By Daniel Healy
Hong Kong’s summer of discontent is continuing into its 18th consecutive week of pro-democracy demonstrations, aimed at what many view as Beijing’s tightening hold over the former colonial territory. The demonstrations originally erupted due to discontent over the Hong Kong SAR Government’s drafting of an Extradition Bill which, in the eyes of the protestors, gave the Central Government in Beijing legal precedence to extradite dissenters to the Mainland. Although technically a “special administrative region” of the People’s Republic of China, Hong Kong continues to enjoy political and economic autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy, ensured by the British government in negotiations leading up to the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong back to the Chinese. Since 1997, however, tensions have on multiple occasions erupted into mass demonstration and street violence, often in defiance of what many Hong Kongers view as increasing Chinese encroachment into the territory. A controversial national security law proposed in 2003 resulted in a 500,000 person strong march across the city. Refusal to permit true universal suffrage in the 2014 Chief Executive Elections resulted in the months-long Umbrella Revolution. And just this summer, the drafting of the now-withdrawn extradition bill once again ignited the flames of discontent with both the regional SAR Government and the Central Government in Beijing.
With Oct. 1 marking China’s National Day Celebrations, chaos once again unfolded on the streets of Hong Kong, as masked protestors clad in black shirts, hard construction hats and protective umbrellas faced off against riot police. Expressing their discontent, the protestors hurled bricks, set fire to shopfronts, barricaded roads and painted pro-democracy (and in many cases anti-China) slogans on any surfaces they could. And while it is easy to remain sympathetic to their cause — after all, it is freedom they are fighting for — we must also critically assess the true ramifications of their actions, evaluating whether or not the protestors are truly marching themselves toward freedom or away from it.
One crucial problem underlying the radicalized protestors is misinformation. Much like it plagued the 2016 U.S presidential election and the 2016 Brexit referendum, misinformation is playing a pivotal role in galvanizing Hong Kong’s youth into increasingly violent tactics. Organizers of demonstrations often communicate through encrypted apps like Telegram, which hide their identities, phone numbers and other critical information. Although this prevents police infiltration into protesting groups, apps such as Telegram increasingly serve as breeding grounds for misinformation. Participants sympathetic to the cause create, upload and share images, stories and memes that often have little to no basis in reality, fabricated by the more radical. It is these popular images that are often plastered over the city’s walls and windows. Examples include a recent photo circulating showing a group of men in white t-shirts — for some, a symbol of anti-protest — and helmets in the district of Tsuen Wan, suggesting that these men were preparing for an attack of protestors returning home that night. It was then confirmed that the group of men had attended a safety training session at a construction learning centre. The damage, however, had been done: For the hundreds of thousands of people that viewed the image and passed it on, the image was another example of Mainland involvement in supporting triad groups that violently attacked innocent protestors. Misleading information risks intensifying social polarization and distrust from both sides of the political divide. It is difficult to suggest clear ways to mitigate misinformation. The protests continue to be a largely leaderless movement, thus making it difficult for there to be top-down regulation on protest action and conduct. In addition, those who may be described as protest leaders — often young students in their 20s — are often silenced by the government, arrested for rioting or incitement of violence. Joshua Wong, leader of the 2014 Umbrella Revolution and of Demosisto (the pro-democracy party), for example, was arrested at the end of August along with Agnes Chow, former legislative council candidate of Demosisto. Groups who do hold some semblance of leadership over the protests, however, should do more to publicly denounce misinformation. In the long run, after all, misinformation is harmful to their cause: increased polarization only results in increased violence, which, at the end of the day, risks isolating Hong Kong’s “silent majority”: those who support the cause for democracy, but reject the instability generated by the protests.
The other central problem is the appeal to foreign powers. In addition, some protestors have recently taken up the cause of demonstrating outside of the U.S. consulate, calling on President Donald Trump to intervene in Hong Kong on their behalf. Demonstrators waved U.S. flags, carried signs pleading for help, with some even chanting the U.S. national anthem. This is a dangerous miscalculation. First, the protests must be pragmatic: In the midst of an intensifying trade war, Hong Kong is not Trump’s priority in his negotiations with China. Second, such demonstrations only further the Mainland narrative that the troubles in Hong Kong are not ignited by a true defiance of the Central Government, but are rather a sinister plan concocted by foreign governments with an interest in the weakening of China. Photos of local Hong Kongers waving U.S. or U.K. flags outside of their respective consulates can — and have been — manipulated by Chinese media news sources to suggest precisely such a story. Take, for example, the recent article published in “The China Daily,” which argued that “demonstrators march[ing] to the U.S. consulate, urging Trump to liberate their city” is direct evidence that “outside forces are behind the separatist demonstrations in the SAR.” In doing so, the Mainland public — some of whom could have been useful allies to Hong Kong’s cause — is more easily persuaded by the Central Government to view Hong Kong’s protests not with sympathy, but with distaste.
Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong is inevitable. This is not to say that the Hong Kong public should give up all hopes of democratic reform. It is to say, however, that a serious reconsideration of their tactics is necessary if they truly wish to further — and not sabotage — their own cause.
Contact Daniel Healy at danhealy ‘at’ stanford.edu.