October 21st marked the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The occasion was highlighted by a massive military parade with 15,000 troops from all branches of the military, hundreds of vehicles, and an air show by the airforce. President Xi, dressed in a traditional black Mao suit, presided over the entire spectacle, along with close advisors and high ranking members of the Politburo. In his televised remarks to the nation, he announced an ambitious vision for China, a China more powerful than ever before, but noticeably absent from his speech was any plan to rein in a wayward Hong Kong, save for a brief statement ‘that the party would maintain the lasting prosperity and stability of Hong Kong. Framed by the backdrop of armored tanks and ranks upon ranks of soldiers, President Xi’s words could be interpreted as a thinly veiled threat to the protesters in Hong Kong: if China is unable to bring Hong Kong back into the fold of the party through diplomatic means, it is prepared to use force to crush dissent and opposition, and it appears that he is prepared to back up his words with action; according to an article published by Reuters, China has quietly doubled troop levels in Hong Kong and moved other military assets into Hong Kong.
However, the protesters do not appear ready to capitulate just yet because what is at stake for them is not merely one controversial bill, but a series of injustices by a government that owes its loyalties not to the people of Hong Kong, but to the communist party. So, the protests have evolved into a broader movement for democracy and self-determination that have taken on a distinctly anti-China flavor, and it remains to be seen how the party will attempt to reconcile its vision of a socially harmonious China when one of its territories is in open rebellion of the rule of law.
Although the protests in Hong Kong began peacefully, the situation has quickly descended into violence. What is noteworthy about these protests is the manner in which the government has handled them: not only has the government failed to prevent rouge elements (pro-china elements) from inciting violence, but the government’s heavy-handed tactics, including its deployment of armed officers against unarmed protesters and its use of excessive force by its officers have contributed to the very violence that it was trying to prevent from happening. In one example of misuse of force, riot police fired tear gas canisters into a confined space, creating a stampede hazard. In another example, shaky video taken by a bystander shows a swarm of police officers brutally beating a defenseless man on the ground. Corresponding to the same day as the military parade in Beijing, the NYT reported that a police officer had fired into a protester’s chest at point blank range; the protester is in stable but critical condition. These are just a few examples of how the police have overstepped legal boundaries, acting more like thugs than officers of the law. Instead of launching an investigation into allegations of police brutality and holding its officers accountable to their actions, the government has doubled down, cracking down on the protesters more harshly and by introducing a ‘mask’ ban. Ostensibly, the purpose of this ban is to prevent criminals from hiding behind the veil of anonymity, making the jobs of police officers easier, but another reason could be that the government wants to significantly raise the costs of free assembly, to break up large groups of protesters who would be defenseless against tear gas deployed by the police without respirators.
So what is the common thread that binds these seemingly disparate events together?
What are the broader implications here? By timing a new round of protests to coincide with the celebrations in Beijing, protesters in Hong Kong are sending a clear message to Beijing that they are unwilling to wear the yoke of oppression willingly. Furthermore, the chaos in Hong Kong represents a clear dichotomy, undercutting President Xi’s televised message of unity and harmony to the outside world. While the impetus of the protests was the controversial extradition bill, the protests have evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement that has taken a life of their own, illustrating that democracy transcends geography, or distinctions of east and west. The outcome of the protests hinges on how the Hong Kong government and China respond.