Hong Kong’s dream of independence is quickly fading away – but what does independence actually mean to its people?
Two years after its first protest, Hong Kong’s revolutionary ‘Free Hong Kong’ anti-government movement is all but over. Through both the ongoing pandemic and fierce crackdowns in legislature from Beijing, protestors, who used to have demonstrations with more than a million people, now gather in the hundreds and are dispersed quickly and quietly. Media attention and scrutiny from abroad is rare; the violence and brutality observed on both sides now non-existent. Beijing has won emphatically.
Looking back at the movement, its democratic and liberal ideals had clearly resonated well with the values of the Western world. The movement had begun in 2019 as a retaliation against a notorious extradition bill – one that would have allowed the extradition of criminals or fugitives into mainland China, whose legal and judicial system was opaque and ambiguous as to what constituted a fair trial. It would be Beijing, therefore, who would decide who was guilty or not – which would be then able to threaten the values of free speech and political expression seen in Hong Kong. These demonstrations, originally peaceful, quickly descended into mass violence, rioting and vandalism as bill after bill was opposed. Demands by mostly young student demonstrators intensified – ‘the five demands, not one less’ called for universal suffrage and the release of arrested protestors, but was met instead by stricter legislation and the arrest of pro-democracy leaders. Shops were defaced, the legislature building was stormed, death threats were sent out to legislators – while on the other side, the police were accused of excessive force and brutality. This was violence Hong Kong had not experienced in decades.
After the national security law was introduced by Beijing in June 2020 however, the crackdown on demonstrations was enough to prevent any mass gatherings for the foreseeable future. The law made illegal any mention of secession, subversion, independence, terrorism, or anything that threatened the ‘security’ of the nation – visibly made ambiguous so that the law would not interfere with the arrest of any advocates against Beijing. This, many would argue, was the end of the Hong Kong protests.
From an international perspective, the media had framed the protests mostly through the eyes of the protestors and the idea of a fight for democracy and freedom against tyranny. But, like most political issues, things were never simply black and white. In Hong Kong, the movement was especially divisive and controversial. On one hand, the police evidently had instances of excessive force and brutality; but this was rare relative to responses in other countries, and no deaths were recorded either. And while the majority of demonstrators had peaceful intentions, a mob mentality was also prevalent – there were instances were those who sympathized with the police were beaten unconscious or whose shops were broken into. Some innocent mainland Chinese were targeted, and many officers and their families were threatened.
The violence on both sides was also matched with a biased recording of events – international media in western countries would emphasize the untrustworthiness of police offers, while pro-China activists would focus on the brutality and senseless aggression of demonstrators. The movement had been divided – support was wavering, and studies have shown that many have begun to prioritise public safety and economic security over the democratic protests.
Human freedoms and democratic values aside, the idea of Hong Kong independence is also particularly unrealistic. Firstly, the political will of the Chinese Communist Party is too powerful to bow down to demonstrations in Hong Kong and allow any protest demands to be met. Beijing has already explicitly stated that it would not tolerate any threat towards Chinese sovereignty. The security law has already shown how far Beijing is willing to take matters into hand to ensure that Hong Kong returns to authoritarianism by 2047, and shows how futile these demonstrations have become in pressurizing the government. There is little that protestors can do, therefore, to influence the legal return to China, except to ask for external intervention from states such as the UK and US, which has also been unlikely.
In addition to this, an independent Hong Kong would also suffer economically, as it relies greatly on China with regards to its imports and exports. Despite Hong Kong being an international hub for free trade and finance, the city still depends on imports from the mainland for 70-80% of its total freshwater consumption, and around 80-90% of beef, pork and vegetables. Many Chinese firms are also listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange (such as Tencent Holdings), and this is mainly due to the success of the ‘one country, two systems’ framework that has been present since 1997, as well as the plethora of foreign investment originating from China (around 90.5 billion US dollars in 2019). It is debatable therefore, whether Hong Kong would fare better economically. The question is, can Hong Kong afford to be independent?
Three questions can also be raised from the failure of the 2019 Hong Kong protests. Firstly, what will the future of Hong Kong be between now and 2047? As Hong Kong nears the inevitable return to China, will protests escalate as they did before? How would China respond? Will countries from the global North intervene, and offer citizenship to pro-democratic Hongkongers? The future remains unclear, but the idea democracy and independence in Hong Kong still remains idealistic.
Secondly, the Hong Kong protests have shown the power that the media has in manipulating opinions and in framing a story. Many of the news stories from the protests cover the ways in which the ‘other side’ have acted belligerent or cruel. But do the ways in which protestors act change the core values and objectives of the movement itself?
As a side note, what does this imply about the politics behind revolutions and social mobilizations? Do political movements need violence and disruptive behaviour in order to enact real change? Much of the divisiveness seen in the Hong Kong protests was from whether people supported vandalism and street violence or not. This could also be applied to the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020. Does excessive police brutality justify a violent retaliation; an ‘eye for an eye’ attitude?
It’s clear that democracy has and will continue to be at the heart of Hong Kong’s problems. The 2019 protests may have been suppressed for now, but the political disparity and conflict between pro- vs. anti-China activists will be around for the next few decades to come. It seems inevitable that this will continue to intensify after Covid-19 – time will tell what happens when it reaches boiling point.
Written by Cameron Gordon
Cameron Gordon is a columnist at DecipherGrey.
Photograph: Studio Incendo|Flickr.com