Hong Kong, China, and the Meaning of Democracy

In the past four months, the protests in Hong Kong have been reported on the news all across world. The declining “Financial Center of Asia” has been blemished by violence and chaos. Caused by the controversial Extradition Bill with concerns that it would further deteriorate the autonomy and the self-governance of Hong Kong (HK), a quarter of the population took to the streets and protested. The protesters were still not satisfied after the withdrawal of the bill and asked the HK government to fulfill the so called “five demands,” which were essentially asking the government for the implementation of universal suffrage, amnesty for arrested protesters, and an independent probe into the police use of force. The HK pro-democracy protest attracts attention from around the world and particularly democracies in the West. The slogan “Stand with Hong Kong! Fight for Freedom” has been widely used by people and politicians who are supportive of the HK protesters and consider the protest to be a democratic movement. Almost everyone in the West, ranging from college newspaper editors to the general manager of the Houston Rockets, has been posting and pronouncing the slogan “Stand with Hong Kong” as if this is a new global trend in which everyone wants to take part.

It’s not surprising that the West is obsessed with this slogan, because the Hong Kong crisis from their point of view is simple: pro-democracy protests, good; authoritarian China, bad. I bet most of them who chanted/typed vehemently “Stand with HK” online know nothing of the nuances and facets of the crisis itself. There is a clear social cleavage between the younger and older generation in terms of their attitudes towards the HK government and China, a cleavage which has been forming in Hong Kong for decades. Contrasted with older generations, (some of whom fled to Hong Kong when the Communists took over China in 1949, who also enjoyed economic prosperity of HK in the 1970s and 1980s) the younger generation was disillusioned about their future not only because of exorbitant housing prices, social immobility and income disparity, but also due to the fact that the economic power of mainland China has surpassed that of Hong Kong to certain extents. The feeling of despair of young people was also exacerbated by the fact that the Chief Executive of Hong Kong was elected not by the popular vote, but rather by a 400-member “Election Committee” whose members are disproportionately from the business and elite classes. Most of them favor pro-Beijing and business interest in the Legislative Council.

I’m not here trying to defend the HK and the Chinese government in any way. The HK government and its executive, on one hand, are responsible for their failure to directly address these problems by alleviating income disparity and providing more affordable housing for the growing young population. It’s Carrie Lam’s, the current Chief Executive, fault for refusing to withdraw the extradition bill immediately after a quarter of the HK population marched on the street. And, it’s her fault for fooling herself into saying that the majority of HK people support the bill. The Chinese government, on the other hand, used the common tactic of censorship and pivoting public attention and rhetoric by scapegoating U.S. and the Western powers for their “interferences in HK anti-extradition bill marching.” The Chinese government and media also delegitimize protesters by describing them as “young losers.” These tactics only escalate the crisis and hinder the real efforts to address the underlying issues that drive these young people to get on the street in the first place. As someone who is from China and came to study in the U.S., I’m a student of democracy and I believe there is nothing wrong if the people of Hong Kong demand the change of electoral rules for universal suffrage; however, when political issues like universal suffrage in HK cannot be solved in the foreseeable future, the least the HK government can do is to come up with real concrete policies to fix these issues. The Chinese government should keep its promises by keeping its hands off Hong Kong because it backfires every time the Chinese government attempts to meddle with Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The Hong Kong Crisis is far more complex than the simple binary nature of democracy vs. autocracy. Not all protesters are committing vandalism, nor are all police officers “beanbag-gun-wielding” as claimed in a Tripod article from Sept. 10, 2019. A world where people are more inclined to adhere to their own comfort zone has been flooded with sensational headlines. Now more than ever, it is important for college students to reject the tendency towards oversimplification and actually think in a non-binary, and multifaceted manner about international incidents.

The author of this piece expressed to the Tripod that they need to publish anonymously due to fear of retaliation from the Chinese government when they return home for winter break.