September 28 marks the fourth anniversary of the start of the Umbrella Movement. Last year, I wrote an assessment of the movement and its impact on the politics of Hong Kong, as well as publishing a book that is a comprehensive account. This year, I believe the best way to commemorate what I hope will eventually become Hong Kong’s national day is to look forward. Here, I suggest how the Hong Kong struggle for freedom, though increasingly under siege, can proceed and prevail.
As it stands
Since the Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong’s freedom fighters have taken on many initiatives. New organisations have arisen and articulated new ideas. The most notable are localism, self-determination and independence – all of which appeal to many Hongkongers, especially the young and politically engaged.
Meanwhile, the Communist Party and Hong Kong government have carried out an unprecedented attack on Hong Kong freedom, while stepping up efforts to control and mainlandise Hong Kong. These include:
- the National People’s Congress Standing Committee’s interpretation of the Basic Law and the subsequent disqualification of six pro-democracy LegCo members.
- the barring of nine candidates from running for LegCo on political grounds.
- the prosecution of 29 pro-democracy leaders in 45 different cases as well as of hundreds of other activists, leading to 14 prison sentences for pro-democracy leaders and 11 for other activists.
- the extraordinarily long sentences given to those convicted of “rioting,” in relation to the 2016 Mong Kok unrest.
- the cross-border abductions of Hong Kong bookseller Lee Bo and mainland tycoon Xiao Jianhua.
- the express rail terminus co-location arrangement, which for the first time ever hands over Hong Kong land to mainland jurisdiction, in contravention of the Basic Law.
- the promulgation of an anthem law on the mainland and its insertion into the Basic Law, requiring Hong Kong to criminalise ‘insults’ to the anthem.
- the Hong Kong government’s ban of the Hong Kong National Party on “national security” grounds for its advocacy of independence.
(See this post-Umbrella Movement timeline for a more extensive rundown.)
This is an onslaught, and virtually all of these developments are unprecedented. The lesson the Party learned from the Umbrella Movement was to repress, and its campaign ever more resembles the crackdowns routinely inflicted on the mainland.
The question is, how to respond? Or, rather, how to plot the course of the freedom struggle, taking these challenges into account? There is an important difference between those two questions.
The attacks have put the Hong Kong freedom struggle on the defensive, and much of its work has been reactive. As Hong Kong becomes more authoritarian, less free and less autonomous, time and effort have been spent on trying to prevent the worst, and not enough on positively realising our vision of a free, liberal, democratic society.
Hong Kong’s freedom fighters must transition from defence to offence, from reactive to proactive, from fighting to stop the worst from happening to bringing about the best.
They must unite, organise and strategise, find new ways of working together, reach out to more people and get them involved, develop their vision and use it to inspire and recruit, promoting a society that circumvents party intransigence.
Finally, they must recognise that sacrifice and suffering will be the inevitable price to pay for freedom, and prepare themselves psychologically for the long, hard road ahead.
‘The Resistance and Self-determination Council’
Hong Kong’s freedom struggle will play out over a period of years and, maybe, decades. There will be no easy victories and probably many defeats along the way. While most of those involved recognise this prospect, we have not sufficiently considered its implications or planned accordingly.
What is important to many long-term freedom struggles over the past century has been a strong, central organisation: the Indian National Congress, the African National Congress of South Africa, the Palestine Liberation Organisation, to name a few of those better known.
These organisations were all imperfect and some advocated violence (which I reject), but they provided their struggle with unity, continuity, purpose, a sense of direction, and leadership.
The groups, organisations and institutions that currently exist in Hong Kong are ill-equipped for the long-term struggle. There needs to be more collaboration on strategy, communication, and coordination of plans and activities.
Last year, I proposed a “Resistance and Self-determination Council” to address this need. The body needn’t have that particular name. Hong Kong National Congress or Hong Kong Liberation Organisation might sound snappier. The point is, whatever the name, its function would be to bring the disparate groups of the freedom struggle together to maximise their power and effectiveness.
Remember that our adversary has infinitely greater resources at its disposal, including nearly limitless amounts of money, the largest political organisation in the world, a massive security apparatus and a huge military, not to mention propaganda, censorship, and a ruthless drive for power.
In the face of that, it is essential to unify and act in a coordinated manner. That doesn’t mean we must always agree or share the same objectives. It means we must recognise each other as allies who share the same general vision and goals, as well as a common adversary.
The council would be made up of all groups in the freedom struggle that wish to participate, from moderate pan-democratic political parties to self-determinationist and pro-independence parties, to civil society organisations working for democracy and human rights.
The reason I call the body the “Resistance and Self-determination Council” is that the keywords, “resistance” and “self-determination”, correspond to the two main tasks of the freedom struggle, as well as the work it needs to do.
As for the first term, this is clearly an era of resistance, to which the list of attacks and infringements at the start of this article attests. A clear and widespread awareness of the need for resistance has been present since mid-2014 with the issuance of the Party’s White Paper on Hong Kong, the OCLP referendum, the 8/31 NPCSC ruling, the student strike and occupation of Civic Square and, of course, the Umbrella Movement.
This culture of resistance is a strength of the struggle, and it should be cultivated. Its purpose is to defend Hong Kong, to strengthen and promote Hong Kong’s identity. Power comes from resistance, and it is often easier to mobilise people to say “no,” than to keep them involved in the arduous on-going pursuit of a positive goal.
As I wrote a year ago, much of the disillusionment that came in the aftermath of the Umbrella Movement was due to a desire for quick fixes or magical solutions. We must rid ourselves of that illusion and see long-term resistance as an effective strategy.
In resisting, we also construct our identity, and in fortifying that, we strengthen the struggle itself. Rather than undertaking it with grim determination, resistance can and should be joyful.
The resistance work of the council would consist of coordinating approaches to combating mainlandisation and the Chinese Communist Party’s attempts to increase control, restrict rights and encroach upon Hong Kong’s autonomy.
At present, there are many resistance efforts, but they can appear scattershot and unsupported by a wider strategy and network.
Under this form of resistance would also come the work of pro-democracy representatives in the Legislative Council. Almost nothing can be achieved in Hong Kong’s rigged political system, but it is still very important to preserve their power to veto so as to prevent the worst from happening.
LegCo representatives do excellent work resisting anti-democratic measures. “The Resistance and Self-determination Council” would help to link their efforts to related efforts in civil society, and frame them within an overall strategy.
While fortifying resistance, we should direct more of our energy toward attaining the positive goal, which I hereby designate as self-determination, though exactly what form that may take would be for the members of the council to decide.
There are two reasons why I think self-determination should be the common goal.
The first has to do with our recent history. Up until the Chinese Communist Party’s refusal to allow the implementation of genuine universal suffrage in 2014–2015, it can be said that there was an unspoken contract between the Party and Hong Kong people: Hong Kong people would (begrudgingly) recognise People Republic of China’s sovereignty over Hong Kong, in exchange for the Party (begrudgingly) granting Hong Kong autonomy and democracy.
But with that refusal, the Party broke the contract, and all of its actions since then (again, see list above) simply support that assertion. What can Hong Kong people do in response but invoke the right of self-determination?
The council would collaboratively define what exactly self-determination means for Hong Kong and map out how to get there. At least, it must involve Hong Kong people deciding the future of Hong Kong, including its political status, especially after the end of the 50-year “one country, two systems” principle in 2047.
We also need corresponding slogans, hashtags and memes that succinctly state the cause and express people’s desire.
Secondly, defining the goal of self-determination would provide a common ground to achieve unity amongst the many disparate groups of the struggle for freedom – from moderate pan-democrats to localists, self-determinationists and independence advocates.
Even moderate pan-democratic groups such as Reform HK have advocated self-determination, with others such as ADPL and Civic Party espousing related concepts. At the other end of the spectrum, independence is perhaps the most emphatic expression of self-determination, and self-determination is at least a step towards that goal.
And yes, moderate pan-democrats would have to sit down with independence advocates, whatever mutual suspicion there may be, including the pan-democrats’ fears of being smeared with the pro-independence label, as has already happened to staunch moderates like Benny Tai.
And yes, localists and independence advocates would have to set aside some rigid, self-righteous tendencies. If the sides do not, then the future of the struggle really is a split. Of course, splintered freedom-struggling groups can and do exist, and make progress, but it is a huge liability — witness Syria’s fragmented opposition.
The only absolute condition of membership in the council should be an unequivocal commitment to nonviolence.
Not only does there need to be much more debate about what Hong Kong’s freedom fighting group’s ultimate goal should be, but there also needs to be debate about their strategy for getting there.
To give an idea of what I mean, take this example: both Joshua Wong and Eddie Chu advocate self-determination. Starting back in 2015, Joshua envisioned using referendums as a means to reach the goal of self-determination, with a referendum eventually on the post-2047 political status of Hong Kong around 2030.
It was an attractive idea, but the sticking point was, how did he expect the Party would ever recognise such a referendum? On the other hand, after winning a seat in LegCo in 2016 with the most votes ever for any LegCo candidate, Eddie Chu said that the self-determination movement should work through LegCo.
He thought that within an election or two, most of the pro-democracy camp would be self-determinationist.
Not long after that, the Hong Kong government started disqualification proceedings against six LegCo members, four of whom were self-determinationists or pro-independence advocates. Then Agnes Chow was barred from running to replace her disqualified Demosistō party fellow Nathan Law, on the grounds that her party advocates self-determination. So much for the LegCo path to self-determination.
In fact, there’s no chance of progress for Hong Kong’s freedom fighters in a rigged political system, from which an increasing number of people and beliefs have been barred. But that still leaves the question of well, then how?
That’s the sort of the strategising the freedom struggle needs and the council would do, collectively, through debate and discussion. And in doing so, the council would be on the path it was trying to find.
The way to work toward the goal of self-determination is to promote a parallel society, a movement that doesn’t worry about the Party’s say, but concentrates on building up a strong, wide-ranging civil society outside of Party control and creating “liberated zones,” so to speak.
Instead of demanding autonomy, we create it. We psychologically secede from Communist domination with joy and pride.
This leaves the question of how to attain the ultimate objective, while at the same time recognising that it must involve strengthening the parts of Hong Kong society which already act as forces of resistance and markers of separate identity.
Rather than banging our heads against the wall of the Party, for now, we sidestep it. Of course, ultimately, a showdown is inevitable, but in the meantime, there’s so much more we could do.
In his book, The Egyptians: A Radical History of an Unfinished Revolution, Jack Shenker characterises Egypt today as divided into two parts, which he calls Mubarak Country and Revolution Country.
Mubarak Country has political power and controls the security forces and the economy. But Revolution Country is still very much alive and can be found in the many cracks and crevices of society, among activists, workers, the poor, intellectuals, writers, and musicians who elude regime attempts to extinguish them.
The two “countries” have diametrically opposed visions of what Egypt should be. This sounds like Hong Kong. Here, there are also two separate “countries” — call them Communist Country and Umbrella Country. Hong Kong people are thinking about the sort of society they want.
That is almost diametrically opposed to Party rule, which is why the Party does what it can to wipe it out. These are the roots in this parallel society that must be cultivated.
While the Party can ignore referenda and purge the formal political system, it cannot prevent the development of a parallel society, except by taking extreme measures such as a more severe crackdown on civil liberties. It might eventually do that, but we should make full use of the free space that still exists.
Key to the development of that parallel society is organising and recruiting, reaching out to people and inviting them to join the struggle. In addition to articulating the ultimate goal and strategising to reach it, these should be the top priorities of the council.
The goal is to have a “Resistance and Self-determination Committee” in every Hong Kong public housing estate and neighbourhood.
The committees would be made up of residents of their area and linked to the council. They would carry out whatever activities they see as important and relevant in their part of town. When needed and called upon by the council, the committees can help to mobilise people in their areas for a demonstration or other activity.
Organising like this is painstaking work, requiring commitment and effort. For most groups in the struggle for freedom, it would mean operating differently from how they are used to.
Campaigning for the next election or recruiting for the next demonstration take second place to creating a strong, durable foundation. We shift the culture and society in the direction of resistance and self-determination, grow the movement and get people involved.
At the moment, the freedom struggle is understaffed. Meanwhile, there are many frustrated and angry young people out there, whose energy can be channelled toward constructive goals.
There is also a deep pessimism. The pessimism comes from seeing the way things are but not seeing a way out. People need to be invited into the process so that they can see that, collectively, we the people are that way out. This helps to overcome pessimism, which can otherwise easily lapse into the fatalism, resignation and apathy that the Party is happy to see in Hong Kong people.
As I noted a year ago, the Umbrella Movement “did more than any other event to promote a politically conscious and active citizenship, especially among a majority of young people, upwards of 80 to 90 percent of whom are in favour of democracy and genuine autonomy.
“This resistance is a factor that the Party will have to contend with for years and perhaps even generations to come; indeed, it could outlast the Party itself…. the fate of Hong Kong rests on what this generation of young people decides to do.”
The freedom struggle has a strong natural base. Opinion polls have for years reported that at least two-thirds of Hong Kong people want universal suffrage, and support the idea of a Hong Kong democracy. Other opinion polls have shown something like one in six people identify as localists.
And over the last two years, still others show that anywhere from 40 to 61 percent of Hong Kong young people support independence. Meanwhile, fewer young Hong Kong people than ever identify themselves as Chinese. Within those numbers lie potential freedom fighters.
The inevitability of suffering and sacrifice
Given that Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom will be long and hard, one of the most pressing questions facing Hongkongers is, are we up for it?
Along the way, it will almost certainly entail much greater suffering and sacrifice than we have faced so far.
A poorer, less developed society may have the advantage of having less to lose. The distractions and comforts of a consumer society like Hong Kong can act as the “opium of the masses.” This is not a real way out, but it dulls the pain and allows us to look away from the fact that our society is being undermined and usurped.
As a friend put it not long ago, “The commies sized us up and are convinced they’ve got our number. At first, they were a little bit worried, but then they saw we’re just a bunch of soft kids.” Is this the case? Time will tell.
Many might decide the struggle’s not worth it, too painful and risky, success too remote. An increasing number might “vote with their feet,” indicated by being present or absent for a vote. Articles about people emigrating are posted on a regular basis. So often these days, the question arises: “Are you getting out?”
Just what might the price of struggle be?
When Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, Alex Chow, Raphael Wong and 12 others were sentenced by the High Court to longer prison sentences than ever before for nonviolent, protest-related crimes, people began to get a sense of what that price might be.
When Edward Leung and 25 others were sentenced to extraordinarily long prison sentences for violent crimes relating to the police-protester clashes of 2016, people began to get a sense of what the price might be.
Now that the Hong Kong government is in the process of banning Hong Kong National Party, the very first time any political group will be outlawed in Hong Kong, people are beginning to get a sense of what the price might be.
More people will have to be willing to risk the prospect of prison. In the face of increasing persecution and the Party’s refusal to entertain our demands, we will have to escalate: labour strikes, public housing rent strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience, even hunger strikes.
None of these come without cost. It will become more difficult to lead ordinary lives. The burden will continue to fall disproportionately on young people, who must lead the way. Our actions may provoke a more severe crackdown.
The struggle could even, at some point, entail loss of life and involve facing armed force by the Hong Kong police and Party army. It’s important to remember our adversary is one of the most violent, criminal regimes in history, up there with the Nazis and Soviet Communists, in terms of its number of victims.
We will have to work together and take initiatives with great deliberation and coordination so as to appropriately balance the struggle for the goal with the risks to those involved.
And throughout we must remain resolutely nonviolent.
If we decide we are not willing to pay the price — and it may indeed be a very high price — we will suffer the consequence of watching our city die before our eyes, knowing that we did not do what needed to be done.
Lessons from Ireland
It is not those who inflict the most, but those that can suffer the most who will conquer – Terence MacSwiney, Irish nationalist who died in 1920 after a 74-day hunger strike in a British prison while serving a sentence for sedition.
Ireland was occupied and dominated for centuries by a much more powerful and populous neighbour. Indeed, for much of that time, Britain was among the most powerful countries in the world. Somehow, throughout it all, Ireland managed to preserve its separate identity and desire for freedom, even as the coloniser came to dominate the Emerald Isle to the point where its native language was virtually extinguished and replaced by English.
In the early 20th century, after decades of intense struggle and at a time when Britain was relatively weak, Irish republicans managed to reach a stalemate: Irish home rule except for five Protestant-majority counties in the north of the island.
Three decades later, Irish home rule became the fully independent Republic of Ireland in 1949, but the five-county exception made Northern Ireland a part of the UK. So the struggle went on, resulting eventually in the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998, which preserved Northern Ireland, but ensured the rights of its Catholic minority.
Thus, by the end of the 20th century, after eight centuries of various forms of English domination, most of Ireland was able for to throw off its neighbour’s colonialism and become a successful modern country.
But look at the suffering this entailed: war, famines, mass poverty, mass emigration, and, in the latter stages, both state and paramilitary terrorism, thousands killed, thousands imprisoned, young people dying on hunger strike.
Down through the centuries, one of the key markers of separate identity that helped to empower resistance to colonial domination was the majority’s religion, Catholicism.
But Catholicism was also its own form of oppression, and in recent decades, after revelations of numerous abuses perpetrated by the Church, Ireland has begun to throw off that oppression too, legalising divorce, same-sex marriage and, soon, abortion amidst vastly declining Church attendance. Ireland is one of the great human rights success stories of recent years.
Hong Kong and Ireland have a lot in common. Both were claimed by huge and powerful neighbours as their own, and held with an iron grip. Few outsiders showed solidarity with their people for fear of offending their powerful oppressor.
Many said there was no chance of them attaining substantial autonomy because the oppressor was just too powerful and too intent on maintaining its grip. The coloniser promoted immigration, changing the demographic make-up of the society, implanting a population loyal to the coloniser, so that it could not be so clearly discerned that most people wanted home rule, autonomy, or independence.
And now it looks as if Hong Kong might follow in Ireland’s footsteps with mass emigration as well.
There are also important differences. Ireland was economically backward compared with Britain, whereas Hong Kong is more developed than the PRC. Most of Hong Kong’s population has the same ethnic identity as the majority of the population on the mainland (Han Chinese) whereas the Irish were considered to have a separate ethnic identity from the English.
The English, while oppressors, also had a liberal self-image and Ireland was less integral to their national identity, whereas the Communist Party is adamantly anti-liberal, anti-democratic, Leninist, and stakes its claim to legitimacy partly on its ability to recover and maintain sovereignty over all parts of what it considers China.
Hong Kong has been ruled by China for only 21 years; Ireland was under British rule for centuries. Over the last century, when the Irish made the most headway in their freedom struggle, British power was in decline, whereas China is becoming more powerful. But perhaps the most important difference is the amount of suffering and sacrifice the Irish endured.
From the comparison between Ireland and Hong Kong, some lessons can be derived.
Lesson #1: All long-term freedom struggles undergo “low tides” and periods in which it may even appear that the oppressed have been defeated. They need to be tenacious, to sink their roots deep so as to persevere and survive through the dark years. Resistance helps to fortify a separate identity, which in turn is one of the core strengths of resistance.
Lesson #2: In the middle of the struggle, it can often be hard to say who is winning and who is losing, and what may appear a defeat at one point could end up, looking back, to be the beginning of a bigger victory.
Lesson #3: In cases like Ireland and Hong Kong, occupied and dominated by a must larger neighbour, the oppressed must be willing to endure, sacrifice and suffer, most likely over a long period of time, in order to prevail.
I used to work for Tibetan Children’s Villages (TCV) in India. TCV educates Tibetan exile children, many of whom fled their occupied country and crossed the highest mountains in the world to get a Tibetan education under the protection of the Dalai Lama. In the TCV cafeteria, his famous message hung on the wall: “Never give up. No matter what is going on, never give up. Never give up. No matter what is going on around you, never give up.”
In other contexts, this phrase might sound cliché. When addressed to Tibetan children, who have sacrificed so much to get an education in their own language, their own religion, their own culture, and whose future as individuals and as people is increasingly uncertain, it is not.
This precept is baked into the way that they think, the way that they feel, the way that they experience the world, the way that they see themselves, the way they live.
If Hong Kong people make that precept a part of who we are, then we, like the Irish, like the Tibetans, may still have a chance for freedom. As long as there is resistance, there is hope.