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For 12 weeks the streets of Hong Kong have been clogged with tens of thousands of people protesting the Chinese Communist Party and demanding democratic reforms to their local government. The protests have regularly swelled into the hundreds of thousands for weeks at a time, and even into the millions for whole weekends, with relatively little response from the authorities. The Chinese government calls them riots and has referred to the protesters as domestic terrorists but, for a police force and military possibly best known for violently handling the Tiananmen Square protests 30 years ago, the CCP has been noticeably cautious in Hong Kong.
The incidents of verified police violence are comparatively rare in a sustained mass demonstration of hundreds of thousands. President Xi Jinping is probably well-aware that the Hong Kong protests, while given predominantly positive coverage in (western) media, are actually boosting China’s position in the world. As long as the CCP keeps their relatively gentle approach they will emerge from these protests stronger and with a weaker Hong Kong to deal with.
What are the protests about?
In 2018 a Hong Kong man in Taiwan was accused of brutally killing his girlfriend, also a Hong Kong resident, and fled back home to safety as Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with Taiwan. Although it has its own government, Hong Kong is technically a part of China and the CCP doesn’t recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation. In response the Hong Kong government proposed an extradition bill in February of this year that would enable the government to handle extradition of criminals on a case by case by basis, without the need for formal treaties, including to mainland China. This bill is what caused the protests.
China’s judicial system has been the subject of international criticism for decades and many Hong Kongers are worried that Hong Kong’s independent judicial system will be completely taken over by the mainland. These concerns are not unfounded. Hong Kong does belong to China, and China’s legal system is not fair, open, accountable, or easily changed. China and Hong Kong do ostensibly operate under the “One Country, Two Systems” model but only until 2047, at the latest.
When Great Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, it was under the express agreement that the former colony would be independent of the CCP for 50 years. While China may be keeping to the letter of that agreement, there are many that would argue the CCP routinely violates the spirit of it. The CCP has made train travel between China and Hong Kong more difficult, has been cracking down on free expression to that point that they are accused of kidnapping bookstore owners critical of the CCP, and is widely seen as a corrupting influence in Hong Kong’s legal and political systems. That 2047 seems to be moving faster than it “should” be seems obvious to the protesters.
The protesters seem to be largely leaderless and there are plainly many different factions on the streets with different, occasionally contradictory, goals in mind. Over the course of the last three months five key demands have emerged, with an apparently great degree of consensus: the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which happened September 4, but has done and will do nothing to ease the protests), the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, an official inquiry into police brutality, the release and clemency of arrested protesters, and universal and permanent universal suffrage.
How are the protests making China stronger?
They’re making the CCP look patient and reasonable.
It’s easy to criticize the CCP. They censor their citizens, control the media ruthlessly (by compelling journalists to be Party members for instance), are the literal definition of an unelected elite, kidnap people from foreign soil, run concentration camps (reeducation camps according to the CCP), use the death penalty with abandon, and much more. China is easily described as corrupt and authoritarian.
However, credit where it is due, Beijing has been amazingly patient with the Hong Kong protesters. After watching how the French treated the yellow vests and Americans treated everyone from Kent State anti-war protesters to police brutality protesters in Baltimore, can any westerners really say with a straight face that their government wouldn’t have already cleared the streets by any means necessary? Is it likely that American streets wouldn’t be graced by military vehicles at this point? If tens of thousands of people were jamming the streets of NYC or DC for months on end? If the evening news were filled with protesters waving foreign flags, bloodied police officers, anti-government graffiti, and vandalized government offices, would the American public be sympathetic? China is not using a heavy hand , even the most sinophobic observer should admit this.
Yes, the CCP knows the eyes of the world are upon them. No, they’re not staying their hand out of some sort of concern for the protesters. It is the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square event and Beijing knows that the symbolism of that anniversary is powerful. October is the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China. Xi Jinping is behaving with admirable restraint and, in the current battle of western democracy vs eastern technocracy, this is a valuable propaganda victory. To many onlookers, the west looks awash in irrational populism, chaotic and malfunctioning; China’s so-far tepid reaction to Hong Kong’s populist revolution is proving the durability and humanity and efficiency of central government control in the face of churlish opposition.
They’re discrediting the freedom movement.
Churlish opposition is increasingly the viewpoint that the mainland Chinese and non-western observers have of the protesters. While still largely peaceful, the violence is intensifying, and some blocs of protesters are increasingly turning to distasteful and dangerous tactics. The five demands themselves are unrealistic and unreasonable to a great many people, even in the west, and what is the government supposed to do in the face of unreasonable and violent protesters? The Hong Kong protesters are risking discrediting their freedom movement as well as democratic reform generally.
Some 1,614 Hong Kong police officers and their families were doxxed by the protesters or their sympathizers. Mainland Chinese reporters have been assaulted. Thousands of travelers have been harassed at the airport. The protesters all wear masks and use slogans such as “All Cops Are Bastards.” This is not how a movement gains credibility, this is how movements die. The CCP has credibility with the Chinese people because they have successfully delivered prosperity and peace to a formerly starving and chaotic society; law, order, and jobs, this is what the CCP can legitimately claim credit for and the mainland Chinese are seeing the Hong Kong protesters as, at worst, endangering this accomplishment, at best, being violently ungrateful.
Mainland Chinese opinion can be difficult to gauge sometimes as independent polling is illegal there but recent research suggests that they are markedly more hawkish these days, especially young and online Chinese citizens. What polls are available for the mainland point to a predominantly negative view of the Hong Kong protesters and impatience with the CCP for not ending it yet. That this summer’s demonstrations started because of a brutal murder makes the image even worse in the eyes of the mainland. If democratic reforms ever come to China, they will likely not come by way of Hong Kong’s example.
They’re giving the CCP troves of data. There is a very good reason the protesters are wearing masks, concealing their faces is the only way to actually protest without giving the CCP their identity. China is not only one of the most surveilled societies on Earth, they also have the most complex and integrated domestic intelligence capabilities of any nation. From kidnapping booksellers, to arresting artists, to setting up a truly Orwellian ‘social credit’ system, to establishing a de facto police state in Xinjiang (a rural, mostly Muslim province the size of Alaska with a very recent history of extremely violent separatism), the CCP uses their domestic spying apparatus with prodigious efficacy.
In spite of their attempts at anonymizing themselves, the CCP is scooping up information on the protesters, their families, and their methods and mediums of communication. They’re infiltrating the protesters, monitoring their communications, spying on their foreign donors and allies, and arresting their mainland sympathizers. The longer the protests last, the more information the CCP will get, the more arrests there will be, and the more damage will be done to Hong Kong’s and China’s freedom movement.
They’re also using the protests and all the data they’re collecting to perfect their repressive state. All the data they’re collecting, the informants they’re gathering, the drones they’re flying, the networks and forums and platforms they’re infiltrating, all these will be used to hone the next generation of domestic surveillance and social control techniques. There are many reliable reports that the Hong Kong police have been disguising themselves as protesters to discredit the movement. The CCP waged an online propaganda campaign against the protests to such an extent that Facebook and Twitter deleted thousands of CCP-backed fake accounts from those platforms.
The protests are damaging Hong Kong’s economy and international reputation. The longer the protest go on, the more it will negatively impact Hong Kong’s economy while simultaneously boosting China’s. Shenzen, after nipping at Hong Kong’s heels for nearly a decade, overtook Hong Kong’s economy last year. The pace has been picking up and the protests are just hastening Hong Kong’s decline as a regional leader in finance and tech.
Hong Kong is no longer the wunderkind of South Asia. She has competition in tech from places like Shenzen in China, Singapore, and Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. When thousands of people blockade the international airport in Hong Kong, it is easy to understand why CEOs, investors, banks, and tech startups will look for someplace else to work and access the China market. When Youtube and Twitter are filled with videos of protesters harassing and outright attacking random Chinese citizens, when videos show the airport protesters mocking irate western and non-Chinese travelers and blocking them from getting to their gates, it is only logical that Hong Kong’s tourism industry will suffer.
China gains from all of this. The CCP looks like the adult in the room. This is good for business, good for foreign investment, good for international tourism, and good for their long-term plans. As countries around the world weigh the options of working with China, like with their expansive and ambitious One Belt One Road project, they want to know that China is not the authoritarian society many people around the world think she is. China looks responsible. The protesters are looking more and more like rioters.
The facts are that Hong Kong was never a democratic place. The majority of their democratic reforms only happened in the years immediately preceding their handover from the British. For well over 150 years, Hong Kongers had no vote. In 1992 a semblance of universal suffrage was instituted for elections of Hong Kong’s legislative assembly, a mere five years before handover. The protesters are demanding something they never had and that China will never give them. Whatever brutal beatings doled out by the police, however illegal the police tactics, the protests are becoming increasingly dominated by the violent wings of the movement. And those are the only images shown on Chinese state-run media. This is killing the Chinese freedom movement. Mainlanders seen to be supporting the protest are in the minority and are reporting being harassed at work, on the streets, and online – with many getting doxxed by people they considered friends. Hong Kong isn’t the economic standout anymore, these protests are damaging her position in the world and especially in China, all while China reaps the benefits of investments and tourists voluntarily keeping away from Hong Kong. The CCP is collecting reams of data and experimenting with new social controls.
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter at all if the rest of the five demands are acceded to; the people of Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and all over China can expect to be living under a government with even more information on them, new abilities to collect and act on information about them, improved methods of restricting the flow of information, and even less willingness to allow any democracy movement to interfere with the plans of the Chinese Communist Party. The Great Firewall will be strengthened, VPN use will be even more difficult, and penalties will be harsher. China is playing it smart and will emerge with much more control over their citizens while Hong Kongers will have even less control over their lives.
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