The protesters in Hong Kong are losing their morale

Hong Kong

Ben Bland

To person

is a research fellow at the Lowy Institute in Sydney, former Hong Kong correspondent for the Financial Times and author of the book "Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow" (2017).

On July 1, 2019, demonstrators of the democracy movement gained access to the Hong Kong Legislative Council and symbolically desecrated the parliament. The action was part of widespread protests against a law that would allow the extradition of prisoners to the People's Republic of China. [1] The young activists sprayed graffiti on the city's coat of arms, tore up a copy of the Basic Law and even hoisted Hong Kong's British colonial flag. All demonstrators were masked for fear of arrest and long prison terms. Only one, a PhD student in political science named Brian Leung, removed the mask so "everyone knows that we Hong Kongers have nothing more to lose". [2]

It was one of many crucial moments in a series of months of protests, fueled by the Hong Kong people's particular sense of identity, which has only increased as the year progresses. For Leung, who later left the Special Administrative Region for fear of arrest and continued his studies in the USA, the protests are not about "taking glory for what he has done". "During the protests, the people around you are strangers, but you trust them so much that you would risk your life for them," he said later. "And when this experience comes back over and over again (...) it is quite natural that our identity [as Hong Kongers] should grow stronger every time." [3]

The originally sensational occupation of the Legislative Council on July 1st has now moved into the background in view of the months of increasingly violent protests, which were also incited by the increasingly brutal reactions of the police. So far, over 7,000 people have been arrested in the semi-autonomous special administrative zone with its 7.4 million inhabitants. Some demonstrators were shot, a foreign journalist lost her right eye to a rubber bullet from the police and at least one passerby was killed. Many have been fired because of their opposition to the government or thrown out of their homes because their parents do not want to live under the same roof with such seditious children.

The protests against the extradition law have grown into a broad movement starting in 2019, advocating the freedoms and autonomy promised to Hong Kong people over a 50-year period when the British took control of the city to the People's Republic of China in 1997 taxes. Hong Kongers fight Hong Kongers in the clashes in which the police denigrate the demonstrators as "cockroaches" and "rioters". Confidence in information has been shaken by the repeated lies of Hong Kong officials and the numerous rumors and disinformation on social media. The intensification of the conflict raises two interrelated questions: How did it come about that a peaceful and prosperous global financial center became a hotbed of protest? And why are Hong Kong residents, especially the younger ones at the forefront of the movement, willing to risk so much in the struggle for democracy and autonomy?

Officials such as the Prime Minister, Carrie Lam, who was basically appointed by Beijing, have tried to portray the demonstrators as blind rioters controlled by hostile "foreign forces". Lam made the famous accusation that the demonstrators had "no part in society". [4] But what they claim is far from reality. Of the 6,100 people arrested between June and December 2019, over 2,400 are students. [5] Many study at the city's leading universities, which are among the best in Asia. The rest form a broad cross-section of Hong Kong society: numerous teachers, a doctor, a Cathay Pacific pilot, an investment banker, a top chef, a fashion designer, and a construction worker. A third of those arrested are 26 years or older, 31 percent are between 21 and 25 years old. [6] In short, even among the arrested demonstrators, who represent a fraction of the more than one million protestors who have taken to the streets since June 2019 to stand up for democracy, there is a wide range in terms of age, social status and professional background.

But what connects these people in their bitter struggle against the most powerful authoritarian state in the world? In my opinion, it is a common feeling: the special identity of Hong Kong people. This identity, which is felt particularly strongly by the youth of Hong Kong, began to develop after the state sovereignty was handed over to the People's Republic of China. The feeling of detachment from the rest of China has been compounded by Beijing’s growing pressure on Hong Kong’s civil rights, autonomy and way of life. And it's spreading across Hong Kong through a series of interconnected, youth-led mass movements that have culminated in the insurrection since 2019.

This article is based on the research I did for my 2017 book "Generation HK: Seeking Identity in China’s Shadow". [7] In it I argue that one must first get to the bottom of the question of identity formation in order to understand the deepening political conflict in Hong Kong. A new age group that I call "Generation HK" has grown up since the handover in 1997. The desire to protect their identities drove this generation to take to the streets for the first time, in protest against Beijing. Their identity was further strengthened as they struggled together. Edward Leung, a charismatic activist and Hong Kong independence campaigner who is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for participating in a 2016 demonstration critical of the government that led to violent clashes with police, told me that Hong Kong identities are not about race or ethnicity, but be an open concept: "Anyone who agrees with our values, our way of life and culture, and who is willing to swear allegiance to this place and work to preserve it all, is a Hong Kong".

There are certainly other factors that fueled the opposition movement in Hong Kong. Socio-economic problems such as massive inequality, low starting salaries for academics, and the highest real estate prices in the world relative to middle income have contributed to widespread feelings of frustration and alienation among the younger generation. [8] But the socio-economic problems faced by young Hong Kong residents are similar to those of their peers in New York, Tokyo and London. What is unique, however, is the threat to their freedoms and the special sense of identity given the contradictions that underlie the principle of "one country, two systems", with which Hong Kong was promised a "high degree of autonomy". [9]

According to the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong of 1984, which laid down the conditions for a surrender of Hong Kong to China, the way of life in Hong Kong would remain "unchanged for 50 years" after the surrender in 1997. [10] This led many experts to speculate about the future of Hong Kong after 2047. However, pressure from Beijing has increased so much since then that Hong Kongers risk their lives and health and risk long sentences to turn against the government. The real battle for Hong Kong is not in the future, but now.

The protest of the Hong Kong democracy movement is in some ways comparable to the anti-colonial struggle of different nations across Asia, which created independent states before, during and after World War II. Like the citizens of Indonesia, India and Malaysia, the people of Hong Kong are turning against a power that tries to impose their will on them without taking much account of their other language, culture and way of life. And they see themselves as a unified political community in which democratic rights and the principles of self-government should apply.

The Hong Kong identity, like many previous national and sub-national identities, is shaped in the flames of resistance. When teenagers go out in Hong Kong fighting the police with Molotov cocktails in hand and wills in their pockets, one can recall the words of political scientist Benedict Andersons who used the concept of the nation as imagined political community coined: He declared that the nation was understood as a "deep, comradely association of equals". This fraternity has made it possible, over the past two centuries, "that millions of people have died willingly rather than willingly for such limited imaginations". [11]

Print from Beijing

To understand how things got this far in Hong Kong, one must first look at how a vicious circle of repression and resistance developed over the course of a decade, and how this resulted in a series of increasingly confident social movements led by young people. I like to think of Hong Kong as the world's most ambitious political science experiment, running in real time. The hypothesis is: can a free city survive and develop into a full-fledged democracy if it is part of one of the most powerful authoritarian states in the world?

The answer tends more and more to no. In the first few years after the handover in 1997, the Chinese leadership took a relatively passive approach to the city. The reasons for this were the economic importance of Hong Kong, the desire not to destabilize the city, and a generally much more cautious strategy in foreign policy. At the time, the communist leadership was still following former leader Deng Xiaoping's admonition to "hide your strength and wait for the right moment".

This attitude began to change in 2003 when there was widespread protests in Hong Kong after considering the introduction of an anti-riot and treason law. The Hong Kong government was forced to drop the project, and Beijing realized that the People's Republic had to become significantly more involved in Hong Kong society and politics in order to ensure that "one country" was not destabilized by the "two systems" would.

The principle of "one country, two systems" has always been an uncomfortable compromise that is now increasingly showing signs of disintegration. Beijing's tougher stance has intensified significantly since Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Hong Kong felt Xi's uncompromising crackdown on dissenters and members of the opposition as well as his striving for greater ideological and political control. Since the attempt to introduce measures for a patriotic upbringing in the spirit of the Communist Party in schools in 2010, interventions and restrictions on the freedoms of Hong Kongers and the promised "high degree of autonomy" have increased. In addition, this approach was supported by a Hong Kong government, which is increasingly controlled by Beijing.

In the past few years, one had to watch more than once how opponents and critics of Beijing were arrested off the street in Hong Kong. Elected representatives were removed from parliament with questionable reasons and young political activists were excluded from running for "thought crimes". A political party was banned and a foreign journalist was expelled for the first time since Hong Kong was surrendered to China. This set disturbing precedents.

In the current wake of events, it has been shown that Prime Minister Carrie Lam has little room to make important decisions without consulting Beijing. As she told a group of business people in a private interview about which details became public, their political maneuverability in the current situation is "very, very, very limited". [12] Because of this pressure, Hong Kong looks more and more like any Chinese city; the former crown colony is going through a process that supporters of the Hong Kong democracy movement call "Mainlandization".


However, the pressure has created a backlash, especially among young people. It can best be traced back to three interconnected mass social movements that have emerged over the past seven years. The first was the 2012 Scholarism movement, which opposed the introduction of a new compulsory subject called "Moral and National Education" to teach the values ​​of the Chinese Communist Party. The protests were at least temporarily successful, with the Hong Kong government putting the basic curriculum change on hold for the time being. Perhaps more importantly, for the first time in recent history, Hong Kong's teenagers took to the streets and led a political movement.

In this context, it was of particular importance for the question of identity that the movement emerged in contrast to the image of the patriotic Chinese propagated by Beijing - and to defend the Hong Kong way of life. The more the Communist Party under Xi Jinping tries to claim Chinese ethnicity, the more those who reject the Party's principles will conclude that there is no place for their ideas in China. In the 1980s, Deng Xiaoping told a Hong Kong delegation that Hong Kongers could "keep cursing the Communist Party" after 1997 as long as they "love the country and love Hong Kong." [13] But after Xi has not only demanded leadership for the party in central China, but also in "North, South, East and West", the strategic ambivalence of the Deng era is a thing of the past. The Scholarism movement also brought young activists like Joshua Wong into the local spotlight, who gained valuable experience during the protests and who plucked up the courage to go one step further with the next mass movement.

The so-called umbrella movement followed in 2014. She wanted to get Beijing to conclude that the Hong Kong people could elect their head of government in free and direct elections instead of an election committee dominated by Beijing, as was previously the case. The movement had much more ambitious goals than the Scholarism movement, its scope was correspondingly larger, and several generations were involved. Veteran fighters of the democracy movement had propagated the idea of ​​nonviolent civil disobedience and the brief occupation of some streets in the center. The leaders of the school and student movement have now taken the project to the next level. It was an awakening experience, especially for many young Hong Kong residents. During my research for "Generation HK", many told me that it was not only their first time that they had participated in a social movement, but also the first time that they had seriously dealt with politics and the question of what it means living in China under Xi Jinping in Hong Kong.

The third movement began in 2019 with the protests against the extradition law, but quickly evolved into a broader struggle for democracy, a battle for the soul of Hong Kong, and an angry outcry against injustice, highlighting the lack of political accountability on the part of the police and State openly came to light.

But before I deal with the current protests, I should first consider Hong Kong's identity and how it was shaped by repression and resistance.

Clashing identities

Hong Kong residents, now in their teens or twenties and thirties, constitute the first generation to grow up after the handover to China. By growing up, I mean that either her whole life or her adult life happened after 1997. They grew up in a kind of identity vacuum that - unlike their parents or grandparents - barely had any connection with the colonial past of the city under British rule or with the way of life on mainland China. The vacuum was increasingly filled by a Hong Kong identity of its own, which is defined by its demarcation from mainland China. This development is hardly surprising when you consider that people naturally define themselves as differentiating them from others. In addition, the "one country, two systems" principle was specifically designed to protect what set Hong Kong apart from China, including fundamental rights and the rule of law. Why should the younger generation in a special area with its own language (Cantonese), flag, constitution and currency even think that they should be something different from Hong Kong?

But instead of looking for a way to incorporate the specific Hong Kong identity, Beijing threatened the Hong Kong way of life and self-esteem with its increasingly tough approach to the city. However, this only further strengthened the identity of the Hong Kong people, and also increased their defensive attitude towards a Chinese identity, which according to the Communist Party is inextricably linked with their rule over the nation. Surveys by the opinion research institute at the University of Hong Kong show that the sense of identity has grown significantly over the past decade, while at the same time trust in the principle of "one country, two systems" has fallen massively. Between June 2008 and June 2019, the proportion of residents who use the term "Hong Kong" to describe their ethnic identity rose from 18 to 53 percent. Among the 18 to 29 year olds, the proportion even jumped from 23 to 75 percent. [14]

Another vivid example of the growing identity conflict are the boos when the Chinese anthem is played before football matches. Hong Kong has its own national football team, but the Chinese national anthem sounds before their games (unlike the Welsh and Scottish teams, whose players sing their own anthem instead of singing "God Save the Queen" like the English national team). Younger fans began to boo when the "March of the Volunteers", as the Chinese national anthem is called, was played to express their Hong Kong identity and their opposition to the Chinese government for imposing the "One Country" doctrine on them. Beijing's reaction was to be expected. The Hong Kong government has been instructed to pass a draconian law that punishes a lack of respect for the national anthem with a prison term of up to three years.

This makes an interesting comparison with Scotland and Catalonia. There, too, attempts by the respective central government to integrate regions on the periphery more strongly backfired and led to a strengthening of the independence movements. As a direct result of the pressure from Beijing, a separatist movement also emerged in Hong Kong. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, around a fifth of voters supported candidates who spoke out in favor of more self-determination or independence.

The movement of the recent protests from 2019 is based in many ways on the so-called umbrella revolution of 2014. According to a survey, half of the participants already took part in the demonstrations of 2014. [15] But in other respects the current protest movement - as well as the government's response - is very different from previous protests.

Revolution of our Time

Unlike the umbrella revolution, the current movement has no leaders. Their absence is also due to the fact that several well-known activists are in custody or on trial and are therefore unable to participate. The intellectual father of the protests, the young Harvard graduate Edward Leung, is currently in custody, but his political slogan "Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our time" became the motto of the uprising. However, because it has no leaders, the government has little opportunity to act against the movement. In addition, with this deliberately chosen strategy, the demonstrators want to promote integrated and decentralized decision-making processes in order to give Hong Kongers a say in issues where the government denies them.

The activists have also changed their strategy in other ways since 2014, giving the feeling of a common identity (united against a common enemy) an enormous boost. The umbrella movement and its aftermath were tarnished by bitter internal wars among activists over the future direction of the movement. Beijing's tough pace seemed to be paying off, and the protest lost momentum and hope. Therefore, the protesters made a conscious decision in 2019 to appear united and to settle their tactical and ideological differences in favor of the common goal. The approach was summarized in another popular slogan: "Climb the mountain together, make your own contribution".

The frontline protesters were also significantly more violent towards the police and anyone they believed was trying to undermine their cause. Many moderate demonstrators, who were not necessarily in favor of throwing Molotov cocktails at police officers and devastating Chinese state-owned businesses, were also reluctant to criticize the violence for various reasons. First, they did not want to jeopardize the unity of the opposition movement. Second, they were outraged by the escalating police violence and therefore believed that the authorities' lack of political accountability justified more militant resistance. Third, I was told by some veterans of the democracy movement who had always spoken out against violence in the past that they now felt that violence was appropriate under certain circumstances, because it had put the government on the defensive and made it withdraw the extradition law.

The question of the justification for violence used in Hong Kong in 2019 in the name of democracy and freedom is obviously important, but this debate needs to be conducted separately. I just want to point out that the escalation has reinforced the feeling of a special Hong Kong identity for many young people, but also for all the others who have come together through the movement. Police insist that they are not responsible for any deaths, but many supporters of the democracy movement believe that a few, if not dozen, demonstrators were killed by the authorities, but their deaths were covered up or portrayed as suicide. True or not, it's fascinating how Hong Kong residents regularly come together at improvised shrines for the alleged - and often nameless - victims. This is reminiscent of the way nations collectively mourn at memorials like the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier; a typical symbol of the power of imagined communities.

The protests against the extradition law started in March 2019, but only a few thousand people came to the first demonstrations. It took some time for the movement to gain momentum. Without the stubborn attitude of the Hong Kong government and the exaggerated reactions of the police, things might have turned out very differently. Many young people can often be found at the forefront of protests, but they have also attracted older Hong Kong residents to the movement. When protesters were stranded after their blockade of Hong Kong airport because the authorities shut down public transport, dozens of car owners (a luxury that only the wealthy can afford in a city like Hong Kong) drove off and picked them up. Office workers in suits and designer handbags helped protesters build barricades in the central business district during their lunch break. Lawyers, doctors and accountants provide legal advice, medical assistance and logistical support. Alfred Wong, a cardiologist who gave first aid to injured demonstrators, said: "This is not a single battle, but a very long road. To win, it takes the wisdom of the elderly and the energy of the younger ones." [16]


In the current political discourse in the West, "identity politics" is predominantly viewed as a negative concept. But the Hong Kong example shows that it can also be a positive force. The desire to protect a common Hong Kong identity unites a diverse group in their vital struggle to defend freedom and democracy against authoritarian pressure. Although images of violent clashes dominate the news, the protest movement also has a strong creative element. Those involved have found new ways to express their changing sense of identity. Hong Kong residents not only oppose authoritarianism, they also fight for values ​​that many in the West claim to uphold but seldom have to defend: democracy, freedom and the rule of law. Hundreds of people are likely to be jailed for their participation in the protests, and many more will lose their jobs and ruin their career prospects if the clean-up against the democracy movement intensifies. But the crackdown will provoke another backlash. At present it is difficult to see how the admission of hundreds more detainees, practically political prisoners, will affect the Hong Kong prisons, with their relatively small population of 8,000.

What is clear is that young Hong Kongers are determined to maintain the resistance and to make their mark on developments with their own version of the struggle. Inspired by the boos against the Chinese national anthem a few years ago and above all by the current crisis, activists have written their own anthem, "Glory and Honor for Hong Kong". In the text, they remember, among other things, the victims of 2019 and emphasize the long struggle that lies ahead of them. The people are urged to liberate the country and stand up for Hong Kong. The anthem is sung across the city, in schools, malls and around the world as activists capitalize on the influence and connections of Hong Kong people in the diaspora that stretches from Sydney to San Francisco to London and beyond. Ultimately, this is also an impressive example of how identity formation in Hong Kong is closely linked to the struggle for freedom and democracy and vice versa.

Beijing and the Hong Kong government have misunderstood this crucial interaction on several occasions, which has resulted in their actions doing exactly the opposite of what was originally intended. If the Chinese rulers fail to find a way to grant Hong Kong people their political rights and allow them to express their own identities, the conflict will intensify.

Translation from English: Heike Schlatterer, Pforzheim.