Hong Kong’s democracy activists see kindred spirits in the US Capitol insurrection

An anti-government protester wearing a mask depicting U.S. President Donald Trump is pushed away by riot police during a demonstration at Causeway Bay district in…
An anti-government protester wearing a mask depicting U.S. President Donald Trump is pushed away by riot police during a demonstration at Causeway Bay district in…
Image: Reuters/Susana Vera
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Ms. So, a Hong Konger in her 40s, is vehemently opposed to the Chinese Communist Party’s authoritarian rule. Fearing Beijing’s increasingly harsh approach to the city, she refinanced her Hong Kong apartment, converted the Hong Kong dollars to foreign currency, and emigrated to Prague earlier this year, joining a growing wave of Hong Kong emigrés.

She is also a supporter of US president Donald Trump. Or, as she put it, between him and Joe Biden, she is “picking the lesser evil.”

Her stance finds loud echoes throughout Hong Kong’s democracy movement, where many activists have cheered on Trump because they see him as being tough on China and hold him up as a savior for Hong Kongers.

But in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol, incited by Trump and carried out by a far-right pro-Trump mob, the contradiction at the heart of many Hong Kong democracy activists’ support for Trump has come to the fore: How does a movement fighting for democracy square its support for a leader who’s actively trying to dismantle it? How does a movement resisting authoritarian rule justify advocating for a political figure with deeply authoritarian instincts?

“I think at the core it is really about us movement supporters having to clarify our values,” said Sharon Yam, a Hong Konger and professor in rhetoric at the University of Kentucky. “Are our values defined in the negative as anti-CCP, or are they defined in the positive, like we protect and we demand the rights of everyone who’s marginalized?”

Appealing to the US—and Trump

One of the strengths of Hong Kong’s protest movement, and a key factor in its enduring resilience, has been its ability to transform a local protest into a global issue. It has done so through savvy advertising campaigns worldwide and strategic digital alliances with protesters in other countries.

The movement’s sophisticated international lobbying efforts, primarily in the US and UK, helped elevate the Hong Kong issue to the top of countries’ foreign policy agendas, and scored victories like US legislation supporting Hong Kong and a path to UK citizenship for millions of Hong Kongers. On the ground, protesters in Hong Kong throughout 2019 explicitly appealed to the US, waving the American flag and urging Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong. These efforts helped draw prominent Republican lawmakers to the city to express their support for the protest movement, including senator Josh Hawley, who declared in front of the city’s legislature in 2019, “We’re all Hong Kongers now.”

Last year, as pandemic gathering bans and a draconian national security law effectively put an end to street protests—and the city’s own elections were indefinitely delayed—Hong Kong activists seemed to find purpose and solidarity by rallying around the US elections instead. The loudest voices, including detained media tycoon and owner of the fiercely independent pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily Jimmy Lai, as well as local influencers with huge online followings, began pushing out a steady stream of pro-Trump content. They also played up disinformation favored by the right-wing, like the unfounded allegations of widespread voter fraud and baseless claims of Hunter Biden’s corrupt business dealings with China.

Online, many Hong Kong activists cheered the Capitol attack, believing the allegations of rigging and seeing similarities with Hong Kongers’ storming of the local legislature in 2019 to protest a government few Hong Kongers get a say in choosing. Scores of Hong Kongers also changed their Twitter profile photos to Trump’s image in a show of support.

But now, with Trump departing in disgrace, and two vocal supporters of the Hong Kong movement—GOP senators Cruz and Hawley—facing mounting calls to resign for their roles in adding fuel to the outgoing president’s “stolen election” narrative—there are worries that the Hong Kong movement miscalculated in its associations, and perhaps more broadly in its perceptions of US politics.

Hong Kong’s most vocal supporters “are not always right”

For Samuel Chu, the founder and managing director of Washington-based advocacy group Hong Kong Democracy Council (HKDC), the Capitol attack underscores the importance of remembering that the politicians who are “most vocal about Hong Kong…are not always right.”

“What happened on the Hill was decisively undemocratic and the opposite of what other protests around the world are about, including Hong Kong,” said Chu, “The danger of tribalizing and becoming an anti-democratic mob exists everywhere in every movement,” and there is a “clear danger” of Hong Kongers “being seduced by a decisively undemocratic politician and president.”

The attack has also reinforced the importance of building strategic bipartisan relationships around Hong Kong—while understanding HKDC won’t be and doesn’t need to be in lockstep with politicians’ stances beyond the Hong Kong issue. “In small-d democratic politics, sometimes people confuse…having to be 100% in agreement with an actual shared interest on a particular issue,” he said, adding that he doesn’t feel the need to distance himself from Cruz or Hawley because he was “never kissing up to them.”

This isn’t the first time this contradiction has come into play for the Hong Kong movement. In late May and June, protests spread in the US after the killing of a Black man, George Floyd, by police on Memorial Day. As global protests broke out in solidarity, some in Hong Kong, including prominent activists, voiced their support for the Black Lives Matter movement. One strand of thinking went that both sets of protesters were victims of state violence; another argument was that if Hong Kongers wanted the support of people in parts of the world, they had to be willing to provide it, too.

But others questioned why Hong Kongers were weighing on something that didn’t concern them, or even backed the stance expressed by some Republicans that the black protesters in the US were out-of-control rioters—as did some Chinese dissidents living in the US—never mind that it was the same epithet the Hong Kong government and Beijing apply to Hong Kong democracy protesters.

“We will…remain bipartisan”

What to do about these contradictions isn’t at all clear. Some, such as Yam, argue that the Hong Kong protest movement should choose allies who share the same political values. But that’s of course not always practical—what would that have meant, for example, if Trump had won reelection?

For Chu, the antidote is to look at politics not “as something that politicians do to us [but rather]…something that we do for ourselves,” which means being clear-eyed about political realities and calculations.” That includes being aware of how US domestic politics can trump support for rights causes abroad.

Indeed, though a vocal contingent of Hong Kong activists have rooted for Trump and the Republicans, it was Cruz who last month blocked bipartisan legislation that would have made it easier for Hong Kongers to gain refugee or temporary protected status in the US.

“We will of course remain bipartisan but whether that remains feasible depends on whether bipartisanship continues to deliver results said Jeffrey Ngo, a Washington-based Hong Kong activist who works with HKDC. “What will move bipartisanship forward is to see Biden deliver, for example by using an executive order to grant Hong Kongers temporary protected status”—something that the Hong Kong People’s Freedom and Choice Act, blocked by Cruz, would have done.

At the same time the Hong Kong movement risks limiting itself by looking at its fight against Beijing’s authoritarianism as existing in a vacuum, rather than being “intimately connected with other people in countries that are similarly suffering from government repression,” said Yam, the academic.

“There’s a need to clarify the movement, and not just define ourselves in relation to China,” she said.