Hong Kong’s New Year’s Day pro-democracy march was a vital part of its political calendar. This year, despite official intimidation and threats of police violence, more than 1 million courageous citizens took to the streets, opposing state brutality and demanding democracy.
The colorful protest banners and slogans, as well as the singing of the movement’s anthem, Glory to Hong Kong, constitute the new markers of Hong Kongers’ collective identity. In the afternoon hours, pro-democracy advocates, musicians and spectators quickly transformed Victoria Park into an open and participatory civic space, solidifying their unity and determination to challenge authoritarian rule.
Such resilient resistance not only reflects broad political grievances from a cross-section of society, but also reveals the complicated interactions among pro-democracy advocates, government officials and the public. The escalation of the current governance crisis, the moral appeal of the activists and the disapproval of the public have all posed an existential challenge to the Hong Kong authorities, as neither brutal suppression nor conciliatory negotiation offer an easy way out.
Being the largest new year rally so far, this year promises to be one of grassroots activism and resistance in Hong Kong. For nearly seven months, the Hong Kong government has ignored the legitimate grievances of its citizens, ordering riot police to beat people into submission. As long as the executive branch continues to abuse the judiciary, prosecuting innocents indiscriminately, every inch of the functioning system will continue to fall apart.
Faced with continuing protests from all levels of society, there has been a total absence of crisis management from the top political leadership. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥) shows no concern for the public. New Hong Kong Police Force Commissioner Chris Tang (鄧炳強) shows no respect for law and order. Finance Secretary Paul Chan (陳茂波) is draining the territory’s resources for China’s Belt and Road Initiative without offering anything in return.
They are fueling public fury and fear, creating conditions ripe for anti-government tensions.
Worse still, the unprecedented scale of state violence has turned Hong Kong into a gigantic detention camp where police officers treat civilians as subhumans. Primarily driven by hatred and greed, the officers prefer chaos to stability and violence to mediation, in order to secure additional funding from the Lam regime.
Even when people were out to celebrate peacefully on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Year’s Day, the police fired tear gas into the crowds and made unlawful arrests. This was a bad omen to begin the holiday season. On many occasions, the police allegedly sent triads to disrupt popular rallies, turning a blind eye to their organized crime and sexual assaults against women.
The police headquarters has refused to disclose details on hundreds of cases of forced disappearances, violent rapes and mysterious deaths of activists in all the 18 districts of the territory since June. Evidently, the entire government is leading a massive cover-up of police brutality against civilians.
The economic cost of the months-long political upheaval is manifest in the service sectors. Deprived of the right to elect the chief executive and the right to be free from police abuse, Hong Kongers are weaponizing their buying power and contemplating the boycott of pro-government and pro-Beijing businesses. A popular boycott movement might not be powerful enough to wrest concessions from the Lam regime, but this has been by far the most positive outcome of this resistance.
The ruling elites have launched a systematic smear campaign against these boycott efforts, and sent low-ranking bureaucrats and police thugs to harass storeowners supportive of the pro-democracy cause.
Yet, Hong Kong consumers are rational, moral and emotional beings. They support the so-called public sphere of the “yellow economy” because they embrace the liberal ideas and norms associated with these sympathetic businesses.
Taiwanese should never forget the struggle against repression that has rocked Hong Kong for more than half a year. The multiple overlapping crises point to a fundamental flaw in China’s “one country, two systems” model in which Beijing’s policy to integrate Hong Kong into the rest of its nation contradicts its initial promise of democratizing the territory.
The crux of the problem lies with the existing institutional arrangements that China has created to handpick chief executives and Cabinet ministers, disenfranchising Hong Kongers and denying them full democracy. Even though Beijing permits Lam certain autonomy to handle the explosive discontents, China fails to see itself as the source of, not the solution to, the territory’s ungovernable crisis.
Without conceding to Hong Kongers’ demands for democratic change, the days of a bloody uprising might be closer than we think.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
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