Is there a future for Hong Kong’s democratic institutions? Or for pro-democracy parties such as Demosisto, founded in 2016 by Joshua Wong and other leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement and recently disbanded? Or for pro-democracy protests, such as the massive marches of 2003 that convinced local authorities to withdraw a proposed anti-sedition law, and the protests of last year that began with a fight against a different disliked bill?
There is nothing new about asking these kinds of whither-democracy questions about Hong Kong, but they are being asked with urgency now due to a cascading series of developments.
In June, after years of granting organizers permission to hold vigils to honor the victims of the 1989 massacre in Beijing, local authorities insisted it would be illegal to gather on June 4 this year to commemorate Tiananmen. (A smaller demonstration went ahead anyway.) On July 1, Beijing imposed a National Security Law on Hong Kong, even harsher than the locally proposed 2003 one that protesters blocked. During the following weeks, Chief Executive Carrie Lam delayed Legislative Council (LegCo) elections scheduled for September, and Benny Tai, a moderate leader of the Umbrella Movement, was fired from his tenured position at the University of Hong Kong. Demosisto veteran Nathan Law, who was elected to LegCo and then disqualified on political grounds, went into self-imposed exile in London. Three of those he was closest to during the Umbrella Movement and Demosisto’s early days—Joshua Wong, Ivan Lam, and Agnes Chow—are in jail awaiting sentencing for a 2019 act of civil disobedience. The list goes on.
It is hard, in light of this, to answer whither-democracy questions in a hopeful way. It is harder to do so, in fact, than at point since the 1997 Handover changed the territory from a British crown colony—far from a democracy but with strong rule of law, a good deal of judicial independence, and freedom of speech and assembly—into a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The city was still far from democratic in its first two decades as an SAR, but there were three strong bases for being cautiously optimistic. First, the constitution-like Basic Law—guidelines for governance of Hong Kong during the half-century lasting from the Handover until 2047—stipulated that Beijing would leave local liberties in place and that, over time, Hong Kong people would have an increased say in who ran the city. Second, while LegCo was set up in a manner that virtually ensured pro-Beijing forces would be in majority, it was a place for spirited debates, where a pro-democracy bloc could often block or slow implementation of illiberal policies. Third, the city periodically witnessed mass movements, which occasionally won victories and typically began with authorized rallies, even if they sometimes included non-authorized militant actions, too.
As 2020 nears its close, all three legs holding up the platform for optimism have been pulled out from under it. The Basic Law seems meaningless, as Chief Executives are still chosen through a rigged process in which a tiny percentage of the populace chooses from vetted candidates—and even though the document says that laws about sedition are to be made locally, Beijing has taken that matter into its own hands. LegCo has been neutered, due not just to the election delay but a round of new politically motivated disqualifications and all but two opposition members resigning in protest at the body’s devolution into a rubber stamp institution. As for mass actions, the authorities are denying request after request to hold marches.
Hong Kong’s political future
It is hard to find a reason for optimism now where Hong Kong’s political future is concerned, but there are three bases I can think of for refusing to give up hope. One is religious convictions, which help keep despair at bay for Joshua Wong, Benny Tai and other figures whose activism goes hand in hand with their faith. Joshua, who has pointed out that his parents named him after a Biblical hero who never gave up, includes references to passages from the Bible in social media posts. He mixes these in with allusions to popular cultural works (Star Wars films, for example) that feature people who triumph over long odds, in part to appeal to more than those who share his spiritual orientation. Still, his faith matters to him, as it does to Benny Tai, and figures they both admire, such as Martin Luther King, Jr.
I am not a person of faith, but there are two other bases for hoping against hope I think about when considering Hong Kong. One is rooted in the history of victorious struggles that unfolded in colonial settings where it seemed every new strategy ran into a new brick wall—from India and Ireland to South Africa. Poland when it fell under martial law in 1981, and Taiwan when the Kuomintang carried out its White Terror repression in 1947, are two analogies that come to mind when pondering Hong Kong’s situation now, and in the end activism in both places was effective, even though in the latter democratization took decades to achieve.
The other basis for hope for Hong Kong is specific to the city. It has a long tradition of making fools of forecasters, as I point out in my book Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink—offering up examples that go back to 1841, when the British foreign secretary was convinced that the rocky island, secured as a prize in the Opium War, would never be a great “Mart of Trade.” Given this track record, I strive to remind myself, when filled with sadness about events, that it would be a mistake to give up on the possibility that surprises lie ahead.
And curiously enough, when I think about failed predictions, I think specifically about Joshua. This is because each of the three times I have met him, I have come away thinking I knew something about what lay ahead for him or his city—then unexpected things happened instead.
My first meeting with Joshua took place in 2013. He was a 16-year-old who had led a successful drive the year before to block mainland-style patriotic education in Hong Kong—a drive in which his peers Agnes Chow and Ivan Lam had also played important roles. Our meeting took place in a hotel, with Joshua’s mother and father and a local history professor who was a friend of mine and a mentor to Joshua. Our main topic of conversation was Californian universities. His mentor thought it would be good for Joshua to go to college across the Pacific and his parents were ready to hear about options. At the end of our conversation, I made an assumption that would end up erroneous. While his activism in 2012 had gained him a good deal of local renown, I thought the impressive youth I had just met would never be as famous again as he was then. But the next year he was on the cover of TIME as the face of the Umbrella Movement.
I next saw Joshua in 2016. He was a nineteen-year-old college student and co-founder of a political party. We met at a Hong Kong coffee shop in the company of a local scholar and another American one. During a wide-ranging conversation, the other American invited Wong to come speak at a big annual international affairs event held on his campus each April. Joshua said he wanted to, and I thought I might also attend. We both assumed that whether Joshua could speak would depend on his springtime exam schedule. In the end, the decision was made by a court. By April, he was awaiting sentencing for acts of civil disobedience and was told he could not leave the city.
I last saw Joshua in 2018. He was 22 and had entered a period in his life marked by the alternation between periods of activism and incarceration. It was the only time we ever spoke one-to-one—a brief, evening chat at a heritage arts complex where a small protest had just happened. The protest had drawn a much smaller crowd than expected, disappointing the activist. I said I was still glad that it had happened during one of my visits to Hong Kong so that I could see it and see him again.
While walking to my hotel, I thought to myself that there would surely be bigger protests than that one, which had only been hastily announced the day before. But I also thought it was unlikely that there would be another upsurge like the Umbrella Movement—the biggest sustained social movement to take place in any part of the PRC since Tiananmen and one I had been glad to witness part of.
On that last point, I was very wrong. On June 9, 2019, seven months after I last saw Joshua, one of the biggest mass actions in Hong Kong’s history took place when a million people marched against a proposed extradition bill. One week later, twice as many people were on the streets by some estimates. That June 16 demonstration was not just the biggest mass action Hong Kong had ever seen but one of the biggest in the history of the world—and the protest surge of 2019 continued much longer than the 79-day Umbrella Movement had.
From the era of the weak Qing Empire to the era of a strong PRC under the control of Xi Jinping, very little has been true about Hong Kong except the city’s ability to surprise. This does not mean better days lie ahead, but it does mean that it is worth paying close attention to what is happening there, and to people like Joshua, who continue to struggle against seemingly impossible odds.