And that’s the tea: Comparing and Contrasting Democratic Movements in Hong Kong and the US

2020 is a level pulled out of the world of Jumanji, literally. In just the first half of the year, an entire continent was on fire, a pandemic broke out, invasive murder hornets were found on the continental US, the existence of UFOs was–for the first time–confirmed by government officials, and the established social order seemed to be on the brink of collapse. What’s next?

For many of us Americans, we find solace in the concept that America is the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” and pray that these tragic events will never happen upon any people of color–through a comprehensive revamp of our system and societal perception. However, for many others across the globe, their situation may not be as clear and optimistic. 

Take Hong Kong, a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, for example; their so-called “normal” way of life was turned upside down since February 2019 after the city’s Chief Executive introduced a bill that would allow extradition to Mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan at the request of government officials. Proponents of this bill claimed it would enhance the work of law enforcement agencies to effectively capture and extradite criminals, while critics of this legislation suspected this bill would allow the Chinese Community Party to intervene in the semi-autonomous city’s legislature and incarcerate civil rights activists. These people’s fears were not fictitious; the Hong Kong’s Basic Law, the city’s semi-constitution, promotes the system called “One Country, Two Systems,” which allows Hong Kongers civil freedoms such as speech, religion, and assembly–something that is not found anywhere else in Mainland China. This system also enables Hong Kong to function with an independent legislature, judiciary, and the financial market. With the Extradition Bill, many believe the “One Country, Two Systems” principle and its derivative freedoms and rights would be weakened by the central government in the name of “criminal extradition.” 

In June 2019, the city’s top officials intended to propose the contentious bill to the full house–bypassing necessary committees for audits–despite a city-wide protest. And in the end ignited a hitherto continuous protest that has unmasked the city’s nefarious affairs: police brutality, autocratic political climate, and state-sanctioned corruption, to name but a few.

In addition, a Reuters report denoted that the June 9 protest–one of the largest protests the region has ever seen–was predominantly peaceful, except when several hundred protesters charged at the Legislative Council a little past midnight. In those incidents, police reported having fired pepper spray to prevent protesters from advancing into the building. However, there are several moments caught on camera, some not, where police officers deployed pepper agents “in situations where there was no apparent threat.” Moreover, according to NonLethal Technologies Inc., the manufacturer of the teargas used by the Hong Kong police said in an interview with Reuters that firing teargas directly at people may cause “serious injury or even death” and is therefore inadvisable. But, ironically, countless videos circulating online are showing the exact opposite, where people are shot at and directly hit by teargas canisters. 

For those who were arrested, they reported to have experienced excessive force during arrest, inhumane treatment in detention, inappropriate body search, and delayed access to medical assistance and counsel, and some even reported arbitrary arrest. 

The extradition bill protest and police brutality were monitored closely by the White House and President Trump, who even tweeted if the leader of China would meet “directly and personally with the protestors, there would be a happy and enlightened ending to the Hong Kong problem.” 

But before we put on our high hat, we have to look at the Black Lives Matter movement and its associated conflicts in order to examine our supposedly superior, democratic way of life.

The Black Lives Matter movement has been around for years, but it was recently intensified after the unjust death of George Floyd, an African American male who was seen being kneed in the neck by a caucasian police officer, resulting in his untimely death. 

As the movement was brought to light again by many social activists and celebrities, the names of other African Americans who were mistreated by the law enforcement agencies surfaced, further inciting societal calls for equality and protection for people of color, especially African Americans. 

As Americans exercised their First Amendment rights to assemble to protest, some radical groups have taken advantage of the situation and looted stores and destroyed properties, which prompted policemen to use weapons of mass control to maintain law and order. Akin to the Hong Kong police force, American policemen were excoriated with the excessive use of force and unnecessary violence towards protestors by an eclectic array of human rights organizations and news publications. The Independent Co. UK reported an unarmed civilian being “sprayed by mace” and later “shot in the head” with a tear gas canister at almost “point-blank range” in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

More concerningly, authorities were reported to have utilized tear gas or other weapons of mass control toward a group of peaceful, law-abiding protesters so that the Leader of the Free World could visit a nearby Episcopal church for a quick visit and photo opportunity. This narrative was later confirmed by the US Park Police, as reported by the ABC News, which said “USPP officers and other assisting law enforcement partners…[deployed] ‘pepper balls’ and ‘smoke canisters’” when asked if the agency used teargas to disperse protesters to make way for the President.

Many find similarities between the Hong Kong pro-democratic protest and the US Black Lives Matter movement, and signs used in Hong Kong protests such as “Be Water” or “Fxxk Po Po” were seen across the US. Even though these two protests may seem similar in their quest to better their respective society, they are not equal in a plethora of aspects. 

Before we dive deep into the differences, let’s go over the similarities these protestors face: police brutality and state propaganda.

As mentioned previously, both the Hong Kong and the United States policemen are severely criticized for their inhumane treatment of protestors. Their methodologies and choice of weapon compelled the international communities to watch in “honor and consternation” as the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented on live television.

What is more concerning, however, is the state’s support for such violence with their propaganda. Let’s start with Hong Kong.

According to a news article published by the New York Times in May, the Chinese and Hong Kong governments are citing foreign threats and terrorism as reasons to curb protests and use excessive force. The Chinese official news agency, Xinhua, even wrote that a recently passed legislation by the Chinese National People’s Congress, which would supersede Hong Kong’s Basic Law as China tightens control over the territory, would salvage Hong Kong from “terrorism” and the “chaos” made by protestors who aimed to dismantle China with foreign forces. These claims are unsubstantiated as the same New York Times article reported that “there is no evidence that the protestors, who have flooded the streets of Hong Kong over the past year to demand greater civil liberties, are working with overseas governments.” 

And to pursue censorship to its entirety, foreign news outlets such as the BBC were reported to be censored in the Mainland. Every time they mentioned the new security law, screens would go black, effectively prohibiting the public from receiving any outside information.

In a more egregious manner to protect the national image, a Chinese state television network even reported falsified news to the people. These acts were aimed to exert “overwhelming control over the media content” in China, calling out protestors as rioters or destructors of peace to justify the state’s authoritarian agenda. Even back in August 2019, Chinese media outlets released a video demonstrating military vehicles amassing near the city’s border. In addition to Beijing’s comment on how protestors must be disciplined “without leniency, without mercy” to bring an end to “spouts of terrorism,” the city’s Chief Executive interjected, “lawbreaking activities in the name of freedom” were destructive to the rule of law and Hong Kong’s reputation, in an attempt to appease the Communist Party and villainize the protestors.

Similarly in the United States, we see government officials, notably the President, calling protestors “thugs,” and saying “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” in response to protests. This comment was subsequently flagged by Twitter for violating its guidelines for glorifying and promoting violence; outraged and offended by Twitter, President Trump then signed an executive order “taking aim at the legal shields that protect social media companies from liability for content posted by users on their platforms.” Interestingly, Trump has rarely openly expressed frustration when it came to Twitter prior to this incident, prompting the media to ruminate on the cause of such a decision: is Trump offended that Twitter did not serve him well as his personal propaganda machine?

Regardless, in both movements, thousands of miles away, on two separate continents, we see how officials used the adverbial bully pulpit to label protestors as rioters to generate support. But the United States’ response to protestors and brutal treatment prompted international outcry and led a China Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chun-Ying,  to tweet George Floyd’s final words, notably “I can’t breathe,” to highlight the United States’ hypocrisy in human rights. Hua’s tweet also included an article published by the Russian state-sponsored broadcaster, RT, accusing the United States of human rights violations. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, also accused the United States of “double standards” in its response to “violent protests.”

But before we make any judgments, we have to realize the monumentally different political climates in Hong Kong and the United States. For example, one of the five demands made by Hong Kongers is to have an “independent inquiry into allegations of police brutality against pro-democracy protesters.” But the Chief Executive, with great opposition, actually said such inquiry would weaken police powers, effectively discontinuing the conversation. 

To make matters worse, the Hong Kong police quietly loosened guidelines on their use of force” in addressing protestors. The main takeaway, of the many adjustments made, was that the updated guidelines removed a sentence stating that “officers will be accountable for their own actions.” This move clearly proved state-sanctioned police brutality and riddance of accountability–something that is yet to be seen in the United States. Moreover, the recently passed security law by the Chinese National People’s Congress would prohibit acts of “‘splittism, subversion, foreign intervention, and terrorism,’ vague terms that the Chinese government has frequently used on the mainland to punish peaceful dissent,” Human Rights Watch reported. The article further analyzed and explained, “Hong Kong people will now have to consider arrests and harsh sentences for protesting, speaking out, running for office, and other freedoms they have long enjoyed and struggled peacefully to defend.” To put the cherry on top, the Hong Kong legislative council passed another piece of legislation that would limit citizens’ right to speak out against the government by making it illegal to insult the Chinese National Anthem—all signs of an authoritarian siege on the last democratic stronghold in China.

Since the Hong Kong pro-democratic protest has taken place last June, it makes sense for them to be slightly ahead of us, in terms of the timeline and development. America’s protest has just started, and it is on us to ensure the government does not follow Hong Kong and China’s autocratic footsteps to clamp down on civil liberties in the name of national security. 

Don’t let anyone convince you that the United States is the “Land of the Free and Home of the Brave.” It could be, and it should be; we just have some work to do before achieving that. As we protest and voice our distress to the government, we have to monitor their every move and see if the US is truly a hypocrite, as China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua called, or an ally of liberty and defender of truth.

The United States cannot be another Hong Kong.

And that, my friends, is the tea.

Other Opinions/Rebuttal from a Next Publius Editor (Right-Leaning Moderate):

The article suggests that China Mainland’s Foreign Ministry Office decision to ridicule the US’s response to the BLM protests and riots via tweet was driven by the fact that China will take any opportunity to make the US appear hypocritical. Regarding this, many of the US protests have indeed turned violent. Regardless of your stance on the Black Lives Matter vs. All Lives Matter debate, we must recognize that many of the protests in the United States have often broken out into mayhem. The riots in Hong Kong were strategic, and they targeted businesses that were owned by people from Mainland China. The riots in the US have destroyed local communities with disregard to whomever they may affect. Over $25 million in insured damages were filed for the first protests in Minnesota alone. Imagine the damage this has done to the rest of the affected cities, especially during a pandemic and economic crisis. Our constitution does protect the freedom of speech, but does not protect the right to wreak havoc on our cities. 

This article has been factchecked and edited by the editorial team of Next Publius. We do our best to minimize cherry-picking of data, and we try to include multiple sides and opinions on any given topic. We recognize that it is often impossible to eliminate all biased language and data in their enirety from an article, especially when the research and discourse around certain topics are slanted in favor of a particular stance. We also recognize that authors and editors have their own fair share of biases. To combat this, we identify contributors’ affiliations and political leanings at the top of each article, and we provide other interpretations, opinions, and rebuttals beneath them. Read more about Next Publius’ mission here.