Julia Chan — #hkfortrump: How American Liberals Have Failed Hong Kong’s Democracy Movement

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by Julia Chan

Thanksgiving, 2019: thousands joined in a rally to express their “gratitude” to Donald Trump. Waving the Stars and Stripes, they held up posters of Trump, photoshopped with a well-toned body and boxer gloves to symbolize the president’s fighting spirit. This took place in my home city of Hong Kong, organized by some of the most committed pro-democracy activists who braved tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, and often real bullets as they protested Beijing’s increasingly oppressive regime. This year, after resistance of all kinds has been suppressed by a new national security law directly imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), these activists continued to root for Trump in twitter campaigns and on YouTube channels. There, they would reiterate almost verbatim the bogus conspiracy theories of voter fraud, Biden’s collusion with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and COVID-19’s origins in a Chinese laboratory.

No, these Trump supporters are not older white males with no college education, a low income, or diagnosed with the “authoritarian syndrome.” They are intelligent, politically engaged, and idealistic university students and young professionals who demonstrated admirable courage in their pursuit of the very same liberal values and practices that Trumpism seeks to destroy in the American society. Commentators have pointed out how Trump’s “tough-on-China” posturing has won wide support across Asia: Hong Kong, Taiwan, Vietnam, South Korea, even among liberal groups within the PRC itself.[1] Others, more attuned to the city’s decade-long struggles for democratic self-determination, have noted the movement’s worrying turn to the right. For the more radical activists, Trump’s “America First” policy and MAGA slogan chime well with their separatist localist agenda, which often takes the form of animosity towards mainland Chinese tourists and immigrants, blamed for taking up social spaces and resources.

These observers may well be right, but they do not explain what is fundamentally a paradox: how can one be pro-Trump and anti-authoritarian at the same time? Does not one cancel out the other? Is it not more logical that we should seek our allies among fellow-victims of police brutality and arbitrary state power, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, rather than pin our hopes on a capricious would-be dictator who claims to be “a friend” of Xi Jingping? After all, as Trump’s “Executive Order on Hong Kong Normalization” inadvertently revealed, the US State Department had been providing regular training and sale of military equipment to the Hong Kong Police Force throughout the year-long protests, up till July 2020 when the presidential executive order terminated that connection.[2] While the HK protests and BLM remain divergent in their ultimate demands—few in Hong Kong have experienced, let alone understand, systemic racism, and most American citizens have little idea of what it is like to have their basic liberties snatched from them overnight—there is still much common ground in our collective resistance.

And yet, apart from a few attempts at building international solidarity and sharing protest tactics, many Hong Kongers turn to the far right, seeking support from the likes of Mike Pompeo and Marco Rubio instead. We need something more than a moral censure here. What the Trump supporters in Hong Kong have shown is a small nation’s desperation for survival, but more fundamentally, the failure of American liberalism itself. Although right-wing factions in the United States have a long history of co-opting resistance movements in foreign countries to further American imperial power, ironically, they were often the sole defender of those facing dire suppression. In the case of Hong Kong, except for Nancy Pelosi, few Democrats have ever spoken out about the city’s continued struggles against Beijing authoritarian domination. Unwilling to jeopardize their trade relations with the PRC, American liberals have proved themselves questionable allies. Despite their high-sounding ideals and the usual moral outrage they express at Trump’s attacks on democratic institutions at home, they remain deaf to others’ call for international solidarity and mutual support.

Few pro-trump liberals are deluded enough to believe the incumbent president holds any genuine goodwill for Hong Kongers. Like in many small Asian countries, we rely on the simple tactic of playing one imperial power against another. On his visit to the Berlin Wall, Joshua Wong (the face, though by no means the leader, of the movement) hailed Hong Kong as the “new West Berlin,” the battleground for a “new Cold War” between the US and The PRC.[3] Prompted by the G20 Summit that coincided with the height of the protests last year, activists developed an “international front” dedicated to lobbying Western sanctions on Hong Kong, if not on the PRC itself, for the latter’s infringement of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which promised to secure the autonomy, basic rights, and liberal institutions of the former colony.

In the United States, these efforts culminated in the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), passed almost unanimously in the both the Congress and the Senate, and which incidentally Trump at first refused to sign. True to its new-Cold-War metaphor, the HKHRDA is largely a nuclear option. It stipulates that the Secretary of State will make an annual report on the city’s autonomy and civil liberties. Should the region’s “One Country Two System” constitutional principle continue to erode, the US would revoke Hong Kong’s special status that offered unique privileges, unavailable to the rest of China, in areas such as trade, immigration, technology transfer, and intellectual exchanges. The HKHRDA would jeopardize Hong Kong’s position as a global financial hub; but given that Hong Kong funnels more than three quarters of the PRC’s yearly foreign investments, it will also cause indirect but substantial damage to China’s economy. Threatening mutually assured destruction, the bill was meant as a deterrent to slow down Beijing’s increasingly blatant interference. It was on the very next day after Trump reluctantly signed the bill, on 27 November 2019, that the Thanksgiving rally took place.

This time, though, the script did not play out like the last Cold War. Barely half a year later, the PRC responded to the bluff by putting in place a national security law criminalizing vaguely defined acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces, bypassing the local legislature altogether. The US officially removed Hong Kong’s special status and imposed sanctions on several pro-Beijing officials on 14 July 2020, but the sanction itself now meant little. Within days after the national security law came into effect, protest slogans and songs were outlawed. Students were arrested for displaying even blank placards. Materials deemed sensitive or controversial, from the Tiananmen Square Massacre to discussions of the separation of powers, are removed from textbooks. Judges are routinely harassed, as are activists and journalists. In a recent case, a TV producer was arrested for her news program that reported possible collusions between the police and the pro-Beijing groups responsible for a mob attack on civilians. Popularly elected pro-democracy legislators were “disqualified” and removed from their posts. Meanwhile, on the pretext of COVID-19, the government suspended further elections. For the first time since the end of colonial rule, opposition is completely absent in the city’s legislature.

Our future is beyond dystopian. It is no wonder that much of the movement drew inspirations from The Hunger Games movie trilogy. Chanting the main character’s line “If we burn, you burn with us” as their slogan (or laam chau in Cantonese), many welcomed the US sanctions as the long-overdue justice and vindication of their injured, jailed, and dead comrades. Their support—or worse, admiration—for Trump originates from frustrations with Hong Kong’s own powerlessness as a nation, with fighting for some twenty years what is invariably a losing battle. Many view Trump’s America as the only counterweight to the re-colonizing forces of Beijing, who apparently will stop at nothing short of total domination. Thus, in a problematic twist, even as Hong Kongers lament and struggle against the rapid erosion of the rule of law and other liberal institutions at home, they also celebrate Trump’s disregard for institutional protocols and political traditions as the very qualities necessary to hold the PRC in check. For though Obama’s “pivot to East Asia” strategy in 2011 turned American focus back onto the Asian-Pacific region, it was the Trump administration that produced the country’s most aggressive containment measures directed at the PRC. For many in Hong Kong, Trump’s antics on issues such as the trade war, the expulsion of state-owned companies like Huawei and TikTok, and the closure of the PRC embassy in Houston, offer almost a vicarious pleasure and sense of power.

More clear-sighted critics would point out that in instigating its own destruction, economically at the hands of the US and politically by Beijing, Hong Kong has only turned itself into a bargaining chip for Trump. Yet this is exactly why the Cold War rhetoric remains attractive despite its obvious obsolescence. The idea of a new Cold War offers a familiar narrative in which Hong Kong can again find its strategic role. After all, as the chess piece in the great game between Western democracies and communism, this quintessential neoliberal city did not just survive but prospered.[4] Hong Kong touted its free market economy not only as the “gateway” into communist China’s otherwise inaccessible pool of consumers, natural resources, and labor, but also as a guarantor of political and cultural freedom. The city’s pride in its economic success is entwined with its other identity as the enclave for dissenters and refugees from the dark, oppressive government of the CCP. When the “One Country, Two System” structure was proposed in the late 1980s, it was tacitly understood, or at least hoped, that Hong Kong would function as the model liberal democratic “open society,” whose path China would follow by gradually opening up its economy.

The development of the PRC under Xi Jingping has proved that the ideological binarism of the Cold War no longer holds: capitalism can work hand in glove with authoritarianism. In Hong Kong, the so-called “red capital” has been in fact one of the major vectors of suppression. It includes installing CCP staff in the governance structure of corporations, forcing companies to fire their employees for posting Facebook comments in support of the protest, and squeezing out local publishing houses and booksellers to stifle dissenting publications. Throughout Asia, US economic and military hegemony has been understood as the guarantor of security and protection, especially from the PRC as an emergent power. In recent decades, however, American business interests in China have silenced most governments in Western countries—particularly the United States and Britain—on issues ranging from the mass incarceration of human rights lawyers within the PRC to Xi’s dubious claims over the South China Sea.

As the global narrative of American liberalism collapses, we are left with few alternative discursive tools to defend the city’s shrinking political space. In practice, the protests last year and the Umbrella Movement in 2014 have sparked remarkably innovative forms of mutual aid and community building. For example, with the help of mobile apps that map and promote pro-democracy small businesses, a newly emerged “yellow economic circle” seriously challenged the monopoly of pro-establishment chain stores and corporations. Even today, the steady flow of politically like-minded customers continues to help struggling restaurant and shop owners survive the economic impact of COVID-19. Others have sponsored the daily expenses of the frontline protesters through crowdfunding, decentralized online chatgroups, and personal networks. It is a misconception that Hong Kong’s democratic movement is largely a middle-class affair.[5] Supporters cut across all age groups and all sectors of society—from pilots to construction workers to housewives to high school students to the unemployed—who share strong convictions in voluntarism and reciprocal care. These initiatives that seek to reshape Hong Kong’s socio-economic life find no coherent expression in international advocacy. Neither the Western media nor we seem able to move away from the binary of East and West, totalitarianism and freedom, Hong Kong as a “typical Chinese city” and the crown colony of the glorious past.

Hong Kongers’ pragmatic calculations of pitting US imperialism against Chinese domination are no doubt selfish. There is among us a willful ignorance of the realities of American life in the last four years. To believe that Hong Kong people’s experience of oppression is unique, to refuse to see that the treatment of migrants and asylum seekers under the Trump administration is of the same kind as the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang, is perhaps the greatest weakness of the city’s courageous and creative resistance movement. At the same time, we might also reflect whether we are asking too much of these young protesters, whose physical and psychological trauma from months of police brutality and harassment is often beyond the comprehension of onlookers. For those on the front line, looking to America for protection is as much a matter of personal survival as the survival of Hong Kong. As I write, Joshua Wong is facing his fourth jail sentence (13 months for inciting unlawful assembly) since 2016 and was held in solitary confinement with lights on around the clock during custody. His fellow-activist, Agnes Chow, nicknamed “the real Mulan,” will spend her twenty-fourth birthday in prison. Nor is the regime targeting only opposition leaders. Between June 2019 and November 2020, more than 10,000 people were arrested. Over 2300 of them have been charged and over 500 sentenced to jail, some for as long as six years. A handful of dissidents have managed to find political asylum in Germany, Britain, and Taiwan. In contrast, when four student protesters arrived at the US Consulate General seeking refuge late October this year (their friend had been apprehended and taken away before he could even reach the Consulate gates), they were simply asked to leave.

Contrary to the wishes of the HK Trump supporters, then, the enemy of my enemy is not really my friend. It should have been a clear warning sign when Trump threatened to send in the National Guards to suppress the Black Lives Matter protests this summer—an uncanny reminder to many of both the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989 and the more recent experience of police violence against protesters at home. At times, however, it seems that Hong Kong people are left with impossible choices. Between Trump and a Biden administration that still imagines that Xi Jingping’s the PRC can be persuaded to play by “international norms” through trade and without any rigorous engagement, it is understandable that they chose the former.[6] In the city’s lonely and futile fight against the CCP, Hong Kong people are not merely racist, or misguided, or selfishly opportunistic to wish for a US government that would at least claim to hold the PRC responsible for its flagrant violation of human rights. The paradoxical idea of a Pro-Trump liberal in Hong Kong is an instance not of the global rise of the right, but the inadequacies of American liberal politics and imagination that we in Asia have adopted as norm and model.

 

Julia Chan has recently completed her PhD in the Department of English, Yale University, where she researched on revolution and utopia in British and Soviet modernism. Her work has been published and is forthcoming in the Journal of Modern Literature and Modernism/modernity Print Plus. A native Hong Konger, she has taught English literature at Lingnan University and the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

 

[1]. https://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2020/10/democracy-activists-who-love-trump/616891/

[2]. https://www.whitehouse.gov/presidential-actions/presidents-executive-order-hong-kong-normalization/

[3]. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-germany/my-town-is-the-new-cold-wars-berlin-hong-kong-activist-joshua-wong-idUSKCN1VU0X4

[4]. Priscilla Roberts and John M. Carroll, eds, Hong Kong in the Cold War (Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2016).

[5] Though the political situation in Hong Kong has changed dramatically, Matthew Torne’s 2014 documentary Lessons in Dissent remains an excellent portrayal of grassroot and left-wing pro-democracy activists.

[6] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/06/us/politics/biden-china.html

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