The world watches as protests continue to unfold in Hong Kong, disrupting a territory that will not succumb easily to rule by one of the world’s most authoritarian nations. The protests in Hong Kong that began in March 2019 were originally a means to object to an extradition bill that would place residents of and visitors to Hong Kong under mainland Chinese jurisdiction. Where anyone is fighting for their right to proper due process in criminal proceedings and a right to democratic self-governance, the west should stand up and support them.
The protestors have undertaken this fight for democratic rights with ingenuity, steadfastness, and a determination to stand their ground. Some protestors raised the flags of the Union Jack and Stars & Stripes to catch the attention of the west, to piss off China, and to signal solidarity with democratic ideology. The imagination of the west has been captured by the Hong Kong protestors, and calls have gone out from the press for the US to support their efforts.
Hong Kong has had a long history of something like independence from mainland Chinese rule. The territory is classified as a Special Administrative Region, and since the handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China in 1997, they have had their own judiciary and legal system. Allowing suspects to be extradited to mainland China for trial would destroy that limited autonomy. British colonialism instilled traditions of democracy that cannot be so easily wiped clean.
The movement has leaders in Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who were recently arrested for protest actions from June. While the two are high profile representatives of the protests, the demonstrators have organized online and can marshal and be effective even without a centralized leader. It is the ultimate democratic protest for democracy.
Peaceful protests have been met with violence, as with the demonstration in June blocking off access to the Legislative Council Building. Law enforcement met this action with tear gas and rubber bullets, and it was called a riot by the authorities.
Protestors in Hong Kong are fighting for their democratic rights in the most ingenious ways possible. With creativity and imagination, they have faced off against facial recognition technology with laser beams, and shielded themselves with umbrellas.
Facial recognition is distinctly an authoritarian tool. In the hands of government and law enforcement, it captures faces and tracks them to databases. Once a face is recognized, it is impossible for a person to escape identification or tracking. This is why some cities in the US have banned the software, but it is still present in many forms. Homeowners install it in their own properties using Amazon’s Ring home surveillance tech, police forces use it, and some housing developments that do not receive government funding employ this tech as well.
It seems absurd that what is being distinctly fought against by protestors in the name of freedom is being willingly embraced by individuals in the west who prefer convenience over liberty.
The protestors in Hong Kong are right to take any means necessary to disrupt the nefarious capturing of their images. The only way it could possibly be used would be to hurt them and their cause. As the tech gets better, it will be harder and harder to obstruct. But it’s not the only tool of law enforcement that the Hong Kong protestors are making moot.
Wearing a gas mask, a protestor sticks a tear gas bomb into a container of mud, shakes it up, and solidifies the gas. If protestors can disarm bombs with mud, authoritarians don’t stand a chance.
Local Hong Kong artists are creating work to show what’s happening in their city, to raise awareness and express the emotional reality of the situation. Students have marched in solidarity, as have Tibetans, who know something about being annexed by China.
Finally heeding the protestors original demand, Carrie Lam, who serves as the 4th Chief Executive Officer of Hong Kong and has since 2017, took a stand to say that she would withdraw the extradition bill. She said: “The government will fully withdraw the bill, in order to allay public concerns.” But given the summer of intense clashes between law enforcement and protestors, and her previous unwillingness to heed their call for withdrawal earlier, the protestors’ demands have grown. Lam’s willingness to acquiesce to the original request has been called “too little too late.”
Demonstrators are now additionally requesting that protestors not be classified as rioters, as the latter designation comes with a decade of incarceration if convicted. Independent investigations of police brutality are also under demand, as well as for the charges against protestors to be dropped. But the biggest demand, and the one that should make the west stand up, pay attention, and lend support, is the insistence on democratic elections for Hong Kong. The ask is for universal suffrage, where each person gets a vote that directly elects representatives.
Meanwhile, in the US, our youth occupy themselves in orgy domes at desert festivals and worry about the impact of plastic straws on turtles. Americans are fueled by feelings of inadequacy with regard to our privileged place in the world, and the lengths our society has yet to go before we reach perfection. We lose sight of the fact that our freedoms were hard-fought, and that we still have a role to play in securing democratic freedom globally.
We have to take a stand and back democratic protestors who are fighting for due process and their basic rights. It’s all well and good to trade with authoritarians, but we can’t sit on our hands with this. The US shouldn’t enforce democracy, but when people are fighting for it, we have an obligation to help. It’s basically our job. There are ways to do this that don’t involve military intervention, many of which have been laid out by Helen Raleigh in The Federalist.
What they are fighting for here are basic rights of self-determination. They are trying to secure freedom from authoritarian rule with ingenious and inventive strategies, non-violent protest, and a refusal to back down. The west must stand strong with them.