Last Sunday, an estimated 800,000 Hong Kong pro-democracy residents poured into the streets to rally for revolution. They chanted “Five demands — not one less.” One of the five demands calls for universal suffrage — the right to vote — in upcoming elections for the city’s legislature and chief executive.
“Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our time,” went the chant. Marchers flew American flags to celebrate final passage of the U.S. Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. They also carried the pre-1997 Hong Kong flag, which includes a Union Jack canton. When police were spotted observing the protest from an overpass, the vast crowd around me booed in unison.
Until a few weeks ago, I was teaching at Jingdezhen Ceramics Institute in southern China. One day, I made the mistake of telling a class that I would be taking a trip to Hong Kong. Students who had shown little interest in matters political up to this point erupted with comments and questions. “Do you support Hong Kong independence?” they demanded to know. “Do you support China or Hong Kong?” I did not answer what I considered to be loaded questions.
On a high-speed train to Hong Kong the next day, a message to the university community was relayed to me by a student. It stated that my “remarks” about Hong Kong had insulted the Chinese people and that my classes would be canceled for a least a week. A manager called me a few days later and confirmed that my services were no longer required.
I previously had attended the Oct. 1 march in Hong Kong, which is National Day in China. Front-line protesters dressed head-to-toe in black had pulled up bricks from the sidewalks and prepared incendiary devices behind the cover of umbrella buffers. I left before the fight began.
During that round of marches, the city was in a dark mood. Residents watched in horror as police cornered students, some of whom tried to escape by desperately rappelling down ropes from a campus overpass. There was extensive vandalism and bleak graffiti: “Tiananmen 2.0,” and, “If we burn, you burn with us.” There was little joy even as Congress passed the Hong Kong democracy act. Everyone I met said they were sure that President Donald Trump would veto it.
Sunday’s march was the city’s first legal protest since August. It felt like the huge crowd would never fit into Hong Kong’s narrow streets. The crowds were buoyed by the Nov. 24 district council elections, which saw a record 71% turnout. “We are voting while we still can,” one voter told me. Some 57% of voters expressed support for the “pan-democratic” opposition compared to 42% for the pro-Beijing parties. Before the election, pro-Beijing parties controlled all 18 local councils. Now 17 of 18 district councils are controlled by the opposition.
Talking to volunteers on election day and looking at political signage, I didn’t see any support for the pro-government parties. One has to wonder where the pro-Beijing 42% is hiding. On the other hand, one of the most popular Cantonese YouTube videos is about dealing with your pro-government relatives. It seems that every family has one.
Aside from dealing with traffic lights and community centers, the district councils get 10% of the vote in the election for Hong Kong’s chief executive scheduled for 2022. Beijing has multiple options to rig this vote, so it is hard to know if the district councils will be a meaningful factor.
One of Hong Kong’s oddities is that the city’s ruling party is technically illegal or “underground.” The British outlawed the Chinese Communist Party back in the 1920s. Eventually, the Communists decided they liked it that way. After all, going legal would mean financial disclosure and publicly available membership lists. The local branch of the party is called the “Liaison Office.” This office gives orders to the local government from a huge tower in the Sai Ying Pun district. Wang Zhimin, director of the Liaison Office, was the city’s boss when protests started back in May. Wang was held responsible for the breakdown in law-and-order and sidelined. Who is in charge now is unclear.
After Trump signed the Hong Kong democracy act late last month, pro-democracy marchers went to the U.S. Consulate with banners that read, “Let’s make Hong Kong great again.” While the act authorizes sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials responsible for human rights abuses in Hong Kong, its symbolism is more important. The U.S. has shown that it is willing to stand with Hong Kong even if that means taking flak from Beijing. For the first time in six months, there is reason to be optimistic about the city’s future. It was widely reported that Beijing was taken by surprise by the result of the district election. This seems oddly out-of-touch since even pro-Beijing publications in Hong Kong had predicted a setback. So now the city anxiously awaits the next response to the unfolding drama.