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Why American Progressives Should Support Hongkongers

Victoria Tin-bor Hui

Progressives are enraged by police shootings and are campaigning for police reforms. As many Americans marched under the slogan “Black Lives Matter” in the summer of 2020, some Hong Kong Americans joined them to express solidarity.  

They are fighting against police brutality in both their adopted country and their native city. Hong Kong has experienced a great deal of police abuse and has descended into a police state. During the anti-extradition protests of 2019, protesters and bystanders routinely had their necks and joints kneeled on, their bones broken, and their faces smashed to the ground by police officers. In 2020, protests are banned altogether. Progressives, who champion human dignity for the repressed, should find common cause with Hongkongers confronting the full might of China.

Hong Kong Americans have effectively lobbied Congress and the administration to pass legislation and change policies aimed at restraining Beijing’s erosion of the city’s freedom and autonomy. They have secured bipartisan support from both the Democrats-controlled House and the Republicans-dominated Senate.

Progressives, however, have been far more ambivalent about the Hong Kong cause than the Democratic Party leader Nancy Pelosi. As a Political Scientist of Hong Kong origin, I have been extensively interviewed by mainstream media including the New York Times, Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, Time, Wall Street Journal, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, NPR, PBS, ABC, CNBC, Vox, RFA, VOA, and more. At the height of anti-extradition protests in August last year, the Rachel Maddow Show approached me three days in a row but apparently decided that Hong Kong did not fit into their schedule.

This ambivalence may be driven by the misperception that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) lies on the left end of the ideological spectrum. It is not just Chinese critics who often label the most repressive policies as being ultra-left, Americans and Hongkongers share this view.

For Hongkongers who have spent decades resisting Beijing’s stifling of their freedom and democracy, their instinct is to find allies with the opposite ideology. This explains why, in summer 2019, Hong Kong protesters not only waved the U.S. flag, but also held up signs “President Trump: Liberate Hong Kong.” Jimmy Lai, the publisher of Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy print newspaper who was arrested under the draconian national security law on August 10, had earlier appealed to Trump: “Mr. President, you’re the only one who can save us.”

For American progressives who fight against the worst ills of American capitalism, the CCP seems to share ideological affinity. Bernie Sanders notably praised Chinese leaders for having made “more progress in addressing extreme poverty than any country in the history of civilization.” However, the CCP is hardly left-wing when it comes to political and economic equality for marginalized Han Chinese and suppressed ethnic minorities.

The CCP’s earlier achievement in reducing absolute poverty had more to do with the end of Mao Zedong’s long reign of terror which killed 37.8 million from 1923 (when he became a party leader) to 1976 (when he died). Under Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Mao, rural peasants became better off because they were allowed to make their own planting decisions and accumulate surpluses. However, Deng’s policy since the 1990s to “let some get rich first” also widened the gaps between the well-connected and ordinary peasants and workers. When China acceded to the World Trade Organization in 2001, the working class, who once enjoyed generous cradle-to-grave welfare benefits, suffered from massive layoffs, from which they have not recovered. China specialist Dorothy Solinger observes that China’s Minimum Livelihood Guarantee program has only kept the poor in “a state of long-term if not permanent penury.”

If the U.S.’s high Gini coefficient of 0.485 seems abhorrent, China’s trails closely at 0.468 (2018 figures). World-renowned economist on inequality Thomas Piketty calculates that the share of national income held by the top 10% of China’s population rose from 27% in 1978 to 41% by 2015, comparable to U.S. level. Although two-thirds of Chinese capital is in private hands, there is no inheritance tax and data of any kind on the transfer of wealth between generations. He wryly remarks that China is the world’s best place to be a billionaire, despite its claim to Communism. Also worthy of note is how Beijing once loved Piketty’s analysis on inequality – “until he turned to China.” Xi Jinping once cited Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century as proof of the superiority of China’s “Marxist political economy” over Western private capitalism. When his latest Capitalism and Ideology addresses the non-Western world, he was asked to cut sections on China. He heroically refused the request.

In the last two decades, Beijing’s and Shanghai’s world-class infrastructure projects have been built by internal migrant workers who are not just underpaid, but also derided as “low-end populations.” These internal migrants do not have household registration in cities and thus are not entitled to healthcare, education and other public services. Major urban centers have expanded at the expense of peasants who were given such meager compensation that they could not afford to purchase homes in high-rise complexes built on top of their former homes and farmlands.

Progressives may also find Hong Kong’s capitalism unpalatable. The city’s Gini coefficient of 0.539 ranks it the eighth most unequal place in the world, sandwiched between Comoros’ 0.559 and Guatemala’s 0.53. While Hong Kong’s Gini coefficient was already high in the mid-0.40 range in the 1980s, it went up to beyond 0.5 in the 1990s when Beijing began to use this international city as its gateway to the world. After Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997, state-owned agencies and companies began to buy up the city’s assets, prime real estates, luxurious homes, trophy companies, news media, and publishing houses. Well-connected sons and daughters of Chinese leaders gradually dominated business and professional sectors. Beijing came to command so much power that it could order Cathay Pacific, the city’s flagship carrier, to dismiss and censor pro-democracy staff by 2019. Beijing also compelled Hong Kong-based international companies such as HSBC and Jardine to support the national security law in 2020. What Hong Kong signifies is the worst of state-led capitalism with concentration of both political and economic power, not of free market capitalism.

In Hong Kong, church-based and community organizations along with government-funded agencies have provided some relief to the poorest. In mainland China, workers who are not paid and peasants who are not compensated have little to fall back on. The CCP is wary of civil organizations that are beyond its control. Rights defense lawyers, who once provided legal counsel and networks of support, were arrested in a massive sweep in 2015. 

China’s ethnic minorities and peripheral populations have fared even worse. Progressives should stand with colonized peoples against colonizers. Yes, China was once a victim of Western and Japanese imperialism. However, China has turned around to victimize Mongolians, Tibetans, Uighurs, and Hongkongers. Taiwan could be next. Each of these societies has its distinctive language, culture and history. Mongols in Inner Mongolia have staged rare protests against the imposition of Mandarin education. Tibetans and Uighurs are subject to not just the erasure of their languages, but also constant surveillance by artificial intelligence as well as security agents at every street corner and on roof top.

Hong Kong could have been subject to post-colonial self-determination but Beijing compelled London to drop the city from the United Nations list of colonies in 1972. Progressives may not care about what the British think about the city, but should take heed of how Hongkongers see their fate as going from a British colony to a Chinese colony.

Hong Kong’s young people from teenagers to junior professionals were at the forefront of protests in recent years because they already found themselves subjugated both politically and economically as second-class citizens in their home city. The Beijing-imposed national security law now further inflicts torture and execution on those taken across the vanished borders to mainland jurisdiction, lengthy sentences and police abuses on those arrested and convicted in the city, and censorship and brainwashing on those who do not run afoul of security agents.

For both the left and the right, Americans who champion universal values have ample reasons to condemn Beijing’s bloody crackdown of its own people during the Great Leap Forward in 1958-62, the Cultural Revolution in 1966-76, the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and of “liberated” populations in Tibet and Xinjiang over the years, and in Hong Kong now.

American analysts once believed that all was well in Hong Kong so long as the People’s Liberation Army did not roll out military tanks in Tiananmen-like fashion. This view misses the fact that the Tiananmen model carried sub-military elements: the use of regular security agents to beat people to death in the city of Chengdu, the fomentation of “riots” and “turmoil”, the narration of “the truth” about the police versus the protesters, and the use of patriotic education and censorship to create “Tiananmen amnesia.” Since Tiananmen, Beijing has mostly relied on public security forces and hired thugs to achieve “stability maintenance.” These are the same tactics that Beijing has deployed to suppress Hong Kong.

American support is not always welcome in some parts of the world. Hongkongers, however, have repeatedly urged on the United States to help them. The 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act which granted Hong Kong special customs and trade status was promulgated in response to Beijing’s promises to maintain the city’s “high degree of autonomy” under the “one country, two systems” model. With the national security law, Beijing has completely broken its international obligation to the city. Hong Kong Americans are thankful that the Democratic Party has pledged support for the 2019 Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the 2020 Hong Kong Autonomy Act in the 2020 party platform. Joe Biden has correctly called out the CCP’s treatment of Uighurs in Xinjiang as “genocide.”

When presidential candidates are competing to sound tougher on China, the silence among progressives gives Hong Kong Americans the impression that those on the American left care less about Hong Kong. This has spill-over effects on their attitudes toward mainstream Democratic candidates. Hong Kong Americans, like other Americans, are split between Democrats and Republicans. They are highly organized and mobilized as voting blocks. Progressives could win them over by taking a stronger stand on Hong Kong’s similar fight for equal rights, police reforms, dignity, freedom from fear, and democratic accountability.