Hong Kong has been embroiled in protests since April, triggered by a controversial extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China under certain circumstances.
Initially fuelled by outrage over the implication that action against activists and journalists could be taken through the opaque and severe Chinese judicial system, the demonstrations have since become about a range of issues, including an inquiry into police violence — a High School student was accidentally shot by a police officer — and the implementation of universal suffrage.
I had the opportunity to sit down with two insiders of the demonstrations; Alan Leong and Evan Fowler.
Alan is a veteran of reform movements in Hong Kong, having used his seat in the Hong Kong Legislative Council for 12 years to call for greater suffrage. He is now the Chairman of the Civic Party, a pro-democracy liberal party. Evan Fowler co-founded the Hong Kong Free Press, the leading English language online news provider in Hong Kong, and has been involved in the media landscape of the city for decades.
The most immediate impression of the protests for an outsider is one of incredible energy – every weekend, up to 2 million people turn out on the streets. Can this high level of participation continue, or will it fade over time? Leong answers first. “It really depends if the movement can come up with new ideas to keep the momentum of it. So far, I don’t think we are running short of such innovative ideas.” He cites how protestors have recently been making human chains across the city and climbing up Lion Rock, an iconic landmark.
Leong thinks that “[they] have come a long way” from the 2014 protests, saying, “We have united ourselves in the democratic camp. People like me were not talked to by the front-line youngsters as we were considered an utter failure. Today, both camps, radical and peaceful camps, have come a long way to respecting each other.” On the divisive issue of acceptable violence in the protests, he sees more agreement today than in the past. “Five years ago, when even one window was smashed, there was a chorus of condemnation. We see an escalation of violence now, but not an immediate abandonment of the movement; [the moderates’] ideas haven’t been instantly dismissed.”
This leads to an interesting point. While the protests command a great range of support across Hong Kong society, the majority of front-line activists tend to be rather young. Many are still in school and its leaders are university students. What do Leong and Fowler, as older activists, see their role as? Fowler does not think that he should be “guiding or controlling” the protests but is supportive to “represent voices” through his platform. “Beijing has been trying to shut down voices it didn’t agree with in Hong Kong. That builds political pressure. As someone who sees Hong Kong as my home, this was something I became very concerned about and I wanted to give a voice to this.”
“The movements in Hong Kong have been autonomous movements because as soon as someone claims to guide the movement, they are dead.”
Leong also adds, “The movements in Hong Kong have been autonomous movements because as soon as someone claims to guide the movement, they are dead. In such a scenario, every single protestor owns the movement. But it also poses the problem as there is no one for the government to sit down and talk to in order to end the protests – the only way to end the protests is to agree to the demands and concede to the people.”
How does he compete with the powerful machine of the Chinese state media? Fowler says, “What we are seeing in Hong Kong is that no matter how hard you try and control the traditional media; people are finding ways to get their voices out. What is more concerning about how China is challenging concepts of journalism – you have Chinese media even in the UK deliberately misrepresenting to UK people what is happening in Hong Kong. You have a new media that is trying to change the facts. When the press – like the judiciary in China – is trying to push a narrative instead of behaving neutrally, that is really concerning.”
Of course, the Hong Kong protests is a local struggle nested in a global context.
Has there been foreign misperceptions about the protests and has there been enough of an international response? Leon answers first. “It is important to move and touch the hearts of people in different countries. In all democracies, people have to go to ‘the people’ for votes and if we touch the hearts of these voters, then they will have to listen. We have been really successful for the last five years in reaching out and this is where the future lies.”
Fowler jumps in here. “There have naturally been misconceptions in the general media narrative.” He says that most of the Western narrative has stressed the extradition bill as the trigger. Really, he argues, it has been a longer-term process. “Ten years ago, you could say, China isn’t perfect but there could be integration and not assimilation. Now we can see that China doesn’t even pretend to be converging towards international norms and instead, is setting out a much more authoritarian position. The Hong Kong people are very aware of this fact and that civil society has been very seriously curtailed in China. The risk equation changes.” It has now become more of a risk not to protest than to let Hong Kong be irrevocably undermined, Fowler says.
If that is the case, then how can the protests ever be stopped? “The government needs to stand up and say we realise there is a political problem. This is not a social and economic issue – it is a political problem and the protestors are making explicitly political demands. There needs to be constitutional and political change and the government needs to acknowledge that. This is a trust issue and the first step towards solving that is the government to come forward and admit it. It doesn’t need to come out and give universal suffrage straight away, but at least acknowledge there is a problem. It is in Beijing’s interest as well to initiate some kind of reform – they weren’t expecting such a reaction to the extradition bill as they have for years had poor intelligence from Hong Kong.”
If the protests are not going away anytime soon regardless of governmental response, what are the risks of escalating violence?
While certainly not overtly similar, the common thought in British minds is that of Northern Ireland, where a special administrative region clashed with its own government and central government. Could that be repeated in Hong Kong? Fowler answers. “The protests won’t go away with repression. They will only go underground. The situation in Hong Kong is very different though – it is a port city and a migrant city and a very law-abiding city. It is very diverse and there aren’t sectarian blocs with the potential for long term endemic violence. There isn’t a history of violence and resistance.”
Finally, the conversation steers to the thornier question of how Hong Kong is perceived by the West, especially in relation to its colonial past. Why do we focus on Hong Kong to the exclusion of other places? Do we need to acknowledge the colonial legacy of Britain as partly responsible? Is the idea of an international response itself grounded in a neo-colonial mindset? “Firstly, Britain tried to democratise Hong Kong. Why did the British try and hold on to Hong Kong for so long? It wasn’t in their interest; it was in China’s interest. They tried to hand it back earlier, but China refused at the time. Britain didn’t have much real power in Hong Kong — the UK was already weak as they had to rely on China not simply taking Hong Kong.”
“Why do we focus on Hong Kong to the exclusion of other places? Do we need to acknowledge the colonial legacy of Britain as partly responsible? Is the idea of an international response itself grounded in a neo-colonial mindset?”
“We should also be worried about human rights violations everywhere. We can support Hong Kong and any other place in the world at the same time. Having said that, Britain is legally obliged as a signatory to a legal treaty to make sure ‘One Country, Two System’ works. You don’t have it with Syria. It isn’t neo-colonial at all either. Hong Kong is an international city and the international community has an international obligation and a legitimate interest. How many British nationals are there in Hong Kong? It is legitimate for Britain to speak up when those nationals are being detained and their rights taken away. Of course, this isn’t to endorse gun-boat diplomacy but where do you draw the line? We can see what’s going on in Xinjiang and elsewhere in China. China is funding propaganda in the UK and attacking UK values. What’s happening in Hong Kong isn’t just about Hong Kong.”
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