I am writing from a lounge in the Hong Kong International Airport, receiving the generous hospitality of the staff of Cathay Pacific, the most beleaguered victim of an ongoing game of chicken between Beijing and Hong Kong’s laser-toting, face-mask-wearing heirs of the Umbrella Revolution. It is Monday, August 19, the day after a massive demonstration at Victoria Park. For eleven straight weekends protestors have taken to public space cheek to jowl. The immediate cause was the Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass an extradition law that would have recognized warrants issued by the mainland Chinese government for residents of the city. The initial protests pushed the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor into shelving, but not withdrawing, the bill. Far from mollified, the emboldened and anxious protestors continued to appear each weekend as the environment became increasingly polarized between those taking issue with the Hong Kong government (yellow ribbons) and those supporting the police (blue ribbons). Criminal organizations supported the police at some protests; at others, demonstrators took to hurling rocks and, at times, beating people from the other side. Even voices sympathetic to the protestors worry about the rule of law and order.
The transformation from impotent subject to e pluribus unum confers a sense of power . . . encouraging a bravery that very easily becomes heedlessness.
Depending on whom you believe, Sunday’s protest drew crowds numbering either 128,000 (according to police reports) or 1.7–2 million (according to organizers)—in a place littered with security cameras and where even official photographs give dramatic evidence of the presence of multitudes of people and umbrellas. Both sides have incentives to tell “their truth,” but we can wonder how the difference in numbers is not the “3 or 5 percent, give or take,” we might encounter in a poll, or “50 percent over budget” as in city contracts, but something on the order of 1,300 percent. Consider that Hong Kong has a population of 7.4 million, of which 1.7 million is about 23 percent: a reasonable equivalent would be almost 2 million of New York City’s 8.6 million people, or roughly all the residents of Manhattan and Staten Island combined.
These demonstrations were the first since the protestors had left the Hong Kong International Airport, the occupation of which was a sobering scene in its own right. At their most pacific, images of that day show a sea of people seated on the floor—a precious collection of obstacles which, in the end, led to the cancelation of more than a hundred flights and the effective closure of the airport for two days.
But the transformation from impotent subject to e pluribus unum confers a sense of power—intuited by protestor and government alike—encouraging a bravery that very easily becomes heedlessness. And why not when you, for once, outnumber the police, when their riot gear and batons cannot restrain you, and when you can ethically justify any act of violence you personally commit as retribution for the symbolic violence the regime has imposed upon you and those like you for generations and generations?
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was correct in noting that the defining aspect of freedom is restraint.
Alas, the protestors took to violence in the Hong Kong International Airport. In previous manifestations, there had been various altercations between goons and protestors and considerable quotidian inconveniences. For example, protestors blocked one road in the evening and continued to occupy it when the morning commute began, forcing employees to choose far longer routes to get to work. The South China Morning Post interviewed a train conductor who reported various youths, seeing in him a blue enemy of the people, dressing him down simply for doing his job. But here in the airport, some protestors were caught on video harassing innocent passengers and beating a man who turned out to be a reporter for the pro-mainland-government Global Times. This was a very different image from that of the protestors who, two months earlier, returned at dawn to clean up the streets where they had protested earlier in the day so as not to disrupt the lives of others.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn was correct in noting that the defining aspect of freedom is restraint, that liberty is operative only in an environment of responsibility. Saying so, however, is not to take the side of the regime. It is to remind the protestor that numbers may indeed be sufficient to effect substantial political change, but the perception of the protestors as ethical actors is what grants them the ability to make legitimate claims against a government. And that legitimacy often corresponds to a challenge to the legitimacy of the government, which could be far more damaging than cries for the removal of any individual politician.
According to Chinese law, a rioter is an illegitimate actor; any act threatening security and public order can be construed as terrorism. That would open the door for Hong Kong’s government to invoke Article 14 of the Basic Law—its constitutional document—and invite China to send police or military personnel to restore order. The irony—that resisting a law giving Beijing the ability to extradite a select group should legitimize the wholesale occupation of Hong Kong by the People’s Liberation Army—should not be lost on anyone. The Beijing government has wisely and patiently waited (though not without sending dozens of military vehicles to neighboring Shenzhen), and the protestors have left the airport following a judge’s injunction.
As we spoke, a new protest was erupting—the one of either 128,000 or 1.7 million people—and this one was deliberately peaceful.
In speaking with someone in Guangzhou, I was surprised by the conviction with which two positions were held. First, I was told that protests were Western. I, humbly, submitted that protests do not belong to any civilization. The Chinese government itself records tens of thousands of “mass incidents” (protests) every year. Moreover, did Mao Zedong not protest under the Republican government? It was true, I supposed, that Mao did follow Marxism, which was an ideology developed in the West. The second was that the cia was responsible for the protests. In my travels outside of the United States, I have found a ubiquitous belief that the cia, or the U.S. government, is a sort of distant emperor who can intervene with untrammeled success whenever it chooses. Certainly, U.S. agents might support movements with which they have sympathy, but in Hong Kong’s case the turnout and sustainability suggests that there is profound concern and participation by locals. The Agency has very highly talented personnel, but it seems highly unlikely that it could manage to get millions of people to walk away from family outings and extracurricular activities every weekend when doing so would put them at considerable professional and personal risk.
As we spoke, a new protest was erupting—the one of either 128,000 or 1.7 million people—and this one was deliberately peaceful: the protestors were (relatively) amiable towards the police, who did not interfere, and the demonstrators were able to return to the moral high ground. That allows us to return to the question of their escalating demands, ranging from the reasonable (completely withdraw the extradition bill) to the politically symbolic but unlikely (fire Carrie Lam) to the utterly fantastic (a robust autonomy from the mainland Chinese government). The range of demands is possible because Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administered Region of the People’s Republic of China, part of its “One Country, Two Systems” policy, allows for a great number of conflicting viewpoints. This ambiguity was certainly beneficial prior to and at the handover of Hong Kong from Great Britain to China in 1997. But as 2047 approaches, when the fifty-year period governed by the Basic Law ends, greater clarity and consensus are vital. The protestors and government, and the supporters of both, would be wise to develop a common and broadly acceptable sense of what a system that is different from mainland China’s, but nevertheless subject to it, might look like.
In forging a path forward, prudence is required not simply because of the ultimate danger of violence and instability, but for the more mundane reason of allowing people to live their lives with freedom and dignity, something Hong Kong has done phenomenally well. Indeed, the consequences are already mounting. Cathay Pacific’s ceo Rupert Hogg and his deputy Paul Loo Kar-pui have stepped down, four pilots and two airport staff have been fired, and investigations are abuzz to discover the authors of an internal email in which employees defended their right to protest while off duty. Beijing is not at all pleased: scrutiny of Cathay’s 27,000 employees will intensify under government pressure, and the airline is less likely to receive political favors and private patronage. Already subject to pressure from competing airlines based in mainland China, Cathay’s stock has been buffeted and volatile; costs for cancelation of flights in the range of a few hundred million have been incurred, and it impossible to calculate the future damages. Can such costs be calibrated against the right to free speech, including that of Cathay employees? The answer might be readily apparent in principle, but, again, freedom requires prudential restraint. Restraint is not inaction, but action that considers a range of unintended outcomes for a people other than oneself.
The many different actors in Hong Kong and China find themselves in difficult situations; those at Cathay Pacific and other such organizations have been drawn into unwinnable ones. My heart and prayers are with them all.