The following is an extract from Red Flag contributing editor Ben Hillier’s new book, Dispatches from Hong Kong. It will be released by Spark publishing next month.
For the third time since the handover of Hong Kong from British colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty, the territory exploded in protest in 2019. More than one million people took to the streets in a 9 June mobilisation called by the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of pro-democracy groups, in the biggest demonstration since 1997. Three days later, tens of thousands of masked protesters surrounded Hong Kong Island’s Central Government Complex to prevent lawmakers convening.
Police cleared crowds with tear gas, rubber bullets, beanbag rounds and truncheons. But protesters regrouped constantly. Residents blocked roads with cars, young people dug paving bricks from footpaths, and everywhere umbrellas blossomed. The mobilisation started early in the morning and lasted well into the evening, protesters chanting, “Add oil, Hong Kong!” – an encouragement to persist. By mid-afternoon, Central and Admiralty districts were chaos. Police commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung declared the clashes a riot sometime after 4pm. “Such a declaration … could have serious implications for anyone arrested”, the South China Morning Post reported. “Rioting is punishable by up to ten years in prison. ‘It's a riot now’, Lo says. ‘We urge people not to do anything they will regret for the rest of their lives.’”
Regrets were far from participants’ minds. One of the most explosive rebellions of the twenty-first century was just beginning. Over the next six months, an astonishing 750 protests took place with a cumulative attendance of 13 million people – on average, about four mobilisations per day of 17,000 people in a city of seven and a half million. By the end of November, the official record noted 19 live rounds fired by police, plus 15,000 teargas rounds (more than 80 per day), and 12,000 rubber bullets and bean bag rounds (70 per day). More than 6,000 people were arrested, and the number has since grown to more than 8,000. Fifty-one percent of them were between the ages of 18 and 25; 15 percent were minors.
“The experience – and spectacle – of tear gas came to define life in Hong Kong in 2019, whether fighting it at the frontlines, choking on it or dodging it while engaged in lawful protest, planning one’s journeys and schedules to avoid it, watching images of it billowing on television screens, or just talking about it”, Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based author and lawyer, writes in his recent book City on fire. “Children in Hong Kong playgrounds played ‘police and protesters’, and talked about tear gas as casually as children elsewhere might talk about sports or computer games. After the protests of 2019, Hong Kongers have a new saying, and a new aspect to their identity: ‘You’re not a real Hong Konger if you haven’t tasted tear gas’.” Behind the scenes, it wasn’t a game of course. People in the movement talked about post-traumatic stress among student activists: depression, self-harm, anxiety, listlessness. They spoke of families ripped apart by the political polarisation, of unexplained or suspicious “disappearances” believed to be police or triad murders, and unreported police violence and sexual assaults.
The protesters seemingly could not be beaten into submission, however. They damaged or destroyed more than 700 sets of traffic lights. They smashed and burned hundreds of ATMs and dozens of bank branches. Across the city, students dug up pavements and used the bricks as projectiles. Footpath fencing was stripped of tonnes of metal bars, and construction sites were constantly raided for materials to build barricades. While the black-clad and masked young militants in the relentless street clashes numbered only thousands or tens of thousands, a mass movement stood behind them, providing food, shelter, transportation, counselling and weaponry – baseball bats, golf clubs, petrol and alcohol for bombs and thousands of umbrellas to defend them against water cannons and shield them from prying police and media cameras.
The situation peaked in November. One small incident seemed indicative of the city’s mood, for this observer at least. The late-night sight of a small group of Molotov-wielding frontliners (protesters who engage in direct confrontations with police) who, having doubled back along a side street parallel to Nathan Road in Mong Kok, peered around a corner, looking for an opportunity to unload and incinerate the rear-guard of riot cops who had stormed the protest, smashing barricades, firing rubber bullets and unleashing volley after volley of tear gas. It was balmy and some older locals were still going about their business and late shopping. A few people peered out of windows. From the three other corners of the intersection and a flyover walkway, maybe a dozen bystanders watched, not one appearing the slightest bit pensive. Everyone was statue-like with all eyes on the kids with the petrol bombs.
The police at Nathan were far too guarded and the frontliners too far back. After a few minutes, it was clear that there would be no surprise attack. The would-be assailants retreated and rejoined the main demonstration. I was left temporarily stunned, though I can’t remember if by elation or if it was the wretched tear gas hanging in the air. Perhaps the moment just took time to process. But one thing stuck in my head: the kids were seriously looking for an opening, and not one onlooker said a word, tried to talk them down or create a commotion to warn the officers. If it had come down to it, that night, right there, all present – admittedly a small cross-section of society, but a cross-section nonetheless – were ready to watch pigs burn. This uprising was real.
To outsiders, Hong Kong’s explosive movement could be both absorbing and a little perplexing. A pumping heart of global finance and trade, the territory ranks fourth on the United Nations Human Development Index, has the tenth highest GDP per capita in the world (adjusted for purchasing power parity), the fourth lowest homelessness rate, a youth unemployment rate of around 6 percent and general unemployment of only 3 to 4 percent for a decade (and above 6 percent only twice in 40 years). The government runs a positive budget balance, there is little public debt and nearly half of the population lives in public housing, the stock of which continues to expand, bucking the trend for pretty much every other developed economy.
Yet, like every society, Hong Kong has its social and economic problems. Hong Kong University tracking polls show that, by the time of the uprising, about 50 percent of the population was dissatisfied with the government’s performance in improving livelihoods, and one-third was dissatisfied with its performance in maintaining economic prosperity. In the past decade, incomes stagnated while dwelling prices more than tripled. Rents increased 25 percent in the last six years. Subsidised public rental housing in effect halves the region’s poverty rate. But even after accounting for that, it is one in ten, according to the census. And more than a quarter of a million are on the waiting list for public housing.
In the imagination of the Chinese Communist Party and its loyalists in Hong Kong, the rebellion could be explained primarily with reference to such economic concerns, rather than political grievances. “Economic development is the only golden key to resolving all sorts of problems facing Hong Kong today”, president Xi Jinping reportedly remarked in September, according to an essay in Foreign Affairs. Around the same time, China’s state newspaper, the People’s Daily, criticised property developers in the territory and urged them to release land for public projects “instead of just playing their own calculations, smashing the land, earning the last copper plate”.
There’s nothing exceptional about Hong Kong’s economic and social problems, though. Every capitalist society is based on an unequal distribution of resources, the top 1 percent of the population controlling more than the bottom 20 percent or more. More notable is that Hong Kong, unlike other centres of Western finance, emerged relatively unscathed from the 2008-09 global financial crisis. There was no mass austerity, no political radicalisation expressing the underlying hostility to inequality, no Hong Kong equivalent of Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn or Alexis Tsipras. In fact, a unique aspect of Hong Kong politics seems to be that the political class consistently explains away angst among young people with reference to poor economic prospects, while young people themselves say that they are motivated by political concerns.
This was in part illustrated by the 2011 Occupy Central Movement’s failure to replicate the mobilisations that took place in the United States, Spain, Greece and the United Kingdom, among other places. “Rallying against capitalism, socioeconomic injustice and corporate greed, pitching their tents under the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Building in Central, the number of occupiers peaked at around 100 but averaged not more than a few dozen throughout the seven months of its existence”, Ching Kwan Lee, a professor at the University of California, writes in Take back our future: an eventful sociology of the Hong Kong Umbrella Movement. “The objective realities of economic inequality have always been a fact of life in Hong Kong, but they alone rarely fuelled collective mobilisation.”
The phenomenon was fully expressed in the groundbreaking 2014 Umbrella Movement, a seventy-seven-day protest/occupation demanding universal suffrage. One rigid pro-government narrative at the time was that there was no political problem – the demonstrators could be placated by economic development. Yet, as Samson Yuen and Edmund Cheng found when surveying participants, fewer than 5 percent said that they were there to demand better social policies. “Economic matters were the least relevant to why they committed themselves”, they summarised the following year at ChinaFile. The 2019 rebellion was little different.
Beijing argues that geopolitical conspiracy also lies behind the turmoil. “As extreme elements in Hong Kong turn more and more violent, Western forces, especially the United States, have been increasingly open in their involvement”, president Xi said in a speech to party cadre, again in September. “Some extreme anti-China forces in the United States are trying to turn Hong Kong into the battleground for US-Chinese rivalry … They want to turn Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy into de facto independence, with the ultimate objective to contain China's rise and prevent the revival of the great Chinese nation.” The US has made no secret of its hostility to China’s rise, so it would be naïve to think that Washington and its proxies aren’t attempting to encourage and shape the anti-Beijing resistance in Hong Kong. Indeed, a small section of the movement orients to the US and the West, which only reinforces Beijing’s narrative that the city’s conflict is about big power rivalry.
The Chinese Communist Party is not alone in arguing this way. Faced with one of the most explosive student radicalisations in modern history, much of the Western left has been eerily quiet. After returning from the territory in December, I interviewed WikiLeaks editor-in-chief Kristinn Hrafnsson, who asked whether “dark forces” were at work. The gut feeling that something just isn’t right with the Hong Kong rebellion has been widespread among people who naturally are attuned to the crimes and intrigues of US imperialism around the globe. Yet it is equally naïve to take US intrigue as the frame through which developments in Hong Kong must be filtered, as though such a momentous and spontaneous outpouring of rage, sacrifice and solidarity could be engineered by the Central Intelligence Agency and other regime-change institutions. In the history of recent US-backed coups, you’d be hard pressed to find another episode in which the empire relied on school children and university students – armed with bricks, umbrellas and medieval weaponry such as bows and arrows and home-made bamboo catapults – to take on cops armed with AR-15s. Yet those in agreement with the Communist Party’s line are left holding onto this flimsy proposition. Beyond an attack on reason, it’s an insult to the tenacity of the territory’s young people, not to mention the CIA – which is a lot of things, but not so thoroughly inept. More broadly, thinking that so many could be duped, or bribed with a few dollars, into rising so forcefully for a foreign power indicates a deplorable view of the human condition.
History will record that the trigger for the uprising came in February, when the Hong Kong government tabled an extradition bill that, if passed, would have allowed Hong Kong residents to face trial in mainland China. It was this bill’s imminent passing that drew millions into the streets in June, led tens of thousands to lay siege to the Central Government Complex and resulted in the moniker “anti-ELAB protests” (ELAB being the acronym for “extradition law amendment bill”). But the movement, under severe repression, soon morphed into an open fight for democratic rights with five demands at its heart: withdraw the extradition bill; retract commissioner Lo’s characterisation of the 12 June demonstration as a “riot”; release and exonerate arrested protesters; establish an independent commission of inquiry into the police; chief executive Carrie Lam to resign; implement universal suffrage.
The final demand is both the most radical and the most desired. The chief executive, Hong Kong’s equivalent of a president, is selected by a 1,200-member Election Committee and vetted by the Chinese Communist Party – not elected by residents. The Legislative Council, the city’s parliament, cannot introduce bills, only scrutinise those tabled by the executive. Half of its seats are filled by representatives from “functional constituencies”, mostly appointees from industry bodies. So the political decision-making institutions are anti-majoritarian and under the sway of the central government in Beijing. One result of this is a high level of political alienation; popular grievances in the territory, having few outlets, tend to build up and explode in protest.
Despite the extradition bill being formally withdrawn on 23 October, the mobilisations not only continued but became more intense. “The extradition bill exposed that China wants to finish off Hong Kong autonomy once and for all”, Au Loong Yu, author of Hong Kong in revolt: the protest movement and the future of China, said at the time. “Why do you think even all the old people like me are yelling? We are known to be very calm here in Hong Kong. But the fight to defend our autonomy overrides everything.”
The people of Hong Kong had little say over their future when the territory was transferred from British colonialism to Chinese rule in 1997, but the arrangement agreed by London and Beijing, “one country, two systems”, was amenable to most residents (notwithstanding that they didn’t get a say in it). It stipulated that, for a transition period of 50 years, the territory would retain a “high degree of autonomy”, with its own laws, some limited political freedoms absent on the mainland and its own education system, among other things. It also promised universal suffrage – but every time the issue was raised, the Communist Party demurred. As time passed, “one country” was overwhelming “two systems”. Ching Kwan Lee writes of a recolonisation encapsulating three processes: “political disenfranchisement, colonisation of the life world and economic subsumption”. Under the authoritarian rule of president Xi, these processes deepened.
Yet Beijing’s attempts to erase the many lines of distinction between the territory and the mainland not only raised the ire of Honk Kong residents; it also generated a political movement based on their perceived unique identity, an emerging “peripheral nationalism”. In 1997, 47 percent of respondents to Hong Kong University’s tracking polls identified as “proud” citizens of China. By June 2019, before the rebellion fully developed, the figure had dropped to 27 percent. Seventy-one percent said that they did not feel proud. Seventy-six percent identified themselves as Hong Kongers; only 23 percent identified as Chinese. The aversion to direct Chinese rule is acute among young people, born into a city that, according to the Basic Law (the territory’s mini-constitution), will be subsumed under Beijing’s dictatorship no later than 2047. Ninety percent of those aged 18 to 29 said they were not proud to be citizens of China.
This broad shift, and the depth of feeling in the street, are key to understanding contemporary politics in Hong Kong, and why a significant current now talks not simply of autonomy but of self-determination. It is worth quoting from a 2015 essay written by 18-year-old Joshua Wong, one of the leading figures of the previous year’s Umbrella Movement:
“In this post-reform period, while the localists [Hong Kong nationalists, for want of a better phrase] have not gained mainstream support, they have put forward an agenda for self-governance or independence and provided a solution to the democracy movement in Hong Kong. The pan-democrats [the establishment, and generally liberal, pro-democratic forces] ought to understand that a ‘democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’ is futile …
“The fundamental problem is that the demand for reform has no foundation … Many of our friends continue to repeat ‘I want real universal suffrage’ without revising their strategy to avoid endless argument over political reform. It is therefore unsurprising that the number of people on the streets has not swayed those in power. Any movement for democracy is a long-term struggle. Yet many retain the threadbare fixation on gaining seats in Legislative Council or the Election Committee or champion joining hands with civil society as if they have discovered the New World …
“If Beijing had not welched in 2004 and had allowed universal suffrage in 2007 according to the principle of ‘a democratic return to Chinese sovereignty’, perhaps today’s radicals would not be so rapidly proliferating on the internet … The recent burgeoning of localist discourse is largely the result of young people’s reaction to the authoritarian politics of the Chinese Communist Party and their belief that Hong Kong cannot practice self-governance under the rule of China. Thus, Beijing’s noncompliance in 2004 has been the catalyst for the tendencies among young people towards independence and separatism …
“What the democrats have learned in this period of political reform is that facilitating mutual trust with Beijing is an unrequited desire, that implementing universal suffrage according to the existing framework for political reform is a pipe dream, and that the regime’s policy on Hong Kong is changing. ‘One country’ is interpreted as primary to ‘two systems’; a high level of autonomy is equated with Beijing retaining control of governance at all levels; the separation of powers misunderstood as the collusion of powers. This all demonstrates that Hong Kong faces the grave possibility of becoming no different from Shenzhen …
“If we hope to continue along the path of democratic self-governance in Hong Kong and successfully address the ‘second question of the future’ [i.e. the post-2047 arrangement], we must show the will and vision for sustainable self-governance in this age of democratic bankruptcy. Our goal in struggling for self-governance is self-determination, which means that the Hong Kong people have the right to decide Hong Kong’s future, and which also establishes a Hong Kong subjectivity.”
Self-determination does not necessarily mean independence. A survey conducted for Reuters in December 2019 found that only one in five is opposed to “one country, two systems” and that just 17 percent support a total break from Chinese sovereignty. Broadly, the movement is not “anti-China”, although the sentiment exists. It is driven by Beijing’s overreach and compounded by the passage of time bringing totalitarianism ever closer. While localism as an organised current remains somewhat marginal, national or localist consciousness (whatever it may be called) has rapidly grown to be a highly influential political and cultural phenomenon. Self-determination is now a central question in the city – only by grasping this can the struggle in Hong Kong be understood.