“It’s now or never.” This quote is constantly used by the supporters of the continuous pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which are about to enter the sixth month since the marches of millions of people in June. It has been the greatest political struggle ever in Hong Kong since the handover from Britain to China in 1997.
Manifesting Unity Using Ballots
The split within the pro-democracy camp and the rise of localism especially since the Umbrella Movement in 2014 have largely undermined the unity of the supporters of democracy. Nonetheless, the recent protests have successfully gathered the democrats and the localists to join forces despite the ideological differences.
The District Council election last Sunday, 24 November, marked a historical moment in Hong Kong, with an unprecedented turnout rate of 71.23%, which was equivalent to nearly 3 million voters, when the usual turnout rate in District Council elections is under 50%.
“The recent protests have turned the District Council election into a referendum,” said Jimmy Sham, the convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front and the victim of an attack about 6 weeks before the election. Many prominent pro-Beijing leaders were defeated and the number of democrats outnumbers that of the pro-government candidates in the District Council for the first time in history.
“We Hongkongers are telling the regime and the world that we are not giving up, no matter how hard you suppress us,” said T, a volunteer for a pro-democracy candidate on the election day.
The Unstoppable Fire Ignited
The election has been the most cheerful victory in this months-long movement. Yet the protests on streets go on. The government’s indifference to her people’s voices and the crackdown on the protests with the help of the heavy hand of the police force are making things more intense with time.
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Universities have been turned into battlefields in the past weeks, with over a thousand of tear gas canisters shot inside the Chinese University of Hong Kong within a day and the armoured vehicle moving towards students and protesters in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU). These scenes are reminiscent of the massacre at the Tiananman Square in Beijing in 1989. It was lucky enough that it did not happen in Hong Kong after 30 years.
The once famously known “peaceful” demonstrations in Hong Kong have slowly evaporated. Molotov cocktails, which are called as “fire magic” by the protesters, are now commonly used. Some critics say the protests are turning violent and radical. Yet supporters of the protests regard them as the tools to defend themselves.
“Every time, the escalation of force used by the protesters are indeed the results of the power imbalance and structural injustice,” said M, a young frontline protester. Having seen the police brutality and the lack of an effective monitoring and reporting mechanism on police’s power abuse, adding that the judiciary system has been exploited by the government as a tool of political prosecution, he no longer believes the current system could bring justice.
“Why are people not criticizing the authoritarian government that abuses power, but come to point a finger at the powerless citizens who are just struggling for their survival?” said H, a supporter of the protests.
Besides the fire burning on the streets as roadblock and the Molotov cocktails thrown out to the police, protesters have also been vandalizing the metro stations as the MTR Corporation refused to disclose the CCTV clips taken on the night of 31st August, when civilians were allegedly attacked by the police indiscriminately inside the Prince Edward metro station. Shops that are run by pro-government businessmen or Chinese enterprises were also targets of vandalism.
Is Dialogue Still an Option?
As China has been blatantly intervening into Hong Kong’s local affairs, the city’s autonomy is rapidly eroding. Many people see this fight as the last chance to turn the tide. The protests have snowballed from opposing the bill that would lead to people being extradited to China to becoming a battle for justice, freedom and democracy, with goals such as establishing an independent investigation committee to look into the police conduct in the protests and a true universal suffrage.
While the protesters are shouting “five demands, not one less” and insisted not to retreat unless their demands are all met, the government has sternly refused to back down, apart from the withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill but only after over 3 months of protests.
“This is too little, too late. The die is cast,” commented Claudia Mo, the convenor of the pro-democracy camp. Up to mid-November, over 5,000 people have been arrested in these months-long protests. Protesters and journalists have been injured, with some of them lost their eyes or got shot in their chest. There have been people mentally broken down and committing suicide during this political struggle.
Supporters of the protests have been sharing a quote of a Ukrainian from the documentary “Winter on Fire” – “If we accepted those terms from the government, our friends that we have lost would not forgive us”. The determination of the people is only growing stronger with time, after all the things they have gone through.
In September, the government attempted to calm the public down by holding a “community dialogue”, in which the Chief Executive Carrie Lam was heavily criticized for failing in addressing citizen’s concerns. No more public consultation was organized since then.
What Have the Leaders Done?
Pro-democracy political leaders have been speaking out in support of the pursuit of the 5 demands and putting pressure on the government. Many of them publicly participated in peaceful protests. Some also showed up in conflicted protest areas to monitor and urge the police not to abuse their power. Nok-hin Au, Jeremy Tam and Ted Hui, the lawmakers of the pro-democracy camp, were accused of “obstructing police” in the protests and arrested few months ago.
In the siege of the PolyU by the police last week, thousands of people were trapped inside the campus which was heavily contaminated tear gas, and some people have signs of hypothermia after being hit by water cannon but the medics had either been arrested or escorted. Some of prominent political leaders, school principals and religious leaders stepped in to try to negotiate with the police and accompany people who was trapped inside to leave.
However, the crisis has still not been resolved yet. Newly elected District Councillors gathered near PolyU a day after the election to support the remaining protesters inside and demand the authorities to end the siege.
Other famous political activists including Joshua Wong, who was the most well-known student leader in the Umbrella Movement, have been asserting their influence internationally to raise people’s concern on the situation in Hong Kong and negotiating with foreign communities to take actions to support Hong Kong, for instance, the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the Congress of the United States.
The Senate unanimously passed the legislation last week to protect the rights and freedoms in this semi-autonomous city last week, but the Chinese authority bashed the United States immediately by accusing her of aiming to “muddle or even destroy Hong Kong”.
The Power of International Solidarity
In the past months, the international communities have watching closely. Rallies in support of the movement in Hong Kong have been held in different cities across the globe. Senators from the United States, including Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, also visited Hong Kong for the protests.
During the visit, Cruz wore black to show his support for the black-clad protestors, saying “I stand with the people of Hong Kong”, while Hawley pointed out that the “One Country, Two Systems” model in Hong Kong is at risk and Hong Kong is sliding towards becoming a police state.
Many British members of Parliament have also stepped up to call on the government of the United Kingdom to hold Beijing accountable for the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed in 1984 to safeguard the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong and even grant full citizenship to Hong Kong citizens holding British National (Overseas) passports.
International human rights groups have also spoken out for Hong Kong. Amnesty International has published reports on the problems of the heavy-handed policing, the abuse of power and torture in police detention in the Hong Kong protests in the past months. Some have also sent out observers to monitor the police conduct and record cases of police brutality. Pro-bono lawyers have been assisting arrested protesters and providing legal advice.
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The international solidarity has made Hong Kong’s political struggle a visible issue and added up pressure to the Hong Kong and Chinese governments. The degree of international attention has also reflected the escalating ideological fight between democracy and authoritarianism. Hong Kong has inevitably become one of the most significant battlefields in the fight between the two powers – the United States and China.
Perseverance and Hope
In this fight against the tyranny, Hongkongers are facing the biggest authoritarian regime in this era. However, as you stare long into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you. Every step has to be taken vigilantly to prevent people from falling. Yet, the protests have reached the point of no return and the decentralized nature of this movement has made things even more unpredictable.
Hong Kong is now standing at the global front in resisting the spread of authoritarianism from China. Are the protests heading to a brighter future or dragging Hong Kong into the darkest shadow? The answer remains unknown, but when facing the uncertain future, Hongkongers often use this quote – “We persevere not because we see hope, but we see hope only when we persevere.”
By Suzanne Wong