As the world continues to cope with the COVID-19 pandemic, Hong Kong has returned to protest mode.
Over the past few weeks, hundreds of demonstrators have flouted an official ban on public assembly, allegedly designed to combat the spread of the coronavirus.
They have organized dozens of peaceful rallies at shopping malls across the territory, where they have shouted political slogans, called for the democratic liberation of the territory and sung together Glory to Hong Kong, the unofficial anthem of the protest movement.
Even though authorities have sent in riot police to disperse and attack the crowds, the demonstrators have stood their ground and refused to give in.
Highly telegenic and emotional, these spontaneous acts of individual courage manifest an intense determination to resist China’s dictatorial rule at any sacrifice.
In his 2017 book, How to Resist: Turn Protest to Power, Matthew Bolton said that transforming complicated governance problems and abstract political ideas into specific, concrete and achievable tasks is key to empowering people in nonviolent activism.
Hong Kongers are doing just that.
For decades, it has become disheartening for Hong Kongers to debate and tackle the larger enterprise of liberalizing and democratizing China, as they know that the territory alone will never achieve the progressive transformation of national politics.
Out of idealism, older pro-democracy protesters have been tirelessly supporting the Chinese grassroots struggle for human rights, workers’ rights and press freedom since the 1990s.
Unfortunately, direct confrontations with a mighty socialist state have led to mass arrests and trials, thereby creating a sense of powerlessness among advocates of institutional change in China.
Without losing sight of the bigger picture, one way to avoid the same missteps is to begin with the visceral essence of everyday struggle. Focusing on something tangible and meaningful to Hong Kongers stands a better chance of scoring small victories against an inhumane and unjust authoritarian system.
Whether or not democracy is suitable for Hong Kong is a topic for armchair discussion, but seeing police physically, sexually and psychologically abuse so many courageous young protesters in their homes, malls, police stations and correctional facilities creates a strong impetus for action.
As the Hong Kong police work closely with criminal gangs to terrorize civilians, the severity of police brutality, abuse of power and corruption is common knowledge to everyone.
Troubled by the growing influence of gangsters in law enforcement and other government agencies, people are more likely to gather around this crisis of law and order.
No parents want their children to be harassed, attacked or even murdered by police and violent gangs for taking part in demonstrations. No educators want to teach students to lie about their political opinions to get along within a corrupt system. No legitimate businesses want to accept bribery as a norm. No one wants to live in constant fear as criminal gangs patrol the streets with knives and batons.
Effective change never happens in a single moment. Rational, pragmatic and fairly sensible, Hong Kongers understand themselves to be on the weaker side, with fewer resources against oppressive police and bureaucratic institutions.
Fully aware of the pros and cons of different tactics of peaceful resistance, they recognize the need to use sporadic protests to provoke an overreaction from the ruling elites.
By just reclaiming public space, they are not pursuing a forceful or aggressive strategy of confrontation.
However, they are creating a civil moment of dialogical engagement that allows people from all walks of life and with conflicting interests to come together in a shared space, in real time. No matter how brief that moment might be, strangers are compelled to recognize each other as comrades in the same struggle.
Building solidarity through personal interactions is as important as turning complex issues into actionable tasks. Whereas civic spirit is bringing the movement forward, such informal encounters hold people together and prevent them from falling apart during the darkest hours of their struggle.
As Hong Kongers are laying a firm foundation for more sustainable, long-lasting resistance from within, they deserve sympathy and recognition from the broader world.
Taiwan leads the world in monitoring the worsening situation, and sheltering political refugees from the territory. Other countries should follow Taiwan’s example and support Hong Kongers on the ground.
In particular, the US and other allies should consider the Hong Kong crisis to be part of an urgent call to reconfigure the existing geopolitical and economic order in a post-pandemic world.
Having passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act late last year, it is now time for Washington to reassess the territory’s bilateral relations with the US and its strategic role in advancing China’s global power projection.
With global support and solidarity, Hong Kongers are not alone in the ongoing battle for democratic governance.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is history professor at Pace University in New York City.
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