by Brian Hioe
Photo Credit: Reuters
PROTESTS MARKED Chinese National Day in Hong Kong on October 1st earlier this week, with 40,000 taking to the streets in order to demonstrate the worsening condition for human rights and the deterioration of democratic freedoms in Hong Kong. Protests saw some clashes with police and pro-China groups, including the arrest of youth activists from Demosisto after being attacked by pro-China demonstrators. What comes next for Hong Kong, however, remains to be seen.
The movement in Hong Kong calling for greater autonomy or independence has become demoralized in the last year, following Chinese crackdowns including the banning of political candidates from running for office, the invalidation of successful political candidates after several months in office, and most recently, the arrest of youth activists critical of China. The arrest of youth activists critical of China, including demonstrators against land appropriation projects of the Hong Kong government and Joshua Wong of Umbrella Movement fame, is seen as China acting through its intermediary of the Hong Kong government and legal system in order to take youth activists as political prisoners in order to discourage future dissent. And, likewise, as observed in a recent controversy which took place on several university campuses in Hong Kong, restrictions on political freedoms are now such that political posters advocating Hong Kong independence are not allowed to be openly placed on university campuses, with university officials stepping in to remove such posters.
In the meantime, under recently elected Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Lam continues to insist that all is well in Hong Kong. But Hong Kong continues to grow increasingly dystopian as, for example, in the specter of Chinese spheres of legal influence being carved out in Hong Kong which some fear could be used to provide the legal justification for a military invasion of Hong Kong to put down any future movements against Chinese deterioration of freedoms in Hong Kong.
Clashes between Demosisto and pro-China groups also demonstrate that China is likely increasingly utilizing the strategy of mobilizing mobs to carry out violence against political dissidents in a manner which allows for plausible deniability by China and the Hong Kong government because this violence is not carried out through official state channels, such as by the Hong Kong police—this despite that violent acts did occur at the hands of the Hong Kong police in the past, such as the beating of activist Ken Tsang by seven policemen unaware that they were being filmed from a distance during the Umbrella Movement. It had been suspected following what appeared to be coordinated attacks on Joshua Wong and Nathan Law of Demosisto at Taoyuan International Airport in Taiwan and Hong Kong International Airport that China would increasingly adopt this strategy and recent events in both Taiwan and Hong Kong seem to have bourn this out.
In the meantime, large rallies such as the rally to protest Chinese National Day, and the rally over the past summer to commemorate the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre, which drew over 100,000, mark that the will to protest is not broken in Hong Kong. But despite the sharp deterioration of political freedoms in Hong Kong in the three years since the Umbrella Movement, it does not appear as though another protest movement on the scale of the Umbrella Movement could appear anytime soon in Hong Kong.
In part, it is anybody’s guess as to how China would respond to such a movement, as well, seeing as China could in the future decide to respond with overwhelming force rather than allow the Hong Kong government to handle the matter. Furthermore, since the Umbrella Movement, international media is increasingly preoccupied with other matters, rather than paying heed to the continued struggle for democracy in Hong Kong. With an exodus of individuals fearing political persecution from Hong Kong, it also remains to be seen how activists who stay and fight in Hong Kong will adopt to the changed circumstances in Hong Kong in which they increasingly face political violence or the threat of arrest.
And so now may prove a crucial period for Hong Kong activists, in what is needed more than anything else is soul-searching about what the next steps for Hong Kong are. Innovative thinking is necessary, as well as a renewed sense of what the stakes of the struggle are—youth activists and members of civil society groups in Hong Kong are facing down one of the most powerful governments in the world, after all.