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On 11 May 2020, Hong Kong authorities were reported to have arrested 230 people over the weekend after a sing-along demonstration at a shopping mall.
Those arrested range from the ages of 12 to 65, and police claim that one 22-year-old carried materials believed to be intended for making petrol bombs. Some were arrested on charges like unlawful assembly, failure to produce proof of identity and according to the Associated Press, “possessing anything with intent to destroy or damage property.” Others were ticketed for violating guidelines of Prevention and Control of Disease Regulation prohibiting gatherings of more than eight people in any public space. Journalists were requested to stop filming and pepper sprayed alongside the protesters.
The Hong Kong protests have been occurring since 2003. Hong Kong had previously been a British colony, but was handed over to China in 1997 with guarantees of retaining its own legal, economic, and social institutions for 50 years. However, many critics argue that Beijing has not respected those freedoms, often using legislation to limit them. For example, the most recent bill proposed making it illegal to “insult the national anthem,” a failed extradition bill last year proposed allowing fugitives to be transferred to mainland China and a failed anti-subversion national security law in 2003 that sparked the original protests.
In the meantime, China has continued to do its best to quell the protests. Coupled with the recent arrests, it has banned the video game Animal Crossing, as the game’s lack of political censorship allowed gamers to protest using the slogan “Free Hong Kong, Revolution Now,” according to an article by Wired.
Support for Hong Kong is limited. Similarly to the limited responses to issues between China and Taiwan, fears of upsetting a rising power in the international system make states nervous to support human rights within China. Their entire economy could easily be upset by the loss of China as a trading partner. An article by the Political Science department at the University of Colorado Boulder cites the Houston Rockets manager, Daryl Morey, who tweeted support for Hong Kong protesters and then deleted his tweet. As a result, China’s national broadcaster refused to broadcast two preseason games and blacklisted the Rockets. China has made it clear through this and similar examples that support for Hong Kong protesters will not be tolerated, thus paralyzing many states.
Just like the case of Taiwan’s sovereignity, China is very set in its feelings about Hong Kong. It believes that Hong Kong is a Chinese city beholden to Chinese law, even considering its past and the guarantee that had originally been made to maintain Hong Kong’s legal, and economic independence for 50 years. It is clear that the lack of response comes from personal fears that business and normal functionality will be interrupted by showing support for the protesters. These fears have left the protesters alone, with only each other to lean on.
While this lack of response is easy to understand, it is also the problem. With no one present to stop or condemn China, nothing will change. China will continue to upset the guarantees made when Hong Kong was freed from British rule in 1997. Protests have had limited success. While proposed bills such as last year’s extradition bill have been stopped, the protests will not end until something major changes. Every time the rest of the world continues to interact with China while ignoring its treatment of its citizens, the world commends China for its actions and tells it to continue, that there is nothing wrong with its actions.
The international view of these protests must change. Although it will greatly change the way that the world interacts with China, the international world must begin to condemn China for its actions and the best way to do so is as a unified front. Were one country to condemn China on its own, it would suffer the consequences of being blacklisted by China, while China could continue business as usual with other countries.
However, China’s response to Morey and the Houston Rockets is very telling. A single deleted tweet caused the entire team to be blacklisted. An outpouring of support for Hong Kong protesters by a number of states could cause a major disruption in China’s government, as they would be stuck at a crossroads. Either it would have to isolate itself from the majority of the world, or it would have to tolerate criticism.
This condemnation by states is very unlikely, given China’s place on the UN Security Council and its importance in the global economy. However, Daryl Morey was not any sort of statesman, yet, his tweet supporting Hong Kong protesters caused the NBA to warn players not to comment on the protests and led to Morey’s team being blacklisted by China’s government. A strong outpouring of support for protesters, not by governments or statesmen, but instead by celebrities could change the way that China is forced to operate and reconsider their policies.
Although the words of celebrities do not have the political and economic power that governments might have, China would still be forced to choose between saving face and not depriving its citizens of entertainment. We have seen that China has been forced into similar situations with Daryl Morey and the recent Animal Crossing protests that caused the game to be banned in China, but nothing has occurred on a large scale. It is impossible to predict exactly what actions China would be forced to take, but it would be on such a greater scale than ever before.
In the meantime, the most important duty for those watching is to educate others about these abuses of human rights. The scale of these protests is massive, but far too easy to glance over. In our modern culture, we argue that freedom and democracy matters most, and that we should fight and protest for what we believe in. This is easily visible in protests against stay-at-home orders for coronavirus, where people argue for their freedom. However, when we see these people who are currently fighting for their most basic freedoms, to exist and govern themselves as they were promised, our eyes glaze over. We are not in danger, and we must take advantage of that to support these protests and democracy in Hong Kong and China.