The escalating governance crisis has turned into an existential threat for Hong Kongers. The months-long protests against a proposed extradition bill reflect a fundamental clash between governmental desire for autocratic control and greater popular demand for openness and transparency.
The rapidity by which the massive waves of protests in many districts of the territory have won so much sympathy and support from around the world is directly due to the proliferation of social media.
Hong Kong, Taiwan, the US and Europe are not just linked by transoceanic cables, but also by bundles of human connections. These social bonds are built on cross-cultural interactions: Hong Kong students who return home after pursuing their education in Taiwan and the West, countless Taiwanese and Western companies operating in Hong Kong, and a wide range of religious, social and cultural ties strengthening friendships across continents.
Furthermore, social media amplifies and advances these longstanding networks, creating an invisible electronic highway for activists to spread news and ideas without being censored by authoritarian officials and state-controlled media.
Hong Kongers belong to a new class of self-mobilizing protesters, including middle-class professionals, ordinary workers, college and high-school students, concerned parents and grandparents, and new mainland Chinese migrants.
Frustrated and radicalized by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s (林鄭月娥) arrogance and incompetence, they feel compelled to voice their opinions in public. In the process, they have transformed social media into an indispensable direct line to each other and the outside world.
Indecisive and feeling insecure, Lam has done nothing to de-escalate the situation. Sensing the government’s insensitivity, the protests have become more dramatic by the day. People of all ages and classes feel that they have nothing left to lose in this struggle.
The weaponization of social media has caught everyone by surprise. The spirit of cosmopolitan openness, encouraged by local government officials in the business sphere, has energized the public, making it hard to reverse course.
Any demonstrators with cellphones or other mobile devices can be global media purveyors, bypassing the official censorship and deciphering the lies from the truth. This unprecedented crisis reveals how remarkable, global and ubiquitous social media has become in politics, accelerating the pace of popular resistance at all levels.
The spread of mass political defiance also indicates that Hong Kong’s existing system is incapable of repairing constitutional flaws. This explains why so much of the initiative for democratic change comes from civil society.
Although Lam gave a green light to the police to harass, detain, assault and prosecute demonstrators, there has been a public outcry about these brutal tactics and civil rights breaches. When Lam dismissed genuine demands for reconciliation and accountability, the fire in the belly of the opposition remained strong.
Despite the increasingly draconian measures to impose the rule of fear and terror, Lam has failed to calm the public mood and end the protests. Pro-democracy parties, civic organizations and churches are even more focused on democratization, building alliances with all professional sectors and reaching out to moderate political and economic elites.
Global media has given much attention to the role played by grassroots mobilization, either from activists utilizing social media platforms or through peaceful demonstrations organized by political parties, student unions and senior citizens. While courageous protesters should be praised for their efforts to put pressure on ruling elites, resistance alone is insufficient to achieve democratic transition.
What Lam faces is a serious governance challenge for any authoritarian ruler who lacks legitimacy through fair and free elections. Trying to resume public spending on pet projects, Lam chose to reward her supporters in the business community and the police force. If she gives in to popular demands, she is bound to look extremely weak in the eyes of Beijing.
What are the prospects for meaningful change in Hong Kong? As the government is intolerant of real freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of speech, civic organizations are constrained in limiting the power of the local state and cannot operate as effective agents of a revolution from below.
Democratization cannot be achieved through grassroots protests alone. Demonstrators have to work with open-minded political and economic leaders to outmaneuver “status quo” politicians. Once some members of the ruling elites find common ground with and feel empowered by protesters, both sides can join forces to support a progressive agenda.
In Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines during the 1980s and 1990s, political transformation took place when demands from civil society merged with internal pressure for change among pro-establishment elites.
Democracy has yet to take root in the territory. A lack of critical thinking among commanding officers of the local police shows how easy it is for power-obsessed leaders, such as Lam, to subvert human rights in the name of security and stability.
Hong Kong is confronted with a multitude of governing problems, such as cronyism, corruption, fragile political institutions and an economic slowdown. If it survives this constitutional crisis, the evolving institutional mechanisms will build on the strengths of civil society to stand up to political scandals from within.
In a nutshell, the latest protests highlight unresolvable flaws in the dictatorial order. By comparison, democratic exercise may not be perfect, but it allows citizens to vote out incumbent rulers, rather than overthrowing the entire regime in a revolution and starting from scratch.
Fearing that their welfare has taken a turn for the worse, Hong Kongers are fighting for a seat at the decisionmaking table and seeking a proper mechanism for holding leaders accountable.
This is what they are demanding in the face of adversity.
Joseph Tse-Hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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