In 2016, a few weeks before Donald Trump was elected, I cast my first ballot in a Hong Kong election. The vote, like every vote in Hong Kong, was rigged: Half the city’s legislature and the city’s leader are handpicked behind closed doors by corporate Beijing loyalists in a system devised by British colonial autocrats decades earlier. It’s how the Chinese government and its oligarchy control the territory despite the vast majority of residents’ voting for progressive pro-democracy candidates like the two legislators I backed, Roy Kwong and Wu Chi-wai.
That vote would be my last in Hong Kong. In the years since, Chinese authorities crushed a pro-democracy uprising that brought more than 2 million Hong Kongers into the streets, and introduced a terrifying national security law that allows them to punish any Hong Konger who objects to the status quo. The government has used the law to target everyone from journalists to booksellers to schoolchildren as young as 10 years old.
On Wednesday, my elected representatives, Kwong and Wu, were arrested in a massive police sweep that rounded up nearly every prominent progressive legislator in Hong Kong, along with a handful of well-known feminist, migrants’ rights, disability rights, and labor organizers. Their crime was participating in an unofficial primary election that drew 600,000 voters last summer. Authorities say this nonbinding, grassroots expression of self-governance was dangerous enough to undermine their rule.
I live in New York now, where I experience survivor’s guilt as I watch Hong Kong’s civil society collapse. But being overseas, I’ve found the problem is not that the rest of the world isn’t aware. Hong Kong, with its plethora of international news bureaus, has received ample media attention. The problem is that the rest of the world has so little to offer. What could Western powers—which have allowed the coronavirus to tear through their own populations—have to teach Hong Kongers about protecting vulnerable people? How could the United States restore Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms, when American leaders are trying to overturn their own elections?
As Wednesday’s mass arrests were underway in Hong Kong, the US president and his party were trying to delegitimize Black organizers’ hard-won victories in Georgia’s Senate runoff—an electoral mechanism itself designed to disenfranchise Black voters. Less than 24 hours later, Trump would incite an insurrection of white supremacists to storm the US Capitol and halt Congress’s certification of the presidential election. Other Hong Kongers who were watching the chaos play out on live streams messaged me, aghast, as the Capitol Police appeared to open the barriers and simply let the hordes in. It was not lost on us, either, that two of the biggest cheerleaders of the mob were Senators Josh Hawley and Ted Cruz, known for posturing as Hong Kong’s staunchest congressional allies—that is, until Cruz blocked a bill last month that would’ve allowed more Hong Kong refugees into the United States, reasoning that they could be “Chinese spies.”
Whereas President Xi Jinping’s takeover of Hong Kong is a direct extension of state ambitions, the American assault upon American democracy channels the desperation of an increasingly outnumbered white ruling class, guarding its undeserved status and gains after centuries of racial violence. But this American violence is tethered, in its own way, to the repression in Hong Kong. The tear gas launched at Hong Kong students was the same Pennsylvania-manufactured tear gas deployed against Black Lives Matter protesters in more than 100 cities across America. A Trump executive order last year revealed that the US State Department was training the Hong Kong police force on everything from combat tactics to drug raids. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has seized upon every flare-up of American unrest—from the Capitol storming to the protests after George Floyd’s killing—to bolster the case for their Hong Kong crackdown.
Even now, I’m not sure if most Americans grasp how fragile their representative system really is. Yes, the electoral votes have been certified, but what if a handful more senators had objected? Yes, Trump’s white supremacist coup fizzled, but what if, instead of scores of hooligans taking selfies, there were thousands who refused to leave? In Hong Kong, we thought we had more time. As it turns out, you’re not living in an autocracy until you are; your resistance works until it doesn’t. When an unelected authority seizes total control, it feels like numbness. Just kind of the same thing you’d experienced earlier, except this time you’ve lost permanently.
After the US election in November, a friend told me, “I wish we were the country Hong Kongers think we are.” I understand this feeling. Not because I think the United States should be the world’s model, but because too many people in too many other places have run out of chances—and are waiting for this country to get it right. Unlike Hong Kong, America gets to try again.