Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine and the author of “Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink.”
Protesters who took to the streets of Hong Kong in great numbers in 2014 and 2019 failed to advance the democratization of the city’s government as they sought.
Yet looking at how demonstrators in places from Minsk to Minneapolis and from Beirut to Bangkok are now pressing their agendas, it is clear that Hong Kong’s struggles have emboldened and influenced activists around the globe in their own distinctive fights against autocratic forces even if the situation in Hong Kong now looks decidedly bleak.
The plight of members of the 1989 Chinese student movement, spiritual forefathers of Hong Kong’s young protesters, was of course even starker. The activists who flocked to Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and plazas in other Chinese cities that spring did not achieve their goals of increasing political freedom or winning official acknowledgment of their patriotism before the People’s Liberation Army bloodily crushed their movement.
Yet their bravery provided inspiration for the activists who did succeed at driving political change across the Soviet bloc in places ranging from Prague to Leipzig in the months after June 4, 1989, according to what some of them have told me directly.
Back in China, memories of Tiananmen have influenced several generations of 21st century activists in Hong Kong. Symbols associated with 1989, from reproductions of the iconic “Tank Man” photograph to replicas of the Goddess of Democracy statue erected by the students, have figured prominently in Hong Kong’s protests.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement was the biggest sustained wave of protests anywhere in China since 1989. It captured global attention and brought the city’s financial district to a standstill.
The demonstrators’ main stated aim was the open election of the city’s chief executive by universal suffrage in place of Beijing’s plan to tighten its control over the nomination process. In the end, Hong Kong’s leader is still chosen by a Beijing-controlled committee rather than the public.
Last year’s demonstrations drew even bigger crowds onto the streets, lasted even longer and gained even more global media attention.
While it began with protests against an extradition bill that would have made it easy for Beijing to send suspects over the border to be subjected to the whims of the mainland’s skewed legal system, it grew into a struggle to more broadly protect local freedoms, extend democracy and get the government to rein in police abuses.
While the extradition bill was ultimately withdrawn, Beijing imposed a new National Security Law on Hong Kong in June which makes it even easier for activists to be whisked over the border, held without access to lawyers and subjected to punishments handed out by courts answerable to the Communist Party. Meanwhile, this year’s legislative elections were canceled, local freedoms, including the right to stage protests, have been curtailed and the police remain unfettered.
Yet it is in some sense even more problematic to dismiss the Hong Kong protests as failures pure and simple than it was to treat Tiananmen that way.
Whether or not the 2019 demonstrators will eventually inspire new local actions like their 2014 predecessors did, a good case can be made that the city’s latest struggles added significantly to the global repertoire of resistance.
It is admittedly difficult to fix the origin of protests tactics and strategies and Hong Kong youth borrowed eclectically from multiple international sources. But their influence can be seen in the creativity of demonstrators elsewhere deploying different devices to limit the effects of tear gas; in the way they too stress the value of downplaying leaders and crowdsourcing decisions on strategic steps via social media platforms; and in the way that Thai activists, crediting Hong Kong’s elevation of a simple umbrella into a central protest symbol, adopted mobile phone flashlights as a comparable icon.
Most generally, Hong Kong protesters’ “be water” mantra of tactical flexibility has had a widespread impact and been cited by activists in places ranging from Bangkok to the American city of Portland.
This epigram has deep Daoist and martial arts roots and strong local associations, since a quote by late Hong Kong and Hollywood hero Bruce Lee is cited as a source for it. It has, as befits a fluid metaphor, flowed across borders swiftly and easily, inspiring election fraud demonstrators in Minsk, for example, to melt away when confronted by overwhelming security forces in one place and nimbly shift their focus to another location.
Last year’s protest wave in Hong Kong, which began to build when crowds gathered in the city’s Victoria Park for an annual vigil honoring the Tiananmen martyrs of 1989, did not succeed in accomplishing its goals. It is showing a power to inspire, however, that is affecting more places and struggles in a wider variety of settings than any past Chinese protest wave.