hijack the protest and add a ‘Hong Kong Lives Matter’ element to it forced organizers to cancel the planned event. The Hong Kong antigovernment protesters were also furious that the BLM organizers in the territory were negotiating with the police in order to hold the event smoothly, with some online commenters resorting to using racial slurs against the BLM organizers.
The storming of the Capitol in Washington on 7 December 2020 also created confused responses among supporters of the Hong Kong protesters.
- The Hong Kong protest movement in general had been strongly behind American president Donald Trump, who had incited the riot by calling on his supporters to march on the Capitol. The protesters had also been very happy with the support given to them by Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, who were among Trump’s strongest allies in his campaign to overturn the US election results. Cruz and Hawley both visited Hong Kong in 2019, met with protesters and activists and publicly stated that they supported the protesters unconditionally. However, with the American mass media and the incoming US administration unanimously condemning the siege of the Capitol, would the Hong Kong protesters turn their backs on Trump, Cruz and Hawley? Among the Hong Kong protesters there is a split between the hardcore Trump supporters and those who want to distance their protest movement from the former president and his associates.
- The scenes at the Capitol were strongly reminiscent of the storming of the LegCo building. In both cases, the protesters strongly believed that they were fighting for democracy, yet the media portrayed the Hong Kong protesters as freedom fighters and the US protesters as a violent mob.
- The fact that there one woman was shot dead by Capitol police and three other protesters died during the siege of the Capitol also highlighted the relative leniency of the Hong Kong police. No protesters were killed by police during nine months of often violent protests in Hong Kong and no protesters were injured by police during the LegCo building siege. Hong Kong protesters had been calling on America to sanction Hong Kong officials for police brutality in the territory, but does America really have the moral authority to lecture other jurisdictions about police brutality?
The Hong Kong protesters couldn’t get behind the Black Lives Matter protests and completely ignored protest movements in places like Haiti, India, France, Palestine, Ecuador, Iraq, Bolivia (before the elections restored the socialists to power), Columbia, Yemen and India. However, they did gain a lot of inspiration from Ukraine’s Maiden Revolution and seem to keen to support antigovernment protests in Lebanon, Thailand, Belarus and Russia. in short, the Hong Kong protesters seem to support protests in countries that are not American allies and/or that are closer to China or Russia, but have zero interest in protests against governments that are allied with the US.
They are also very interested in Uyghur rights because it fits well with their anti-China narrative.
From the list of countries and causes they are interested and disinterested in, it appears that Hong Kong protesters are basically in line with American foreign policy, which raises questions about the protesters’ actual beliefs and motivations.
Hong Kong protesters were also keen to support the anti-coup protesters in Myanmar. For example, they produced a long handbook in English and Burmese describing in detail the protest methods they used:
What they didn’t take into consideration was the context. The Western media hasn’t shown as much interest in Myanmar, and more seriously, a lot of the Hong Kong protesters’ ‘clever’ tactics do not work as well when the opponents are less reluctant to use force. In Hong Kong, no protesters were killed by police in several months of protests and rioting. In Myanmar, it is estimated that hundreds of protesters were killed in the first few months of the protests.
A5. National Security Legislation
This legislation has had a few effects already.
- The one gain made during the entire protest movement—the suspension of the extradition bill—was ruined by the arrival of the national security legislation. In terms of freedom, Hong Kong people have less freedom now than they would have had if the extradition bill had been passed. It is slowly dawning on some protest supporters that they may not have chosen the right strategies.
- Sanctions from America were shown to have minimal effect on Beijing’s handling of the Hong Kong situation.
- With the anti-collusion laws, organizations that had been using funds from American NGOs like NED now have to be much more careful about accepting money fro foreign entities and using it for antigovernment campaigns.
- The new laws raised the stakes greatly when it comes to deterrence, with the introduction of new offences like sedition and collusion, heavy sentences and the possibility of extradition to the Mainland to face trial. This led to the immediate disbanding of some independence parties, with others shutting down their Hong Kong operations) and to some activists like Nathan Law (who had actively lobbied the US to sanction Hong Kong) fleeing the territory (and leaving behind those who he had helped incite to take action against the government).
- As soon as the national security legislation was introduced, most restaurants with explicitly anti-Mainlander policies, took down their anti-Mainlander signage.
- Cracks in the protest movement also began to form, with pro-democracy pioneer Martin Lee belatedly denouncing violence in July 2020 and the head of the Catholic diocese doing the same in September 2020 (which was in contrast to the strong and vocal support that had been given to protesters by Catholic leaders in the community such as Cardinal Joseph Zen).
A6. Unstable Foundations
Much of the outrage during the protests centered on exaggerations and fabrications.
- It turned out that the ‘blinded’ girl was not blinded.
- There is not a shred of evidence that anyone died in Prince Edward Station on 31 August.
- There is not a shred of evidence that police had nothing to do with the death of the young man who fell in a car park.
- There is not a shred of evidence that police were involved in the death of a teenage girl who drowned.
- There is not a shred of evidence that protesters were raped or tortured at San Uk Ling Holding Centre (Instead a man pled guilty for fabricating such stories in order to get attention on social media).
- The ‘massacre’ that protesters repeatedly warned the western media about never materialized.
A7. Fake Identities, Drama, Lies & Missing Funds
Since the protests started dissipating in early 2020, there have been a number of incidents that tarnished the protest movement.
It turned out that a Hong Konger, Kong Tsung-gan, who had been frequently interviewed by local and Western media turned out to be a Caucasian American named Brian Kern, who used to work for Amnesty International. He wasn’t just using a pen name. He had created a false identity, including an article which mentioned his experiences growing up in Hong Kong. He had even conducted an interview in which his Hong Kong Chinese persona interviewed his Mainland Chinese persona about a book the latter had written.
Similarly, in late October 2020, a dodgy report attempting to tie US presidential candidate Joe Biden to a corruption scandal involving his son and China-based companies was revealed to have been published under a completely false identify with a fake photo. The report was financed by Jimmy Lai (the pro-protestor Hong Kong media magnate arrested for money laundering), though his right-hand man, Mark Simon (a former Naval Intelligence staff member and CIA intern) took the fall, claiming that he financed the report using Lai’s money without his knowledge. Simon fled Hong Kong before the national security legislation came into effect.
Unfortunately, the do-whatever-it-takes philosophy behind the protesters’ tactics inevitably led to lies, over-dramatization (e.g., protest representatives Agnes Chow and Joshua Wong have both pretended to be handcuffed while being led away be police), exaggeration and poor logic (e.g., the questionable justifications for using violence and intimidation).
In November 2020, District Councilor Cary Lo Chun-yu was arrested (for wasting police time) after falsely claiming on Facebook that he had been arrested, handcuffed, intimidated, taken into custody and denied the opportunity to see an attorney. None of that had happened. He later said that the post was the result of ‘miscommunication’ with his assistant.
In January 2021, a prominent British expatiate supporter of the protests, known online as Hong Kong Hermit, was accused online by another expatriate protest supporter of sexually harassing young children in 2019. Hong Kong Hermit left Hong Kong sometimes during 2020. These unproven and unsubstantiated allegations led to a mini war of words on Twitter, with at least one person calling out the accuser for making the protest movement look bad and with counter-accusation from Hong Kong Hermit that his accuser (@anonjoxter) is a serial fantasist. No one came out of that feud looking good.
Protest supporters donated money to campaigns that seem to have gone nowhere. For example, in 2020, British politician Luke de Pulford raised over 250,000 USD (www.justgiving.com/crowdfunding/justiceforhongkong) in order to pursue private prosecution against two British citizens working for the Hong Kong police force, yet nothing seems to have been done. Spark Alliance, set up to help cover the court costs of arrested protesters had its accounts frozen amidst allegations that organizers had made use of donated funds for personal investments and had used the funds to directly reward participating in protests and riots.
It seems that more Hong Kongers are becoming aware of some of the unsavory and dishonest aspects of the protest movement.
A8. Fleeing Comrades
During the protest period (and especially after the implementation of national security legislation), many protesters and activists have fled the territory to avoid arrest and/or to avoid being tried for crimes they had already been arrested for. So far, Nathan Law, who fled to England, and former legislator Ted Hui, who was facing nine relatively minor charges and who absconded to Denmark on the pretext of attending climate change meetings, are the ‘political refugees’ with the highest profile. There are now questions about the over 3 million HKD that Ted Hui raised via crowdfunding to initiate a lawsuit against the Hong Kong police. In December 2020, Sixtus Baggio Leung, one of the legislators expelled for oath-taking antics in 2016, declared that he had fled to America. He was not facing any charges, but was being sued by the government (which was attempting to recover money that he had been paid before he was removed from office). A pastor and his wife, who are also in Britain, are sought by police on money laundering charges. It is doubtful that they will return.
This has set an example for young protesters, some of whom had been saying they were willing to die for Hong Kong. Why should they be the ones to be sacrificed while others flee to safety?
The people who fled the territory have said they will continue to fight for Hong Kong overseas, but how can they expect to inspire Hong Kongers to put their lives and livelihoods on the line while they remain safe in the USA, Britain, Australia, Germany and Taiwan.
I haven’t seen any social media posts from protest supporters criticizing those who flee, but that is to be expected with the ‘no-splitting’ policy still in effect. Instead they decry arrested protesters and figures like Jimmy Lai being denied bail, something that would make make more sense if so many of their comrades hadn’t already jumped bail and fled the territory.
A9. Loss of International Interest
The protesters haven’t been able to maintain strong international interest in their cause. This is largely the result of the international media starting to move on as the protests fizzled out. Also, the protesters’ social media campaigns are based on things that don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, the #save12HKyouths hashtag was popular and there is even a nice logo for the campaign, but once people look into it, they will see that (1) most of the people detained weren’t really youths, (2) the ‘youths’ were out on bail or under investigation for a range of different crimes from rioting and assault to possession of explosives and (3) they were arrested while fleeing Hong Kong (they weren’t kidnapped). One of these ’12 Youths’, Andy Li Yu-hin (as well as a para-legal working for Jimmy Lai—Chan Tsz-wah), has since pled guilty in Hong Kong to conspiring to collude with foreign forces (in August 2021).
A10. After Covid?
The big question is what will happen after the COVID-19 crisis passes. In Hong Kong, there is still a lot of hostility towards the Hong Kong government, the Communist Party of China and China in general. Will the protests return? I suppose anything may happen, but my guess is that;
- It will be a long time before a protest march receives a massive turnout.
- Radicals will try to hijack any future protests.
- At some point the radicals will resort to outright terrorism (i.e., bombing public places) and that this will basically kill off the pro-democracy movement. The violence-is-justified mentality is already there and protesters are already very experienced with arson and have started experimenting with explosives.
Appendix B: Vocabulary Choices
Protesters: I use this as a catch-all term to cover those who support the protest movement as well as the activists, politicians, peaceful protesters, rioters, terrorists and propagandists that participate in the protest movement. Similarly, I use the term ‘protests’ to refer to peaceful protests as well as riots.
Central government: This refers to the government of China (also known as the Central People’s Government). I also sometimes refer to it as ‘Beijing’ (i.e., the seat of government).
Police officers: I know this is not the ‘correct’ term as they are not all of officer rank. I am using this term for the purposes of conciseness.
Hong Kongers: This term is often used by Hong Kong Chinese who don’t identify as being Chinese or who want to maintain a distinct identity from the Mainland. in this article, I am just using it to describe people who have made Hong Kong their home.
If you are a protest supporter and want to disagree, feel free to leave a comment below, but to make sure we are on the same page, can you answer the following two questions in your comment?
- What do you want for HK after 2047?
- How will the protest methods help you achieve that?
~ photos (except where otherwise indicated) and text by longzijun
About the author: Because of the controversy surrounding Brian Kern, an American in Hong Kong who has presented himself in media interviews as a local Hong Kong Chinese person going by the name of Kong Tsung-gan, I better clear up my own pen-name. I am a Canadian (and a Caucasian) who has been living in Hong Kong for over thirty years. I have used longzijun as my online name for things like music, blogging and photography for over a decade. This is done (1) for some sense of privacy and (2) because my actual name is very common and is the name of several semi-famous people, so using that name would make my work unsearchable online.
Most of my students in Hong Kong have adopted Western names, so I thought it only fair that I adopt a Chinese name in return. However, unlike Brian Kern, I have never presented myself as being Chinese or as being a Hong Kong Chinese person. I’ve had this name for about thirty years. This name doesn’t sound anything like my real name. If you create a Cantonese-based transliteration of my English name, the result is pretty awful.
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