Movements@Manchester

Violent clashes with police, storming the legislature, vandalizing properties in the parliamentary building …… All these happened in the United States, one of the most well-established democratic states in the world. The event in the US Capitol shocked the world and an interesting narrative followed. Messages from Chinese netizens flooded the Internet, trying to discredit the overall desirability of democracy and accusing Western media and politicians of upholding a “double standard.” They proclaimed, whereas the Western world blamed pro-Trump protesters as “mobs,” it praised activists in Hong Kong who broke into the legislature in 2019 as “democratic fighters.” This comparison is at once intriguing and confusing. Even CNN international correspondent, Will Ripley, made a similar comment on Twitter [1]. In order to determine whether these claims are justified, let us first review two earlier occupy protests occurring in 2014 and 2019.

The first case that needs to be reviewed is the Taiwanese Sunflower Movement in 2014. Since the rise of the Chinese economy in the early 2000s, the Beijing government has been using its economic power to entice Taiwan to establish a closer relation with mainland China—first economically and then politically. With the change of the ruling party of Taiwan from the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party to the pro-unification Nationalist Party in 2008, a free trade pact, Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement (ECFA), was signed between the Beijing and Taipei governments in 2010 and the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA) was added under ECFA in June 2013. Worried by the potential economic co-optation by an authoritarian state and angered by the lack of transparency in the local legislative process, Taiwanese student activists stormed the Legislative Yuan in March 2014 and occupied the building. Despite the relatively confrontational tactic, the occupation received widespread support from the Taiwanese society since the activists had exhausted all sorts of peaceful means before undertaking the break-in action. Having occupied the parliament for 24 days, the action successfully forced the Nationalist government to put the CSSTA on hold and safeguarded the corrosion of democracy in Taiwan.

Graffiti: 'HK is not China'

Inside the Legislative Complex on 1 July 2019 (1). Source: Stand News

Five years after the Sunflower Movement, activists in Hong Kong learned the tactic from their Taiwanese counterparts and launched a similar action. In 2019, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) government proposed to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, which, if passed, would allow for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau for criminal suspects. Being proposed at a time when the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement was getting more and more intense, the law amendment, which would send Hongkongers to China, the sovereign master of Hong Kong and an authoritarian state lacking the rule of law, evoked a great fear in Hong Kong society that political rights and civil liberties in the city would further deteriorate. Without a democratically elected legislature, Hongkoners had no choice but resort to street activism. 1.03 million and 2 million people took to the street on 9 and 21 June 2019 to make a vocal rejection of the law amendment. These peaceful and non-violent demonstrations however did not receive any positive response from the HKSAR government. Young protesters therefore decided to storm the Legislative Complex on 1 July 2019, trying to force the government to withdraw the law amendment. As in Taiwan, this relatively violent break-in action did not receive much condemnation from the local society—except criticisms from pro-Beijing media and politicians—because it was broadly perceived as an action trying to push the adamant HKSAR government to heed public opinion and resist the political intrusion of the authoritarian, Communist China.

Emptied commercial fridges

Inside the Legislative Complex on 1 July 2019 (2). Words on the paper (top right): “Payment is in the basket.” Words on the paper (bottom right): “We are not thieves and we paid for the drinks.”

With the above details in mind, it is not difficult to see the differences between the two cases in East Asia and the protest in the US. The tactics of these occupy actions might look the same, but their nature is totally different. While protests in Hong Kong and Taiwan aimed to defend civil rights and liberties and counter the political and economic sway of Communist China, the pro-Trump rally was an attempt to overturn the result of a democratic presidential election—a result that has been endorsed by courts in the US. Coinciding with the arrest of 53 pro-democracy activists, legislators and supporters in Hong Kong, the protest in the US Capitol rendered 6 January 2021 one of the darkest days in the history of democracy [2]. Equally important, the case reminds us that it is crucial to understand the causes and claims of different protests so that we can make contextualized comparisons and avoid producing myths in popular narratives that would lend leverage to anti-democracy voices.

 

Notes:

[1] https://twitter.com/willripleyCNN/status/1346945349315747841

[2] It is widely believed that the mass arrest, which was made in the name of the National Security Law legislated by the Beijing government last year to arrest the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, was well-crafted to avoid international attention since all media focuses were put on the ratifying process of the US presidential election result on this day.

Hong Kong, occupation, protests, Taiwan, United States