It has been six months since the Hong Kong protests first started, and the longer it goes on, as an outsider, the harder it has been to keep track of the movement. It was clear that it was initially about the extradition bill, but as the bill became withdrawn on September 4th the protests have continued to develop. While the protests generally continue to seek the fulfillment of the remaining ‘Five Demands’, sentiments seem to point that the problems of Hong Kong run more deeply than these demands could address. Apart from rallying in the name of democracy, protestors are also expressing their economic frustrations as well as concerns over police brutality. Initiatives such as the protest song ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ have also fostered nationalistic sentiments and given the impression that some protestors are motivated for independence. As the situation grows in complexity, the issues that need to be addressed seem to be evolving into a multi-headed hydra.
As Hong Kong becomes increasingly polarized, it is difficult to perceive the protests as a unified and coherent movement; yet, many around the world still stand in solidarity with the protestors – or at least it seems this way in the echo chambers of social media. Do people outside of Hong Kong truly support the protests? If so, what exactly are they in solidarity with? Despite the protests’ continued attention in the headlines the sensitive nature of the issue has prompted many to keep this conversation at arm’s length, creating a lack of discussion outside of Hong Kong on the issue. In an attempt to create a space for discussion, I anonymously interviewed 22 LSE students from Southeast Asian countries – including Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia – as well as Hong Kong, China and Taiwan to gain perspectives on the Hong Kong issue. Although the main purpose of these interviews was to gather perspectives, some statistics can be drawn.
Here are my findings:
LSE Students and Supporting the Hong Kong Protests
The majority of student opinions are in support of the Hong Kong protests at 41 per cent, whereas 14 per cent of students do not support the protests. Another 14 per cent is indifferent to the issue. The remaining 31 per cent find themselves conflicted, as they are sympathetic to the cause but cannot claim to support the movement due to the escalating violence.
Supporters of the protests firmly believe in the right of the Hong Kong people to fight for democracy. Some of these students acknowledge the increasingly violent nature of the protests but sees its significance as secondary.
“I think what the protestors are doing is relatively smart because they’re leveraging the Beijing government by causing disruption. I feel that given the circumstances this is the only way to get a reaction out of them.”
On the other hand, those who do not support the protests or are conflicted on the issue are likely to mention that they are concerned about how the protests are affecting the social and economic stability of Hong Kong.
“Initially I was quite sympathetic to their cause. I think it’s good to stand up for what you believe in. But it’s been going on for months now, and I think it’s now past the point of being fruitful. In general, it’s just causing more harm.”
One student was particularly cynical in their view about the situation in Hong Kong:
“There are no protests. They are just causing damage; to the infrastructure; to the social order. I don’t seem them protesting. They just call it protesting.”
What are the Protests Trying to Achieve?
When asked about their impression of what the protests are trying to achieve, an overwhelming majority mentioned democracy. Other responses included the ‘Five Demands’, the rule of law, independence, and also the view that the protests are not trying to achieve anything.
“I think the key issue is autonomy. It’s a matter of independence and self-governance, at least until 2047. I think that’s the underlying issue that isn’t being conveyed in the clearest of manners.”
Although many students understand this as a pro-democracy movement, they are unable to explain what this means in the context of ‘One Country Two Systems’. While students generally acknowledge the protestors call for a more democratic electoral system, they are unsure if this call feeds into beyond 2047. This causes some students to believe that in order to be truly democratic, Hong Kong is also seeking independence from China. However, the form of independence is often confused here. Some students believe that Hong Kong wishes to retain a democratic political process, but on the other hand, they still want to enjoy the economic benefits with China. In other words, they believe Hong Kong wants to enjoy its rights under the ‘One Country Two Systems’ without a deadline and without the idea of being part of one country.
One Hong Kong student clarifies their stance on the issue of democracy and independence, saying:
“I think democracy means everyone has equal rights to vote and our voices to be heard in the legislative council. There needs to be a more balanced composition in the voting for legislative council. We want our promises that were written in the constitution to be fulfilled. I don’t think it goes against the ‘One Country Two Systems’ because it is part of our constitutional rights. This doesn’t mean we want independence.”
Another Hong Kong student offers a completely different perspective on the issue of independence:
“I think they want to be independent. I think they much rather have democracy and be economically doomed than to have anything to do with China. I don’t think they care about economic prosperity as much as democratic reform.”
Apart from the discussion about democracy and independence, the interviews also bring up two observations that reveal the outlook, concerns and priorities of students from Hong Kong and Singapore.
Interestingly, only Hong Kong students have specifically mentioned that the protests are about upholding the rule of law. These students are frustrated by how the extradition bill was introduced as well as the government’s continued failure to respond effectively to the protests. At this point in time, they are primarily concerned on the issue of police brutality and the lack of a government response to call up an investigation. The lack of rule of law has created a crisis of legitimacy in the government, and these students believe that the protests are seeking accountability.
Another observation is that only Singaporean students perceive the protests as not trying to achieve anything. These two students are under the impression that the people of Hong Kong are “just acting on the spontaneous combustion of feelings and pent up emotions,” and given how polarized the protests have become these students are not sure if the protestors are aware of what they want to achieve. Interviews with Singaporean students show that they are likely to be more pragmatic in their outlook, with stability and certainty as their main priority.
“I don’t really know what they’re trying to achieve, especially at this point in time. If they convey a clear and coherent vision, I’d be more confident in supporting them.”
Problems and Solutions
When asked to describe the underlying problems of the Hong Kong issue students cited the lack of confidence in the Hong Kong government, the need to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy against an encroaching Chinese influence, youth concerns over future prospects, a deeply rooted problem in the structure of society, the Hong Kong identity, as well as conflicting ideologies.
Students recognize that the situation is increasingly complex and have no clue about the direction of the movement, and thus have no clue how to address the issue. Some have suggested dialogue between the Hong Kong government and the protestors, while others have recognized that dialogue will be difficult for two reasons. Most significantly, there is distrust and misunderstandings on both sides, which makes meaningful dialogue improbable. Moreover, as this movement is leaderless, it is difficult to engage in dialogue and make compromises. At the moment, the most apparent way for the Hong Kong government to respond in dialogue would be to concede to the ‘Five Demands’ which may address this current protest but does not solve other qualms overarching Hong Kong’s societal fabric.
“If the demands are met, the protestors will be satisfied for now. But I don’t think they will achieve the desires of the heart, because what they want is more than the scope of the Five Demands.”
Is There Hope?
When asked about how students foresee the outlook of the situation, responses were bleak. While many students are sympathetic to the movement, almost all students believe that it is a hopeless cause. One Hong Kong student expresses their frustrations on how the movement has evolved, saying:
“The protests have been so blown out of proportion; they feel like they shouldn’t stop now because otherwise all previous efforts would be wasted. It’s anarchic. Hong Kong used to be one of the safest cities in the world, but now look at it. It breaks my heart. The worst thing that the protests have aggravated is not the demonstration itself, but the mindset of the people. It creates a lot of anger. I don’t think people even know what they’re angry about anymore; they’re just trying to unleash their anger.”
Another Hong Kong student, however, remains optimistic about the situation.
“What most people believe is that if we stop now, we know that the government will impose stricter and harsher laws to restrict our freedom. This is a demonstration of strength and solidarity, to show the Chinese government that we will not give in.
Before June I thought Hong Kongers were not interested in politics and that they didn’t care about Chinese interference, but I’m surprised at how the Hong Kong people are responding. I’m surprised that Hong Kongers can be so persistent. We believe we can create hope, and we are fighting for it.”
Reflections of Home
Apart from discussing the problems plaguing Hong Kong at the moment, some students have raised how this movement has acted as a source of reflection on their home country. One student from Indonesia speaks about how, as someone of Chinese descent, they can empathize with the desire for a more democratic representation in politics. Other reflections from students include:
“I think the Hong Kong protests is good exposure for the youth of Taiwan, because it makes us realize that we have a choice and that we are not subjected to a ‘One Country Two Systems’ model.”
“In Vietnam we have an opinion of China on a lot of issues given our political conflicts. So, when the Hong Kong protests happened, Vietnam supported Hong Kong against China. But Vietnam is also a communist country that faces ideological divide between the north and south. Seeing how communist China is imposing on the democracy of Hong Kong draws a lot of parallels between the north and south of Vietnam, so it feels personal.”
Solidarity in Opinion?
When I first started this survey, while I anticipated a diversity in opinion, I also expected that students from the same country would more or less have aligned views on this matter, but this was not the case. Similar to the situation in Hong Kong, the opinions of LSE Southeast Asians, Mainland Chinese and Taiwanese students have proven to be just as polarized. The only group of students who seem to have solidarity in opinion are from Hong Kong but seeing how this issue is particularly personal to them it doesn’t create much of a surprise.
Nevertheless, what is clear and consistent from the responses is that the situation in Hong Kong suffers from a problem of legitimacy, both within the government and arguably the protests when they started to resort to violence. The way forward is anyone’s guess, but perhaps how the upcoming district council elections will be managed will be more telling of the fate of this movement.