The world is witnessing something stunning: the complete erosion of Hong Kong. The once shining “Pearl of the Orient” has become a mere fantastical title from a distant era— one that believed in codes of conduct, democracy, and inalienable rights.
Instead, over the last two months, terror and chaos have gradually descended on Hong Kong, leaving the once mighty beacon for Western-styled freedoms in Asia in a state of despair.
On Saturday, July 27, defying a police ban, nearly 300,000 protesters marched against mob violence. Police fired tear gas and sponge grenades, and beat demonstrators with batons. A key organizer, Max Chung Kin-ping, was later arrested for “inciting unlawful assembly.” And who gets to decide if an assembly is unlawful? The police. The following day, protesters once again blocked most of Hong Kong’s Central district, which is the heart of the city, to further protests against the ongoing police brutality. In one video, a police officer is seen firing rounds from an elevated pedestrian walkway down into an unarmed crowd of fleeing protesters.
When the pro-democracy protests started in early June, dissenters were seeking to peacefully demonstrate against their local government, which they saw as Beijing’s puppet. Their demands were old-fashioned: for universal suffrage, the resignation of their leaders, justice against a corrupt police force obsessed with violence, and the release of political prisoners. All of this has been ignored by the Beijing-backed government.
In the wake of the millions marching in mass protest, Hongkongers have started to take more extreme measures. Peaceful demonstrators have clogged public administration buildings like the tax office, causing lengthy queues that can last hours. They have halted subway trains during rush hour traffic. They have surrounded and vandalized Hong Kong’s police headquarters.
On Sunday, July 21, protesters even vandalized Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong. While they did so, screams rang out: “Free Hong Kong!” “Save Hong Kong!” “Freedom for Hong Kong!” Beijing responded with threats to bring in the People’s Liberation Army to stop any further protests and manage the peace. Like a nightmare, 30 years later, the world can see it: Tiananmen Square, Part II.
Protesters have also stormed and completely destroyed most of the Legislative Council building—home to Hong Kong’s parliament—where they defaced photographs of public officials and displayed the Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom, as a symbol of hope and defiance.
Hired thugs in white have begun to violently attack the unarmed pro-democracy protesters in black, while the Hong Kong police have refused to respond. Authorities were even videotaped allowing those dressed in white to walk away without being questioned or identified. Meanwhile, after the pro-democracy protests, the police frequently stop and catalogue protesters, random citizens, and journalists for further scrutiny and investigation. It’s no surprise though. If you live in Hong Kong long enough, you come to understand that the police is one of the most corrupt institutions in the city.
After one particularly bad melee in Yuen Long’s subway station, the floor was left covered in blood while scores of the wounded pleaded, “Why? Why?” Lam Cheuk Ting, a pro-democracy politician, was wounded during the onslaught. (You can watch a video of the gory attack on his Facebook page, though viewer discretion is advised.)
Following the Yuen Long incident, a pro-Beijing politician and a former president of the Law Society of Hong Kong, Junius Kwan-yiu Ho, called for more violence and death threats. In a live Facebook video posted to his page, he stated in Cantonese: “Today, I want to tell you very clearly: the paths before you? One is a path of being alive, one is a path of not being alive. You must choose which path to take. Decide soon.” This is the true mindset of the pro-Beijing forces: bend to our will or die.
Making matters worse is that Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam recently submitted her resignation in agreement with one of the demands by the protesters. Beijing, however, refused her resignation, an act that equates to spitting on the people of Hong Kong.
In addition, multiple Beijing politicians have publicly stated that the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 is a “historic document,” “void” and therefore “no longer valid.” This is a clear indication that China’s government has no intention of preserving the “one country, two systems” found in Hong Kong. Beijing wants the world to stay out of its business and allow it to control Hong Kong as it sees fit, regardless of any past agreements. “One country, one system” is now, and always has been, the Chinese mantra for Hong Kong.
This is typical behavior across Asia: agreements are struck to end arguments, after which they no longer serve any purpose. One party then ignores the agreement, which further escalates the conflict, which the world continues to watch, year in and year out, decade after decade.
The Hong Kong agreement, in China’s view, is not actually about maintaining a pact with Great Britain. The European Parliament disagrees. It has sided with the pro-democracy protesters and called for the release of all political prisoners in Hong Kong.
For over a decade, Hongkongers have longed to have a government separate and distinct from China, and to be able to elect their own leaders in free and uncorrupted elections. Yet universal suffrage, after more than a decade of protests, is still nothing more than a pipe dream, one Hongkongers nevertheless cling to. What the world is witnessing now in Hong Kong is a city-state, much like Monaco, desperately seeking to escape from the clutches of communist control, a fight that has grown and evolved into calls for absolute freedom, the freedom to choose.
This is what happens in communist societies: the government, via the police, attacks anyone who does not hold to its authoritarian vision, and if that doesn’t work, it brings out the thugs to beat dissenters into submission.
Meanwhile, China’s immigration control at its border with Hong Kong has recently suspended e-channel lines and forced each individual to endure tighter scrutiny, examining every single piece of written text that comes across its border. It’s clear that China doesn’t want any news of Hong Kong’s dissent reaching its own censored citizens.
The people of Hong Kong are angry. Their peaceful demonstrations are being violently attacked, forcing them to fight for their lives. They are also fighting for their freedoms, which are rarely won without a battle. Thomas Mann writes in his masterpiece The Magic Mountain: “With horror he understood that at the end of everything only the physical remained, only the teeth and the nails. Yes, they must fight.”
Nevertheless, there remain two camps: the Republican Capitalists, who seek those freedoms, and the Communist Socialists, who seek absolute control.
In addition to their liberty, the people of Hong Kong are fighting for limited space and limited jobs, which have only added to their frustrations and anxieties. Real estate and rental prices have continued to soar, as a result of mainland Chinese companies buying up properties in Hong Kong. Wages remain stagnant. There seems to be no relief in sight. Anger is the most common emotion among the city’s youth. As the political crises in Hong Kong grow more serious, many of them are considering leaving for Singapore, which they view as a haven of opportunity.
Having a government that doesn’t represent you or your basic needs or rights only makes it worse. What follows that is anarchy. What follows that is destruction. And after that, freedom.
CG Fewston is an American novelist, a former visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, and visiting fellow at City University. His most recent novel is A Time to Love in Tehran, published in 2015.