Why you can’t compare the storming of the US Capitol and Hong Kong’s legislature

Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Supporters of U.S. President Donald Trump protest in front of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, U.S. January 6, 2021. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Image: Reuters/Stephanie Keith
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On the night of Jul. 1, 2019, Hong Kong protesters smashed the local legislature’s glass doors and took over the building. Yesterday, as photos of a pro-Trump mob breaching the US Capitol began circulating, many who know Hong Kong began bracing for the inevitable comparison.

Some comparisons are going to be made because at least at a superficial level, there are a few moments that do echo one another. For example, placed side by side, a photograph capturing a Trump supporter occupying the Senate leader’s chair calls to mind some images of protesters at the dais in Hong Kong’s legislature. But many of the comparisons are driven by an agenda, in which pro-Beijing outlets or voices argue that people in the US apply double standards in supporting Hong Kong’s protesters, while condemning yesterday’s pro-Trump crowd as rioters.

The images that look alike actually depict actions that couldn’t be more different. Where one moment symbolized hunger for the right to a full and free vote—the other was a willful denial of a fair election won in part thanks to grassroots efforts at expanding voter rights.

Tony Lin, a US-based journalist who formerly worked at Quartz, noted that the pro-Trump mob and Hong Kong’s protesters were motivated by goals that are pretty much diametrically opposed.

“So many nuances need to be addressed, but at [the] core what many [people] fought for in Hong Kong was EXACTLY what DC extremists trying to dismantle in the US: the right to vote,” he wrote. “…there should be a HUGE distinction between these two demands: ‘I want to vote’ v.s. ‘I want my candidate to win.’”

When Hong Kong protesters made their way into the local Legislative Council in 2019, it was a protest fundamentally against the Communist Party of China, which turned back on a pledge to give Hong Kongers the right to choose their leader, and instead steadily dismantled the city’s autonomy. The city has been ruled by a government chosen in a byzantine way and led by a leader basically appointed by Beijing. For a long time, nevertheless, Hong Kongers did try to play by the rules, with peaceful protests and by fielding candidates for those elections that were open.

On the day of the storming of the legislature, many of the actions carried out by protesters in the legislature referred to their disenfranchisement, and the repudiation of their efforts to participate even in a rigged system. They put up the British colonial flag, defaced portraits of government officials, and graffitied walls with political slogans like “It was you who taught me peaceful marches do not work.”

The pro-Trump mob that staged a violent insurrection in Washington DC, on the other hand, had entirely disparate objectives. Theirs was an attempt to undermine their country’s free and fair elections, while flying flags that symbolize the oppression of entire groups of Americans and donning the garb of neo-Nazism in their bid to overturn the results of November’s presidential election. Incited by president Donald Trump’s false claims of voter fraud—and grievances and confusion over their place in a country that is trying to grapple with its history—they violently refused to accept legitimate electoral results.

“I would just observe that those in the US were acting from a position of privilege and grievance, and trying to overturn the results of a valid election, while those in Hong Kong were an oppressed population demanding the right to have a fair election,” said Antony Dapiran, a Hong Kong-based lawyer and the author of City on Fire, a book about the 2019 Hong Kong protests.

In many ways, the results in November—and again in the Georgia senate run-offs yesterday—are the culmination of grassroots activism by people like Stacey Abrams, a former gubernatorial candidate, who have worked over many years to shore up belief in democracy in the US, and undo America’s long legacy of disenfranchisement and voter suppression.

One number perhaps best captures the yawning gap between what’s at stake in the US and Hong Kong.

On the same day that Washington DC police arrested 52 people in connection with the Capitol insurrection, Hong Kong police arrested almost exactly the same number of individuals. Their alleged crime: subversion of state power for trying to gauge public opinion and win seats in a legislative election already designed to favor politicians loyal to Beijing and big business.

That election has since been indefinitely postponed.