Back in the days of the Cold War, Hong Kong was known as “Berlin of the East,” a nod to the city’s status as a bastion of freedom and a bulwark against the spread of Chinese Communism in the region.
Today, as a new Cold War takes hold between the US and China, Hong Kong is again being compared to the German city.
A new, sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing is taking hold, and what remain of Hong Kong’s formerly robust liberties are being systematically dismantled. At stake is whether Hong Kong goes the way of East Berlin—completely taken over by a Communist dictatorship—or holds out, like West Berlin, as a free, if isolated, enclave in the shadow of an authoritarian power.
One of the earliest and most prominent comparisons to Berlin last year came from Republican US senator Josh Hawley, a China hawk, during a brief visit to Hong Kong in October. Standing in front of the city’s glassy legislature, Hawley summed up the stakes for the pro-democracy protest movement that had taken over Hong Kong’s streets in the months prior.
Sometimes, Hawley said, “the fate of one city defines the challenge of a whole generation. Fifty years ago, it was Berlin. Today, it is Hong Kong.” The free people of the world are standing with Hong Kong, he added, “so that we can all say, ‘We are Hong Kongers.'” It is hard to imagine that Hawley would even be allowed to enter Hong Kong today, especially as the national security law is written such that it prohibits actions by anyone perceived as being anti-China, regardless of whether they are Chinese citizens or on Chinese soil.
That Hong Kong has emerged as a global issue, taken up at the highest levels of government in some of the world’s most powerful nations, and prompting a quick and coordinated response by the international community, is remarkable—not least because it has taken place during a global pandemic that has seen countries turn inwards. In the past two months alone, the UK has extended a pathway to citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers, the EU has begun to consider visa and migration measures to support Hong Kongers, and the US is considering legislation that would grant Hong Kongers priority refugee status. The US has also revoked the city’s special status, which gave it unique trade privileges and exempted it from tariffs and customs controls imposed on mainland China. One country after another has suspended its extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
“That kind of speed is unprecedented and quite surprising,” said pro-democracy activist Nathan Law, who recently fled from Hong Kong to the UK, of the international response to developments in his home. “We have a slang in Cantonese: ‘borrowing the east wind.’ We are also riding some tides to do it,” Law, who recently graduated from a master’s degree at Yale, added.
Hong Kongers’ dramatic and persistent protest movement has taken the city’s narrative mainstream and captured the attention of the world.
Their success reflects a hardening attitude among democracies towards an increasingly aggressive China, over the key issues of trade and security. But just as crucial has been the international lobbying network that Hong Kong activists built from the ground up, working behind the scenes to shape the global discourse on the city. Call it grassroots diplomacy or unofficial statecraft: they have managed to harness the momentum of the protests into tangible political influence in the halls of power.
From protest to politics
Samuel Chu has watched up close over the years as Hong Kong’s protest movement learned how to go global.
The native Hong Konger completed his undergraduate and graduate degrees in the US, and worked as a minister before turning to community organizing. In 2014, Chu made a trip back home to witness the work of the pro-democracy activists who were protesting China’s interference in local elections through its selection of vetted candidates. The Umbrella Movement, named for the accessories wielded by demonstrators to fend off tear gas and pepper spray, occupied major city streets for nearly three months as citizens demanded greater democracy. Chu, whose father, the reverend Chu Yiu-ming, was one of the key leaders of the movement, slept out in the street encampments and fielded interviews from international media outlets. Around the world, demonstrations popped up to rally support for Hong Kong’s protests.
But Chu knew something was missing.
“The movement in Hong Kong didn’t really understand international politics,” said Chu, 42, and a US citizen for nearly 25 years. “What you had was a lot of people who supported—a lot of solidarity events, rallies, vigils, and t-shirts. That’s great, but that’s not actual politics.”
While the Umbrella protests made international headlines, they drew limited concrete political support from governments. The White House at the time called for elections featuring “a genuine choice of candidates” in Hong Kong, but stopped short of taking real policy actions. A handful of US lawmakers introduced a bill designed to safeguard Hong Kong’s freedom and democracy, but failed to gain a vote. On the ground, the protest encampments were soon bulldozed and the movement faded.
Fellow activist Law visited Washington, DC in 2015 to speak at a conference about Hong Kong’s protests and meet with members of Congress. At the time, “very few Congressmen were really interested in Hong Kong issues,” he recalls.
What the movement needed, Chu realized, was someone who understood the intricacies of US politics—someone who could “do the political work on the ground” and get “beyond the photo-ops.” It occurred to him that he was perfectly positioned to take on that role—as a veteran community organizer with deep Capitol Hill connections, and as a Hong Konger with close ties to the city’s democracy movement. “I’m sort of this unique, odd person out,” he said. “I actually work in US politics, I don’t work in Hong Kong politics.”
Last September, Chu launched the Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), a Washington-based advocacy group. It has since held hundreds of meetings with Congress, lobbied to get major bills passed, including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, and led efforts to introduce more than a dozen Hong Kong-related legislations. One of the bills currently under review is the bipartisan Hong Kong Safe Harbor Act, which offers at-risk Hong Kongers priority refugee status in the US on top of the existing annual cap. It was previously called the Hong Kong Airlift Act, in a nod to when Allied forces airlifted supplies to besieged West Berlin.
“We were able to change the global international fight from, ‘let’s get sympathy and solidarity’ to ‘let’s do politics and let’s do it well,’ and in a way that’s in line with the US and other countries’ self-interest,” said Chu. “And that, I think, is the paradigm shift.”
It’s not just a matter of turning protests into politics, however, but also channeling the political momentum to fuel more protests. Hong Kong demonstrators are well aware of the need for this symbiotic strategy, and speak of the twin battle-lines of street protests and international diplomacy reinforcing one another.
“Everyone who has participated in the movement makes international lobbying possible because there has been, up to this point, a virtuous feedback loop between protesters on the ground and those of us championing the movement overseas,” said a UK-based representative of Stand with Hong Kong, who asked to be identified only as Madison for fear of reprisals. The crowdfunded grassroots international advocacy group does lobbying work in the US, EU, and Japan, establishing local alliances on the ground by tapping a broad base of politicians.
“We are all Hong Kongers now”
The international lobbying work of Hong Kong’s protesters and activists has succeeded, albeit unintentionally, in another important way: dramatically expanding what it means to be a Hong Konger.
The Hong Kong police force last month put out an extraterritorial arrest warrant for Chu, accusing him of inciting secession and colluding with foreign forces. Law, a member of the HKDC advisory board who last month fled Hong Kong for the UK, found himself on the same list of international fugitives, alongside four other Hong Kongers. Chu’s response to being made an international fugitive was simple and defiant: “We are all Hong Kongers now,” meaning to say, if an American citizen lobbying his own government can be targeted by China, then so can anyone. US representative Eliot Engel and senator Bob Menendez echoed him: “today we are all Hong Kongers,” they wrote in a statement in response to Chu’s arrest warrant.
The phrase echoes former US president John F. Kennedy’s iconic 1963 speech in West Berlin at the height of the Cold War. Standing at the heart of the city nearly two years after the Berlin Wall was erected, he pronounced the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner“—or, “I am a Berliner”—linking himself, and all those who treasure freedom, with the inhabitants of the besieged city.
This expansive, shared identity has been crucial for building and sustaining global support for Hong Kong’s protests. The fact that an international financial hub with free and open communications has fallen overnight into the grip of authoritarianism and risks spiraling into an acute human rights crisis makes Hong Kong’s situation deeply relatable and “a stark example of what many fear could happen elsewhere,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress located in Washington, DC. In contrast, the humanitarian crisis in Xinjiang, site of Beijing’s repression of the Uyghur minority, has taken years to elicit a response from foreign governments. And Tibet has fallen by the wayside as a headline human rights issue.
Fuchs, a former US deputy assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, helped organize an open letter, signed last month by over 20 former American diplomats calling on the US to take in Hong Kong refugees. Hong Kong, he said, is “one of the most powerful manifestations we have today of the ideological struggle between autocracy and democracy.” And because Hong Kong is such a global city, and a major conduit of foreign direct investment into China, “there is a belief that there is perhaps more US leverage [on Hong Kong] than on other issues.”
The battleground goes global
If the streets of Hong Kong were the immediate battleground of the protest movement last year, then the most urgent arena in which the fight for the city’s future will play out has now arguably expanded far beyond its physical borders. Draconian laws have made it exceedingly risky to protest in Hong Kong, and Beijing has systematically sought to isolate the city by making it harder for foreign journalists to secure work visas there and making foreign nationals liable to arrest under the national security law if they visit the city. Authorities are targeting local media, too, with last week’s brazen arrest of prominent activist and media mogul Jimmy Lai, and a police raid on the offices his pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily (activist retail traders responded by boosting Apple Daily’s stock some 1,100%). And Hong Kong’s opposition lawmakers will now be forced to cut off interactions with foreign politicians, as the government moves to criminalize such contact as collusion with foreign forces, punishable by up to life in prison.
“Because of the national security law, there has been such a chilling effect within Hong Kong, so international advocacy by people who are not in Hong Kong becomes ever more important,” said Madison of Stand with Hong Kong.
The work of Hong Kong’s grassroots lobbyists and diplomats over the past year has earned the city’s protest movement a key advantage: a global network of alliances stretching from civil society groups all the way to the highest levels of government. They can now use that network to continue pushing for actions that will help the movement’s cause, from targeted sanctions on Hong Kong and Chinese officials to greater support for Hong Kongers seeking asylum abroad.
“We really overshadowed the legitimacy of the [Hong Kong] government,” said Law, not long after meeting with US secretary of state Mike Pompeo in London on Aug. 2. “When international media want a response from Hong Kong, they’re not going after the government anymore. They’re asking the activists. When international leaders want to assess how much emphasis their government places [on the Hong Kong issue]… they’re not assessing who in the government they meet, but who in the movement they meet.”
The global nature of Hong Kong’s fight may well be its greatest source of resilience. What Beijing now has to contend with is not a single unruly region on its periphery, but a broad coalition of countries that increasingly sees China’s threat to Hong Kong as direct threats to freedom and democracy worldwide. That global support base, which includes high-profile groups like Hong Kong Watch in the UK and the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, will also help keep the international spotlight on Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s international lobbyists, Chu said, “took the fight to Europe and said, ‘See this in the context of your history and your struggle. Or they come to the US and say, ‘Just like you stared off the Nazis and Russia, you stare off China in the same way.”