At a peaceful protest in Hong Kong in January, Keisha Brown saw few other Black faces amid the chanting protesters, colorful banners, and national flags from across the world. Although Brown, a scholar focusing on Chinese history and Sino-Black relations, couldn’t understand many of the speeches or song lyrics, she was unexpectedly moved to tears.
“It was powerful. In Hong Kong and the US, people are fighting for their rights and pushing back on these political systems that are not functioning and asking: ‘How do we fix them?’” said Brown, an assistant professor at Tennessee State University, comparing the Hong Kong protests to the Black Lives Matter movement.
As China imposes a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong and the Black Lives Matter protests enter into their second month, governments in Washington and Beijing have put the movements into conflict. While protesters have made a few attempts to build transnational solidarity, the political struggle between China and the United States has largely stymied and subsumed these efforts.
Trump is increasingly using Hong Kong to escalate the US-China rivalry. To push back against the national security law that could send activists to life in prison, the Trump administration announced that it will begin to strip Hong Kong of its special economic and trading status and will cancel visas for thousands of Chinese students. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also said the administration will restrict visas for Chinese officials responsible for “undermining Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy.”
Since the start of Hong Kong’s current pro-democracy movement last June, Republican and Democratic politicians have expressed their support for the protesters. Last November, Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which requires the State Department to deliver a report on the status of Hong Kong’s autonomy.
These policy interventions in Hong Kong come amid a broader confrontation against Beijing that spans diverse areas such as trade, media, and telecommunications. In many cases, this China-versus-the-West campaign is part of a push for a Cold War–style foreign policy that hawkish politicians hope will consolidate US hegemony. Conservatives like Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio have pushed the Hong Kong cause to the forefront of these efforts.
Meanwhile, the Chinese government has used Black Lives Matter as evidence of America’s decline and to highlight the hypocrisy of US foreign policy. It has also referred to US authorities’ crackdowns on Black Lives Matter to justify its own violent response to protest.
In recent months, Beijing has launched a massive propaganda campaign on Chinese and international social media to extol China’s political and economic system and expose the American one as racist and unstable. On June 12, Twitter disclosed that it was removing 23,750 active accounts for being part of “coordinated information operations” from China.
Shortly after the release of the video of a white police officer killing George Floyd, The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, published a cartoon showing the Statue of Liberty cracking open to reveal a police officer kneeling on a crumbling, burning White House. The editor in chief of China’s state-owned Global Times accused Hong Kong “rioters” of exporting violence and vandalism to American rallies.
Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying tweeted Floyd’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” while spokesman Lijian Zhao retweeted numerous posts accusing the United States of double standards, including one from UN Russian deputy representative Dmitry Polyanskiy asking: “Why US denies China’s right to restore peace and order in HK while brutally dispersing crowds at home?” China has repeatedly claimed that Washington was behind the Hong Kong protests, with Hua last year asking America to “withdraw their black hands” and declaring that “democracy and human rights are only a hypocritical cover for Western interference in Hong Kong affairs.”
Of course, this type of geopolitical one-upmanship is common between rival powers. For years the US government has presented itself as the moral compass standing in opposition to China on various political and human rights issues from Tibet to the South China Sea. And China has a history of accusing Western powers of interference and defending its abuses by pointing to Western foreign policy. The West should fix its own backyard before criticizing China, and any unrest proves China’s need to maintain stability—or so Beijing’s narrative usually goes.
While the United States assumed a low profile on the issue of Hong Kong in the years of transition from British to Chinese rule, it has become outspoken on human rights in the territory since China’s rapid economic rise. On the other side, despite China’s own problems with anti-Black racism, Beijing has long claimed to support the American civil rights movement. In 1963 Mao Zedong condemned racism against African Americans and called for the end of US colonialism and imperialism, which he tied to the global emancipation of Black people. More recently, China has also sought to position itself in Africa as a nonracist, non-imperialist trade partner—an alternative to meddling Western powers.
While these dynamics are not new, they’re creating fresh challenges in Hong Kong and derailing solidarity efforts. In Hong Kong, residents who attempted to hold a Black Lives Matter solidarity march in June drew the ire of some pro-democracy protesters, who criticized organizers for communicating with police about the event. In Hong Kong, protests are illegal unless they have been officially approved. A demonstration about police brutality in the United States spiraled into a critique of the organizers—and the expat community some view them to represent—for turning a blind eye to state violence in Hong Kong. The rally was canceled less than 24 hours before its planned start.
The White House’s support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters while it tries to quash the Black Lives Matter movement highlights the uneasy relationship between Trump and Hong Kong activists, who have been accused of allying with far-right extremists. This may be true of a small number of Hong Kong protesters: After right-wing Australian politician Avi Yemini tweeted that the Hong Kong protesters should not be compared to Black Lives Matter activists, whom he characterized as “violent thugs attacking innocent business owners,” pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai thanked him for “speaking up” for Hong Kongers.
These complications, along with a general lack of understanding about the US civil rights movement among some Hong Kongers, has led to a muddled and muted response to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. Some are opportunistically seeking superficial solidarity with Black activists, while others are distancing themselves from the looting and vandalism in the United States, despite similar actions by Hong Kong protesters in the past.
Such rhetoric and misunderstandings are preventing protesters in both places from recognizing the universality of their respective struggles. The movements have much they can learn from each other, and participants could unite to create mechanisms of mutual support and fight together against global oppression and inequality.
The pro-democracy movement has always relied on international support to pressure the local government and Beijing. Protesters, for instance, court foreign governments by waving other country’s flags during protests and launching lobbying campaigns abroad. But the pro-democracy movement has much to learn both practically and ideologically from Black Lives Matter, a campaign rooted in the civil rights movement and that has a rich history of resistance and abolitionist reimagining.
While Hong Kong protesters have begun to call for disbanding the police, establishing more intricate mutual aid networks, and harnessing the power of unions, Black activists have decades of experience in exercising similar strategies. Hong Kong protesters also need to confront racism within the movement and society at large. Without that, Hong Kong’s activist community will never live up to the values of inclusivity it espouses. Plus, with the passing of the national security law, activists say it is more crucial than ever for Hong Kong to strengthen transnational solidarities with other resistance groups.
The Hong Kong protests also have a lot to offer Black Lives Matter. Although the latter does not depend on international support in the same way, it is now seeking to sustain momentum and form permanent structures that can challenge state authoritarianism—as well as reconcile issues of class and gender that threaten to divide participants.
In Hong Kong, protesters have waged year-long protests in the face of intensifying police brutality, arrests, and a pandemic. They’ve done so largely by adopting a decentralized structure that uses social media platforms like LIHKG, similar to Reddit, and the encrypted app Telegram to manage a “leaderless” movement.
From the Umbrella Revolution, a 2014 push for greater democracy, protesters learned that hierarchies can increase the visibility of leaders, leaving them vulnerable to prosecution, and result in power struggles that can fracture the movement. When the current protests took off last year, many pledged unity above discord, and took to voting online to determine which actions to take. This provided protesters on the ground with agency, while also creating accountability. Through these platforms and citizen conferences, protesters have been able to hold transparent discussions and rein in those vandalizing, looting, or launching attacks for personal gain.
In the absence of a recognized government body to check the police, Hong Kong protesters have also taken it upon themselves to document and archive evidence of police brutality and record the names of possible minors who have been arrested. Volunteer medics, translators, and others have stepped up to fill the gaps leftover by the state: servicing those hurt in protests, creating English-language materials for non-Chinese speakers, sourcing materials like masks from overseas, and circulating coronavirus-related information.
In addition to forming unions and holding strikes, they’ve also established a “yellow economic circle,” a set of businesses that support the protests, to throw money as well as momentum behind the movement. Last year, efforts to publicize local elections also paid off, resulting in a landslide victory for pro-democracy parties. There are lessons here that could be exported into the Black Lives Matter movement.
Last Wednesday, just after the law took effect in Hong Kong, Lausan—a collective sharing decolonial left perspectives on Hong Kong—held a rally in New York in solidarity with Black Lives Matter. Dressed in the trademark outfits of the Hong Kong protests—black clothes, face masks, and hard hats—about two dozen protesters chanted “Black Lives Matter,” and held yellow umbrellas as they marched under cloudy skies.
As the rally reached the Chinese consulate, Black socialist Robert Cuffy addressed the crowd through a speakerphone held by a Hong Kong protester. He explained that both Chinese and Black workers have been exploited by the global capitalist economy and that activists need to work together to build a new society that focuses on addressing human need.
“We heard about how the ruling class around the world is changing techniques, learning from each other,” Cuffy said. “Well—we’re learning from each other too.”