One of the biggest protests for democratization in the 21st century has been led by the people of Hong Kong since June of this year. What started as peaceful demonstrations against an unfair extradition bill has since become a much wider protest demanding fair representation and full democratic rights for the people of Hong Kong.
On April 3rd, the Hong Kong government released a plan to potentially extradite criminal suspects to China. The people saw this as a means to silence dissidents and as a result, one million people marched on government headquarters on June 9th. This rally was largely peaceful but was met by brute force where the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at the protestors. In response to the upheaval, Hong Kong leader, Carrie Lam issued a delay of the extradition bill on June 15th. However, the people were dissatisfied and approximately two million people took to the streets on June 16th demanding Lam’s resignation. On July 1st, protestors stormed the Legislative Council building and drew a graffiti of the colonial-era flag, defacing the Hong Kong emblem. As mass protests continued, Lam urged the protestors to retreat declared the bill ‘dead’ on July 9th, while in reality, she refrained from fully withdrawing the bill. As a result, protestors defaced China’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong and mobs of men attacked commuters in Yuen Long underground station on July 21st. On August 2nd even civil servants joined the demonstrations and it becomes clear that the protest was no longer just about the bill. Some protestors said it was about ‘the erosion of the special freedoms of Hong Kong.’ All through August city-wide protests are being held of what is now the 9th consecutive week of protesting. To combat these protests, police storm the demonstrations and fire tear gas and water cannon, injuring many protestors. Flights are canceled and the clash between the police and protestors is seen as “behavior that is close to terrorism”. On September 4th, Lam announces the withdrawal of the bill, however, the protests are now about gaining universal suffrage and more democratic elections in Hong Kong.
As the protests continued, the people of Hong Kong gained international coverage of their fight for democracy. They gained significant empathy and support from people around the world through social media who thought of the police force as ‘brutal’ and ‘unfair’. The West and especially the United States has had friendly relations with China over the past few years. The economic relationship that the US shares with China prevented the US from acknowledging the prevalent human rights violations in Hong Kong. On November 22nd, President Donald Trump released a statement saying, “President Xi Jinping of China is a friend of mine.” This goes to show that the transition to democracy for any country is a difficult one. China’s regime needs adequate pressure from internal as well as external forces in order to take the threats seriously. China has strong Western linkage due to trade and is a resource for Western countries such as the US to gain cheap labor. This results in the US having weaker leverage over China, making China a black knight. It is beneficial for the West if China does not democratize as it will keep the cost of labor and goods low through strong authoritarian powers, allowing other countries to gain economically. The case of Hong Kong also proves that China has extremely strong organizational powers, making it very difficult for people to enact real change.
However, on November 27th, President Trump signed tough legislation that authorized sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong. He also signed a bill that bans the sale of crowd-control munitions like tear gas and rubber bullets to Hong Kong police. This change in Trump’s perspective can be credited to the bill passing through the House and the Senate by veto-proof majorities. This bill was strong support for pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong while it also escalated tensions between the US and China. China’s foreign ministry’s response was, “(the bill) seriously interfered with Hong Kong and Chinese internal affairs while also violating international law and norms of international relations. The ministry warned the US that any consequences to such arbitrary actions would be borne by the United States.” President Jinping demanded that the president reject this measure. The pro-Beijing government in Hong Kong called these measures “unnecessary and unwarranted and harmful for common interests between Hong Kong and the US.” The possible consequences of this bill for the US could be a step in the wrong direction for the US and China bilateral talks, which according to Mr. Trump had reached a ‘historic’ phase last month. On the other hand, the Hong Kong government is trying to restore legitimacy by holding elections, in which 87% of seats were won by anti-government candidates. Ronny Tong, a member of Lam’s cabinet says that these elections prove that ‘democracy is alive and well.” However, these elections are seen as a ploy by the government to put up a front in the face of an international backlash.
Today, the question still remains, in the face of such wide-scale protests and the obvious demand for democratization, is economic gain still a more important criterion than peace? Many critiques look at Trump’s decision to sign the bill as a method of displaying superiority than a means of supporting the transition to democracy that a powerful Western country has the power to do. The case of Hong Kong clearly portrays the importance of Western linkage and leverage in the development and sustenance of a democratic regime.
Cochrane, Emily. “Trump Signs Hong Kong Democracy Legislation That Has Angered China.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Nov. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/27/us/politics/trump-hong-kong.html.
“Hong Kong: Timeline of Extradition Protests.” BBC News, BBC, 4 Sept. 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-49340717.