When I visited Hong Kong, umbrellas held by huge numbers of protestors – 1.7 million on the 18th of August – blocked the street completely from view. From underneath this slowly moving, black-clad river of people came chants of “Free Hong Kong!” and “ga yau!” (the latter, when translated from Cantonese, meaning “add oil” or “go for it”), swelling in echoes beneath the skyscrapers. “Can you hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables blasted from roadside speakers.
The current round of protests started in early June 2019, an estimated million-strong march in response to a proposed Extradition Bill in April that would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the mainland. Angry at this undermining of their legal freedoms and blatant violation of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ model, Hong Kongers returned to the streets three days later, this time greeted by police using tear gas and rubber bullets to break up their protests. Anything but deterred, 2 million Hong Kongers marched again on the 16th.
“To attend a Hong Kong protest is to be made keenly aware of both the local and international context…”
To attend a Hong Kong protest is to be made keenly aware of both the local and international context. It is an experience that is quintessentially Hong Kong – but there are also parallels with other protests and movements globally. Indeed, the Hong Kong protests are indicative of global political trends that will only intensify in the future. They are not an anomaly but exist on a spectrum in a worldwide clash – one that we must be aware of to better understand our own politics, and to inspire us to collective action. International collaboration is needed to rise to this international challenge.
When Theresa May famously made the comparison between patriotic citizens of somewhere and nefarious globalist “citizens of nowhere”, she was rightly criticised. However, in passing, she touched upon a good point. In the 21st century, identity is being resurrected as an important part of political mobilisation after the more bland neo-liberalism of pre-2008. Across much of the world we can see two broad narratives of identity forming: nationalist, parochial and communal identity based on historical grievance against more internationalist, individualistic and liberal identity. Those who see themselves in the former light think the latter are unpatriotic at best and actively traitors at worst. Thus, we can see why China uses thousands of Twitter accounts to accuse the Hong Kong protestors of rioting and being funded by America – the idea that the movement could be genuinely homegrown is anathema. But we can also see why remainers are labelled “enemies of the people”, why Trump tells Muslim Congresswomen to “go back home” and why Modi decides to reinstate direct control of Kashmir. There is a global effort on the part of some leaders to deny multiplicity of identities: you cannot be a Hong Konger and Chinese, you cannot be Muslim and American, you cannot be European and British.
“There is a global effort on the part of some leaders to deny multiplicity of identities: you cannot be a Hong Konger and Chinese, you cannot be Muslim and American, you cannot be European and British.”
Of course, these clashes of political identity are not exactly the same. Brexit is not Hong Kong and there are different particular motivations as well as vast difference in governmental response. But there are commonalities that we must not overlook; they exist on a spectrum of political methods rather than being qualitatively different. The reactions they provoke are similar. Both campaigns to discredit the identity of opponents in the UK and Hong Kong have been met by large, energetic and progressive value-based movements rather than party-based politics – the issues of identity transcend party allegiance to a large degree. They are more visceral and vital. If the Johnson government continues to ignore the public and pushes ahead with a no-deal Brexit justified through recourse to a certain vision of British identity, this trend will only intensify. Within hours of the decision to prorogue Parliament on the 28th, there was a traffic blocking protest in Westminster. The battle lines visible in Hong Kong between government and protestors could very well take shape here.
For all their strength, courage, determination and righteousness of their cause, the Hong Kong protestors are fundamentally weak in the face of a paranoid government that is very unlikely to back down. Beijing is already incarcerating tens of thousands of Uyghurs in “re-education camps” due to the insistence that they are Chinese above any other identity – they will not make an exception for Hong Kong. Whereas American and British defenders of multiple identities have some recourse against their governments, the people of Hong Kong have only their protests due to an unrepresentative political system that does not have full suffrage. They need – and deserve – external support and help. They are us under different circumstances and fighting a battle that is not completely unique to Hong Kong.