Pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong came to a flashpoint on July 1st, when hundreds of protestors stormed the legislative council building. They filled the chamber with graffiti and hung up the old flag of British Hong Kong before the police could expel them from the building. Although violent behavior such as this is not advised, it signified a point of growing frustration for Hong Kong residents. This instance marks a special date: the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from the British to the Chinese on July 1st, 1997. That day triggered a diaspora of residents who did not wish to live under the authoritarian Chinese regime. Hong Kong currently exists in a semi-autonomous relationship with China, notably with far greater economic and civil freedom. This relationship is increasingly disrespected by the Chinese Communist Party, which eventually seeks to fully integrate Hong Kong. As Beijing tightens its grip, more and more of the human rights and freedoms Hong Kongers enjoy are crushed. The storming of the legislative building is itself a splinter of a massive pro-democracy protest started almost a month ago. Over a hundred thousand people have taken to the streets to protest a controversial policy that would have allowed the Chinese government to extradite Hong Kong citizens. The protest managed to force the local government to push the vote to a later date, but people are not satisfied with that. It is incredibly clear what is happening: the people of Hong Kong treasure their uncommon liberty, economic prosperity, and rule of law. In fact, they are among the freest in the world. They have seen the atrocities committed by the Chinese Communist Party and they understand that now, more than ever, is the time to take a stand.
Hong Kong was a British colony for over a hundred years, taken from the Chinese in 1842 after the First Opium War. Under British rule, Hong Kong followed a different path as the rest of the mainland turned to Communism. Following the turnover to the Chinese, Hong Kong’s alternative way of life was promised to be respected in an agreement that would be known as “One Country Two Systems“. However, this autonomy has been under assault as the bureaucrats in Beijing regularly meddle with Hong Kong’s electoral affairs by pre-approving candidates and imposing integrationist policies. In 2014, thousands of Democrats flooded the streets for this exact reason in what would be known as the Umbrella Protest. The name comes from the widespread use of umbrellas as makeshift shields against pepper spray, water hoses, and blistering tropical heat. Umbrellas quickly became the symbol of democratic resistance and are currently being used in abundance during the current protests. Umbrella’s are now the Hong Kong equivalent of the Gadsden flag. It is worth noting that even when faced with the prospect of reuniting with their ancient homeland and becoming part of a global superpower, Hong Kongers refuse to trade their freedom. The people of Hong Kong are proof that even in the face of a daunting, technologically advanced dictatorship like China, the flame of liberty burns strong.
The legacy of freedom and democracy in the Chinese world (China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan) is a troubling yet inspiring one. Truly remarkable displays and exercises of human liberty are juxtaposed with some of the most brutal acts against humanity. As protests in Hong Kong continue peacefully and passionately, we can never forget what happened to those up north in Beijing. At least 10,000 people were killed in 1989 during the infamous Tiananmen Square Massacre. The victims were mostly students calling for democratic reforms, but they were met with machine gun fire and bayonets. The BBC writes, “China bans all activists’ commemorations and highly regulates online discussion of the incident, including censoring criticism. But it is marked annually by activists elsewhere in the world, particularly in Hong Kong and Taiwan”. These two holdouts, Hong Kong and Taiwan, remain bastions of freedom in the face of China, increasingly one of the most oppressive governments in the world. As Taiwan and Hong Kong remain strongholds of religious liberty, China is cracking down on religious minorities, from Muslims in Xinjiang to Christians nationwide. While China continues to desecrate human rights, the people of Hong Kong and Taiwan continue to demonstrate that they can still be some of the freest, most prosperous societies in the world. They show that despite the assertions of Beijing, Chinese people are capable of amazing things when they are free. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong may only be about a specific policy but they symbolize something far greater and more existential: the elusive yet stubborn dream of liberty in the Chinese world.
Although the vandalism of the legislative council on July 1st is controversial and certainly not advised, Hong Kong’s democracy movement shows that they are not afraid of the bullies in Beijing. The legacy of protests and resistance in Hong Kong in the 21st century show us something that runs deep in our humanity. That freedom still exists within the imaginations of the Chinese people __ a people that saw almost 3000 years of continuous despotism, murderous dictators such as Mao Zedong, and now a technologically advanced authoritarian regime. Although it does not seem like democracy will rush through mainland China anytime soon, the fire has clearly not been snuffed. The desire for liberty burns brightly in every human heart, even in the face of the Chinese government. The dream of limited government, self-rule, and democracy in China remains stronger than ever.