An amendment to an extradition law: the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back, in a Hong Kong pushed to the limit since the end of the British mandate. There's much more than meets the eye to the protests.
In 2019 Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement has shown its mettle. Hong Kongers now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to break free of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. For this to happen it will not be enough to hope for a sudden demise of mainland China's autocratic party-state. In order to navigate Hong Kong's long road to self-liberation, pro-democracy activists need to reflect on their reform approaches, develop a grand strategy for democratisation, and implement it decisively.
I am optimistic about Hong Kong's political future. Hong Kongers have shown great resilience in the face of political adversity. On 31 March 2019 a rally against the controversial extradition bill organised by the Civil Human Rights Front only drew 12,000 participants. Yet this small-scale protest nevertheless managed to spark a popular uprising. Hong Kong's veteran activist Kong Tsung-gan has documented 746 demonstrations during the past eight months. According to Kong close to 13 million people participated in protests both big and small. That is almost double Hong Kong's population of 7 million.
I am also optimistic since mainland China's party-state now is vulnerable as never before. Domestically, an increasingly paranoid top CCP leadership shows clear signs of a bunker mentality. General Secretary Xi Jinping's answer to dealing with ethnic, cultural, religious as well as ideological difference is now always the same: Tibetans, Uighurs, Kazakhs, Hong Kongers, Christians, Muslims, academics, public interest lawyers and politically active youth are all systematically persecuted. Internationally, the Chinese party-state is also on the defensive. Xi's flagship policy Belt and Road Initiative is sputtering. It has been widely criticised as a form of economic colonialism. The US-China trade war has led to the slowest economic growth in decades. There is growing international opposition against involving mainland China's IT company Huawei in the building of 5G networks. These are all bad omens for an increasingly rattled CCP leadership which heavily relies on economic growth to sustain its undemocratic rule.
Hong Kongers, on the other hand, have successfully defied the central government. On 24 November 2019 they sent a strong political message by overwhelmingly voting for pan-democrats in the local District Council elections. The result shocked CCP propagandists. They could no longer claim that Hong Kong's supposedly 'silent majority' is opposed to the protest movement. And following years of lobbying by Hong Kong pan-democrats both the US Congress and Senate passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (HKHRDA), which on 27 November 2019 was signed by President Trump into law. This new law allows the US administration to annually assess whether or not Hong Kong's autonomy is sufficient respected by the Chinese central government. If found to be wanting, Hong Kong could not only lose its economic privileges. Chief Executive Carrie Lam, her ministers as well as leading figures of the increasingly lawless Hong Kong Police Force could also find themselves subject to Magnitsky-style US sanctions.
But while the pro-democracy movement has won some battles Hong Kong's struggle for democracy is far from over. One of the movement's Achilles heels is the lack of consensus about the movement's ultimate goals. The CCP has shown its determination to terminate 'One Country, Two Systems' (1C2S) and to transition towards 'One Country, One System' (1C1S). The HKSAR government, on the other hand, has failed to mount a robust defence of Hong Kong being turned into just another mainland Chinese city. This means that Hong Kong's citizens have to decide what their ultimate goal is: to play for time and defend 1C2S, shape 1C1S in Hong Kong's liberal democratic image, or alternatively strive for Hong Kong's self-determination or even Hong Kong independence?
This raises the question of how the goal of democratic self-government can actually be achieved. When writing my book The Struggle for Democracy in Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong I learned that democracy activists stand the best chance of winning when combining an anti-establishment position with a Trojan horse approach coupled with trans-establishment politics. It is heartening to see that Hong Kong's political activists seem to be willing to combine street protests with the parliamentary line. The next challenge will be to win the Legislative Council election in September 2020. Due to Hong Kong's illiberal political institutional design, however, it will be an uphill battle for pan-democrats to even restore their blocking majority. For this to happen the highly factionalised pan-democratic camp should unify under the banner of one catch-all opposition party, similar to the role which Taiwan's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) played from 1986 onwards.
Moving forward Hong Kongers now have a once in a lifetime opportunity to break free of Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control. For this to happen pro-democracy activists need to formulate a coherent strategy for self-liberation. To minimise CCP counter-measures such a strategy will have to be developed in secret. Three core skills will be required of strategic planners: "(1) knowledge of the conflict situation, the opponents, and the society and its needs; (2) in-depth knowledge of the nature and operation of the technique of nonviolent action; [and] (3) the knowledge and ability to analyze, think, and plan strategically". This means that only local insiders will be able to develop such a grand strategy for liberalisation and democratisation. By default, this excludes outsiders who lack insights into the intricacies of Hong Kong's local state and society. That being said, pro-democracy strategists should heed the advice of peace activist Gene Sharp, who calls on democracy activists to "strengthen the oppressed population themselves in their determination, self-confidence and resistance skills (...) strengthen the independent social groups and institutions of the oppressed people; (...) create a powerful internal resistance force; [and] develop a wise grand strategic plan for liberation and implement it skillfully.” If Hong Kong's democracy activists were to heed Sharp's wise council they may surprise us again in 2020.