The coronavirus epidemic is a shock to China’s political system, but—unless the death toll spirals out of control—it is probably one China can absorb.
The tea is perfect. Jazz is lightly playing in the background of the cozy café, a quiet sanctuary from the ceaseless commotion of commerce that makes Hong Kong one of the busiest and economically prosperous cities in the world. I am waiting for a friend, a former student from a summer program at Hong Kong University, sponsored by the Fund for American Studies. The Sheung Wan neighborhood is peaceful and quiet, with Hong Kong hints of cosmopolitan London and a bit of Chinese grit. I love this city, with the best cuisine from around the world, a dynamic population, a beautiful urban skyline, and some world-class hiking. In the morning, it’s monkeys in the jungle; in the evening, sipping a cocktail with a 118th floor view of the harbor at the heart of the world’s freest economy (Hong Kong has been ranked #1 in the Economic Freedom of the World ranking since 1970). Hong Kong made me fall in love with Asia. It’s got the best of Asia, the best of China, an Anglophone population, and street signs in English.
But this afternoon, things are different. I’m joining my former student and her friends for a protest in support of liberty in Hong Kong. When I first heard of the troubles in Hong Kong, I initially thought I’d play it safe. This was not my fight, and there wasn’t much I could do. I would teach my classes and stay away from demonstrations. But I was faced with a moral choice. Hong Kong has a tradition of rule of law, Hong Kong is a land of liberty, Hong Kong has become a second home.
I had reached out to my former student for our annual dinner in the Fragrant Harbor—we’ll call her V (for obvious reasons, I will not share her identity). We made dinner plans. She also invited me to a protest. At first, I wasn’t sure. What if facial recognition technology led to a lost work visa for next year’s class? What if I found myself detained during the march, and missed my class the next day? I was embarrassed at my first reaction. I have been teaching liberty and preaching the gospel according to F.A. Hayek for the past decade. Yet, presented with an opportunity to support true freedom fighters, I found myself balking, and thinking of admittedly bourgeois consideration. However, these are the very same bourgeois considerations Hong Kongers want to defend: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. So what if I lose my visa for next year. So what if I miss a class because I am briefly detained by the police. These people are fighting—desperately—for their lost liberties. So I decided to march, and set aside my petty worries.
When Hong Kong was handed from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, the agreement included basic legal and political guarantees. First, Hong Kong would not be swallowed into the People’s Republic of China, but administered as a Special Administrative Region (SAR), under the policy of “one country, two systems.” Second, the rights of the people of Hong Kong would be guaranteed under a Basic Law, which includes democracy, rule of law, and individual rights.
China (I am told) immediately started its subversion, infiltrating the media and education with loyalists of the Chinese Communist Party, and quietly indoctrinating the police. In 2014, China began meddling directly with Hong Kong’s democratic institutions: the people of Hong Kong could elect their Chief Executive but only from a list selected by Beijing. Members of the Legislative Council were removed from office if they refused to swear fealty to Beijing. The people of Hong Kong took to the streets, occupying Central (Hong Kong’s downtown) in the “umbrella” movement. Real democracy was not restored, the movement fizzled, and its leaders were thrown in jail for disturbing the peace.
Then, two months ago, the government of Hong Kong did the unthinkable: Under the guise of an anodyne criminal extradition bill, it effectively attempted to remove habeas corpus from Hong Kong’s legal code. Under the proposed extradition bill, a Hong Kong citizen could be sent to China to face trial in a Chinese court, for a real criminal offense or, the fear of many Hong Kong citizens, for a trumped-up political charge. The fundamental problem is that China lacks an independent judiciary and rule of law, to put it mildly.
In response, the people of Hong Kong took to the streets, with a lawyers’ march on June 6, then demonstrations on June 9 and June 12 drawing upwards of a million people. The June 12 protests turned sour, as riot police deployed tear gas, pepper spray, and fired rubber bullets on the demonstrators, and the government declared the protests to be a “riot” (an important distinction for jailing participants). The government of Hong Kong suspended the bill (without withdrawing it completely, so it could pass quickly if reintroduced). Beijing accused foreign powers of fomenting dissent.
Since then demonstrations have continued. The demonstrators now have five demands: 1) withdrawal of the extradition bill; 2) retraction of all references to the protests as riots; 3) release of all arrested protesters; 4) an independent inquiry into police brutality; and 5) true democracy.
As I wait for V in the Sheung Wan coffee shop, I am struck that this pleasant environment in cosmopolitan Hong Kong is the gentle product of free institutions, and I am about to see firsthand the threats to free institutions. V arrives a few minutes later. She is a petite, whip-smart young lady, with a winning smile and a wicked wit. In addition to being a top student in my summer course, she took immense delight in teaching her fellow students (from a dozen Asian countries and the United States) bad words in Cantonese, and jabs at the Beijing leadership.
As a preliminary to the protest march, she runs me through the basics of the grievances, and what we can expect. V shows me video footage of a demonstration last week, when riot police lobbed a tear gas canister into a group of peaceful demonstrators who were surrounded on three sides by riot police, and on the fourth by a locked office building. The crowd could not disperse. As the crowd started to gasp and choke, the riot police fired another canister into the crowd. And another. Finally, a few enterprising souls smashed a window into the office building’s lobby, and started breaking down doors, so the crowd could escape from the riot police and the tear gas.
After a few more videos, and a few more stories, V asks me, “Are you scared?”
Yeah, I’m scared. Over the past 48 hours, I have made my peace with losing my work visa or missing my Monday morning class because I was detained by the police. I think about the other scenarios. I caught a whiff of tear gas once, when I was a kid, when a classmate discharged a canister of pepper spray in an enclosed space. It was not pleasant; beyond my eyes tearing up, I felt like I was choking. More problematic for me is my leeriness of crowds and enclosed areas, things can go wrong quickly, so I have trained myself to avoid large gatherings, and keep an eye open for exit points. I also don’t want to end up on the business end of a riot policeman’s truncheon. My hands start to tremble, as the knot in my stomach grows tighter. V asks me again, “Are you scared?” I’m terrified. Then I look at her—she is half my size, and has 100 times my courage. So I answer: “Yes, I’m scared—but so is everybody else.”
V briefs me on the contents of her backpack: a black t-shirt (the symbol of defiance, which demonstrators avoid wearing outside demonstrations), two bottles of saline solution and goggles (for the tear gas), a face mask (to avoid recognition and retaliation). We head to the MTR (Hong Kong’s subway). V purchases a single ticket, as she and the other demonstrators do not want their movements tracked on their monthly pass cards.
At the station, we meet her first friend, a pleasant and slight young man, who admits he is terrified; he slept poorly the night before, as he is worried about violent clashes after a peaceful demonstration. The other friends arrive. They are young, in their early 20s, quietly resigned to the need for continued acts of courage. They laugh, make pleasantries, and apologize to me for speaking their native Cantonese. They are visibly tense and worried.
The five of us take the subway to Tin Hau. The station is packed with people. We surface, and make our way to the rallying point, Victoria Park. The park is already full of thousands of demonstrators, with hundreds of thousands more in the streets. A dozen uniformed police officers nonchalantly stand by. The crowd, peaceful and patient, parts to allow an elderly passerby to make his way through our line. After about an hour, the march begins. V and her friends don hats and surgical masks, to avoid recognition and retaliation. They offer me a mask, which I decline. Perhaps it is prudence, as I want to portray myself as an observer. We start to march. I gulp in each breath of air, thankful that it is not a miasma of tear gas.
My eyes constantly scan for egress paths, but there are none. I am in a flood of humanity. We march for about three hours, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers marching for their threatened liberties. There are many students, but also many middle-aged marchers, a few elderly, and some parents with toddlers in strollers, or children walking with them. I realize again how petty my own daily worries are—from being prepared for class, to worrying about the rise of the U.S. administrative state. The people around me have deeper concerns: being abducted in the night and sent across the border to a Chinese jail, or being shot in the face with a rubber bullet for complaining about the prospect.
I am struck by the civility of the marchers. When a torrent of protesters arrives from the next subway station, hand signals spontaneously fly up, signaling the crowd to back up; when the torrent has been integrated into the march, “OK” signs fly to resume the marching. The crowd erupts into applause when a hole is made for a group of protesters in wheel chairs. Periodically, somebody hollers into a microphone, leading chants for the Five Demands. V and her friends patiently respond to all my questions. They are full of youthful enthusiasm, bantering, and making the odd joke. But they are also serious and steadfast. As we reach the police headquarters, the crowd starts to chant, “You knew the law—you broke the law.” Hong Kong’s free institutions may be under grave threat, but the British legacy of rule of law is still deeply ingrained.
We reach Admiralty, the end of the police-sanctioned demonstration route, and V suggests that it’s time for me to go. I keep walking, as the area surrounding the police station is a perfect spot for one of the traps the riot police like to set up. Two blocks later, quiet V suddenly gets serious; she is no longer making a suggestion. “You should go now.” I thank her friends, I wish them luck, and I enjoin them to be safe. I depart with a clumsy and hearty “Have a good night.” They politely chuckle. They are tired from marching three hours in the heat and humidity, but they are ready for a night of occupying the streets outside the government offices.
I make my way back to my hotel in Say Ying Pun, on the Western edge of the island, and gratefully wash away the summer heat under a shower. I am emotionally spent—despite the peaceful nature of the protest, and the luxury I have of returning to the United States shortly. I meet my colleagues for dinner at the restaurant adjacent to my hotel. They, too, spent the afternoon observing the protest. We are all exhausted, vicariously. We can only imagine how the demonstrators feel, those with a real stake, those with their very lives on the line.
The students start returning from downtown, heading home towards the university, which is a mile from our hotel. We wave to them, from behind our glasses of wine and the glass walls of the restaurant, confidently and comfortably feeling like we are supporting the good fight. More and more students pile into the streets.
Suddenly, a barricade goes up, not 20 feet from our restaurant table, blocking eastbound traffic. We ask for the check, as we remember that we are a block from the Chinese Communist Party liaison office in Hong Kong. We head outside to watch, as a crowd gathers, and protesters spray paint insults against China and the Hong Kong government on the walls of the Liaison building—along with some very unflattering things about President Xi Jinping’s mother. Several masked students approach us, politely but firmly telling us to leave, as things are about to get dangerous. We retreat towards the hotel and continue to watch, until we hear the clank of riot shields on the street; riot police have materialized out of nowhere, forming two parallel phalanxes to push back the protesters in a pincer movement. We move into the hotel.
Later that night, Triad gangsters (presumably hired by the Hong Kong government) assaulted protesters and commuters with metal pipes in the north of Hong Kong, as police stood idly by and stopped responding to emergency calls.
The protests have continued, and clashes with police have intensified.
Beijing has made a few rare statements on Hong Kong; fortunately, it does not plan to send the People’s Liberation Army to quash the Hong Kong protests . . . for now. It is hard to know if Beijing will keep the situation at arm’s length and let the Hong Kong government handle the protests. Beijing probably does not want another Tiananmen Massacre. On the other hand, any perceived weakness could have ramifications for Tibet, Xinjiang, or Taiwan, and a recent propaganda video by the Hong Kong garrison of the PLA includes ominous anti-riot operations. It is hard to predict Beijing’s response, especially as protests have intensified over the past week and the Hong Kong airport has been shut down by demonstrators on Monday and Tuesday of this week; clashes between demonstrators and the police have been exacerbated by the presence of agents provocateurs.
The U.S. State Department has reiterated that Washington “supports Hong Kong’s autonomy under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” and expressed “grave concern” over the extradition bill; Secretary of State Pompeo recently urged the Hong Kong government to “do the right thing.” The UN High Commissioner on Human Rights has asked that the Hong Kong government “consult broadly before passing or amending” the extradition bill. The UK Foreign Secretary has “urge[d] the Hong Kong government to listen to the concerns of its people and its friends in the international community and to pause and reflect on these controversial measures.”
China is prickly about what it considers to be foreign intervention in its internal affairs. But the freedom-loving world can issue a full-throated demand that China honor its obligations under international law (the Basic Law flows from a set of Sino-British treaties). The world kowtows to China, and has been hesitant to let human rights impede engagement and trade. I grieve for the people of China who are living in an increasingly totalitarian state, and especially the millions who are estimated to be incarcerated in the “re-education” camps of Xinjiang. But Hong Kong is different. It has a proud tradition of free institutions, and the light of freedom risks being snuffed out. It is time to push back, thoughtfully and courageously, against Beijing, and deny it the international legitimacy it craves.
At the very least, we must tell the story of Hong Kong.