Don’t Write Off Hong Kong’s Radicals
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Don’t Write Off Hong Kong’s Radicals

Beijing can’t afford to demonize and repress the young activists on the extreme edge of the city’s massive protests. 

Originally published in Bloomberg Opinion.

When several hundred young Hong Kong activists symbolically vandalized the city’s Legislative Council last week, moderates in the democracy movement feared they were handing China’s central government a propaganda coup. Sure enough, Chinese state-controlled media and diplomats, who had been playing down the recent discord in Hong Kong, quickly went on the offensive. They dubbed the young protesters “ultra-radicals” who were bent on “wanton” destruction and “trampling” on the rule of law. Arrests have begun.

Beijing is obviously hoping it can isolate the “troublemakers” and cripple the broader movement by association with these supposed radicals. The proximate cause of the invasion of the Legislative Council, as well as three huge peaceful protest marches in the last month, is a now-suspended bill which would have, for the first time, allowed Hong Kongers to be extradited to mainland China. The deeper driver of discontent is the erosion of the freedoms China promised to Hong Kong for 50 years after the British handed over the former colony in 1997.

Young people have been on the front lines of this fight from the beginning. Beijing would be smarter to try and understand their motivations rather than malign them, for at least three reasons.

First, while very few people openly support the vandalism of the Legislative Council, which was illegal, many inside and outside Hong Kong sympathize with the young protesters’ cause and admire their spirit of resistance.

Efforts by pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong to convince the public that this was a rampaging mob have fallen flat. It’s clear that the activists who smashed their way into the Council building were taking symbolic political action, not committing destruction for the sake of it. Heads of universities in Hong Kong, moderate pro-democracy politicians and even some advisers to Carrie Lam, the city’s embattled chief executive, have all urged the government to talk to young people and address the root causes of their actions, instead of simply prosecuting them.

Western governments, while condemning the violence, have also called on officials to show restraint, with U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt warning Beijing against further crackdowns. Even Lam herself, a career civil servant who has been pilloried for her haughty approach, belatedly reached out to some student groups for a closed-door meeting, although they rejected her advances.

Second, to a much greater extent than officials seem to realize, Beijing helped create the vicious circle of repression and resistance that is tearing Hong Kong society apart. Calm won’t return until Chinese officials better understand the role they themselves have played in the current tensions.

While many of the slogans the protesters daubed on the wood-panelled walls of the Legislative Council resonated with Hong Kongers, one piece of graffiti was particularly poignant: “It was you who taught me that peaceful protests don’t work.”

Young Hong Kongers, traditionally seen as more interested in computer games than politics, have been driven to protest by the growing pressure on their way of life and identity. There is a clear trajectory from the movement against Communist Party-influenced “national education” in 2012, when young leaders such as Joshua Wong first came to prominence, to the 2014 Occupy demonstrations against proposals for tightly controlled elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive, and now the opposition to the extradition bill.

Having come of age after the handover, many young Hong Kongers already felt little connection to either mainland China or the city’s British colonial past. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s drive for ideological conformity and “national rejuvenation” has both threatened and reinforced their separate sense of identity.

Lastly, like it or not, young Hong Kongers are the future of the city. Some in the pro-Beijing camp hoped that the spirit of resistance would fizzle out as the government stepped up repression in the wake of the Occupy protests, jailing many of its leaders, including Wong, and banning several prominent young activists from participating in formal politics. Indeed, after one of his spells in jail Wong told me that he feared the democracy movement was losing hope as its avenues for action were cut off and the price of opposition increased.

But, like the 2012 proposal for national education, the extradition bill has backfired spectacularly. By threatening the key firewall that protects Hong Kong from the justice system in the mainland, the government gave new impetus to activists and united a broad spectrum of society. Young idealists who dream of an independent Hong Kong nation and pragmatic businesspeople who normally avoid politics suddenly found themselves on the same side.

Now a new cohort of young Hong Kongers have been brought into the fight to protect their values and way of life. They have learned the tactics and culture of protest, even without obvious leaders, some of whom are still in prison. They have shown that they are willing to make big sacrifices, with long jail sentences likely for those convicted of participation in the Legislative Council action and other clashes with the police.

Despite Beijing’s standard complaints about biased international press coverage and interference by “foreign forces,” the gaze of the world’s media and the interest of foreign governments will inevitably wane in the coming weeks and months. But the commitment of young Hong Kongers to protect their city and their identity will not.

The Communist Party will no doubt try to deter opposition by hitting back harder, demanding a tougher stance from Lam’s government. That will only guarantee that last week’s protests, both peaceful and not, will not be the last.

Areas of expertise: Southeast Asian politics and foreign policy; South China Sea; regional economic trends; China-ASEAN relations; Indonesia; Malaysia; Vietnam; Hong Kong