Financial Times published an interesting story about the Hong Kong protests yesterday. It delves into some of the relatively recent history that has shaped the current unrest in the city. The highlight of the piece might be this stunning admission from an anonymous Chinese government official:
“Thank goodness we didn’t give them democracy in 2014, it would be so much harder for us to get out of this mess now if we had,” a Chinese government official tells me over the summer, speaking on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job. “Universal suffrage isn’t going to happen for a very long time, if ever at all,” he adds.
The official is referring to previous protests in 2014 which became known as the Umbrella Movement. At the time, protesters limited themselves to peaceful actions, which made them easy for authorities to handle. One of the protesters who participated in those protests as a college student told FT, “During Umbrella, we didn’t escalate our protests so we failed. It was stupid — we sat, holding hands, waiting for the police to take us away one by one. It’s kind of funny to look back on it now.”
The current protests which began in June have been much more aggressive. Some protesters are vandalizing public property and in some cases even setting fires. That has resulted in a crackdown from the police. Two teenagers have been shot and several Hong Kong policemen have been injured.
The person considered most directly responsible for the change in tone is Edward Leung Tin-Kei (pictured above). Last year, Leung was convicted of rioting in an incident that took place in 2016. He was sentenced to six years. A documentary was made about Leung and while it has played in various venues around the city, no commercial theater will show it. “Executives don’t want to get into trouble. Maybe they aren’t against you or the whole movement in general but they are too scared to do what should be allowed in a normal society,” the filmmaker tells FT. (That sounds sort of familiar.)
Leung has become a touchstone for the protesters. He’s the person who coined the phrase, “Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” That’s the same phrase that got a Hong Kong gamer in trouble with Blizzard Entertainment recently.
For Keith Fong, the union’s president, Leung embodies traditional Chinese virtues such as sacrificing for the greater good. “The sense I get is most people our age support independence but people in their thirties and forties don’t. There are two overwhelming emotions among our generation — helplessness and this sense of ‘if we burn, you burn with us’,” Fong tells me…
At high school, Fong’s history teachers told him about the Tiananmen Square massacre and as troops massed on the mainland border of Hong Kong this summer, it was impossible not to draw parallels between then and now. “All the virtue and history embodied in traditional Chinese culture has been destroyed by the Chinese Communist party,” he says with a shrug. He has been arrested twice, including for possession of offensive weapons in August after he purchased 10 laser pens, popular among protesters who use them to disorient police and deter passers-by from taking photographs that might identify protesters.
They have adopted some of the same tactics—masks, protecting their identities—as Antifa. The difference is the quote above. Antifa members live in far-left enclaves in one of the freest societies on the planet. They have lots of other options to advocate for change. That’s not the case in Hong Kong where communist tyranny looms over the lives and futures of young people who wonder how long “one country, two systems” can survive.