July 1 was the 22nd anniversary of the transfer of Hong Kong from the British empire to mainland China, and every year since the handover, thousands—usually tens of thousands—of Hong Kongers march from Victoria Park to the local government headquarters to demand that their territory become a democracy. In the past, the demonstrations have been civil, but this year, hundreds of helmet- and face mask-sporting youth used makeshift battering rams to break into the Legislative Council building, which houses Hong Kong’s parliament. Once inside, the protesters defaced portraits of pro-Beijing politicians, destroyed copies of the local constitution, and spray-painted slogans on the walls and pillars of the building: “Hong Kong is not China,” “Release detained political dissidents,” and “It was you who taught me peaceful marches are useless.” Most controversially, a protester unfurled a British colonial flag over the speaker’s chair.
Unlike previous mass demonstrations in Hong Kong, these protesters have been soliciting help from the international community, going so far as to submit an official White House petition for President Donald Trump to “liberate Hong Kong.” In the United States, many more conservatives have responded to Hong Kongers’ call for solidarity. Alt-right activists even traveled to Hong Kong to support the movement for self-determination. The left, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found.
Over the past several weeks, Hong Kongers have repeatedly filled the streets to rally against an extradition agreement that would permit suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China. Protesters say the law would allow Beijing to detain, extradite, and prosecute dissidents who live in Hong Kong. If the extradition law were to ever pass, they argue, Beijing could detain and torture critics, and force them into show trials.
The fears are well-founded. Mainland China has sent operatives to Hong Kong to abduct businessmen and booksellers. The Hong Kong legislative council is already not fully democratic. The public elects only half of its 70 members; the other half is selected by so-called functional constituencies, which give pro-Beijing corporations and tycoons direct influence over policy. The result is a business-friendly legislature that disqualified elected officials who refuse to pledge allegiance to mainland China and essentially criminalized a pro-independence political party.
The outrage grew when, on June 12, the police launched at least 150 canisters of tear gas, fired rubber bullets into crowds of protesters, and arrested injured citizens at public hospitals for allegedly participating in what the police deemed a “riot.” Within a week, a record 2 million Hong Kongers, more than a quarter of the population, came out to protest the extradition law and police brutality. And, to an extent, the protests worked. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, said Tuesday that the extradition bill was “dead.” But for activists and even most Hong Kongers, this wasn’t enough. Protesters are still demanding a formal withdrawal of the extradition agreement, an independent investigation into police actions, the release of all arrested protesters, and for Lam to resign. And for the more militant demonstrators who vandalized the LegCo building, there is a fifth demand: for the Chinese government to implement democratic reforms and allow citizens to vote for their own leader and legislature.
This isn’t the first time Hong Kong has made headlines for massive, sustained protest. In 2014, thousands of young adults occupied the business district for 79 days, calling upon the local government to implement universal suffrage and democratic representation; hundreds of thousands more came out to protest after the police used tear gas on these teenagers. All of this was to no avail—the government refused to concede to any of the demands. A lot of Hong Kongers, especially the generation of kids that came of age during the Umbrella Movement, grew despondent, with many choosing to emigrate elsewhere.
The proposed extradition bill has rejuvenated the struggle for self-determination and democracy, but the movement is no longer motivated by hope. Instead, desperation is driving people back into the streets. At least four young people have killed themselves having left messages calling for the withdrawal of the extradition bill.
Fear is also pushing activists to adopt new tactics, including trying to leverage the city’s status as a global economic hub. There has been a concerted effort to ask G20 countries to “liberate Hong Kong” from Chinese colonization. Hong Kongers crowdfunded about $700,000 to place ads in newspapers like The New York Times, The Guardian, Süddeutsche Zeitung, The Globe and Mail, Asahi Shimbun, and Chosun Ilbo, where they reiterated their demands: Free those who have been arrested, retract the extradition bill and all charges of the June protests as “riots,” have Lam step down—and, in some versions of the ad, universal suffrage. Local queer activist and pop star Denise Ho even traveled to Switzerland to testify to the UN Human Rights Council, where she asked for a special session devoted to Hong Kong’s autonomy.
In an email interview, the cultural studies scholar and Lingnan University professor Wing Sang Law said that few Hong Kongers see foreign nation-states as effective means of local liberation on their own. “Yet the attempts to break new ground for such ‘people’s diplomacy’ is still worth trying as an open gesture of defiance against…China’s official rhetoric,” he wrote. “The ‘people’s diplomacy’ is also a demonstration of agency (however limited) in safeguarding Hong Kong’s status as an ‘international city.’”
For many Hong Kong activists, this “people’s diplomacy” means asking Trump and the Republican Party to intervene. They want the White House, now filled with China hawks like John Bolton, to pressure President Xi Jinping to at least allow Hong Kong to maintain its current civil liberties. The activists are also lobbying Congress to pass the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would require the US government to reconsider the city’s privileged trade status every year to ensure that Hong Kong is still a liberal, autonomous, and safe place to conduct business.
So far, Trump’s only response to the protests is to hope that Hong Kongers will “be able to work it out with China,” having talked “briefly” with Xi about the protests. Still many more Republicans than Democrats have publicly backed Hong Kong’s protesters.
Senator Marco Rubio has repeatedly introduced legislation to “support the democratic aspirations of the people of Hong Kong,” including the aforementioned Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. He has even gone so far as to nominate Joshua Wong, a student-activist leader of the Umbrella Movement, for the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize. Senator Ted Cruz, along with Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced legislation that would require the secretary of state to reevaluate how China “uses Hong Kong to circumvent the laws of the United States.”
The American left, on the other hand, has had little to say about China, let alone about Hong Kong. Save for Markey, out of the 18 Senate Democrats who co-sponsored the Yemen resolution—Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker, Christopher Murphy, Dick Durbin, Patrick Leahy, Dianne Feinstein, Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Richard Blumenthal, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tammy Baldwin, Jeff Merkley, Brian Schatz, Tim Kaine, Kamala Harris, Sherrod Brown, and Gary Peters—only Warren has been outspoken about the situation in Hong Kong.
Virtually none of the progressive members of House when it comes to foreign policy have expressed serious concern for Hong Kong’s 7 million residents. Nancy Pelosi issued a press release stating her support for the Rubio-sponsored bill; Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden have tweeted about supporting protesters in Hong Kong. But that’s basically it. It shouldn’t be surprising then that Hong Kong activists are building alliances with the American right.
This should be an opportunity for the left to build the “progressive international” of which Sanders has spoken. Progressives are understandably wary of interfering in another country’s affairs or of creating the conditions for a new Cold War. But there is a difference between abetting and launching coups, and reaching out to democracy activists, building cooperation between progressive movements, and expressing unequivocal support for self-determination.
The 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act as well as Cruz’s proposed legislation frames Hong Kong’s problems as an infringement upon American interests. These proposed laws stop short of championing the self-determination of Hong Kongers. What the American left, including Democrats, can do is to bolster the voices of millions of Hong Kongers that have come out in recent weeks to push for greater democracy.
The American left should speak alongside Hong Kong activists. Hong Kong has been passed from one imperial power to another. No Hong Kong government has ever had a popular mandate to rule. There is a saying on Cantonese social media that can be roughly translated as “only Hong Kongers can save Hong Kong.” That needs to be at the forefront of any self-determination movement in Hong Kong—but residents could use some help, and they shouldn’t have to rely on Marco Rubio.