Hong Kong's International Front Line: Risks and Opportunities
During the protest movements that have swept Hong Kong in 2019–20, Hong Kongers have consciously called for the world’s awareness of China’s meddling in the city’s affairs. In this article, I probe into the strategies that Hong Kongers use, and examine the opportunities available for the Hong Kong democracy movement in an international context, as well as possible courses of action. In particular, I will demonstrate how the “international front line,” a concept adopted by many protesters, can be a challenge to the repressive powers of the Communist Party of China (CCP). As the world starts to push back against the CCP’s aggression and rule-breaking, it can tilt the balance in favor of the democratic movement, making the prospect of a free and democratic Hong Kong much more likely. I will draw on my past experience in political activism to analyze the current political situation in various countries to formulate a strategy for victory: to win the war of international public opinion, strengthen interactions with civil societies across democracies, and encourage freedom-supporting voices to play a watchdog role in Hong Kong.
THE INTERNATIONAL FRONT LINE
In the face of a world power, boasting the second-largest economy and rising military capabilities, the democratic movement in Hong Kong has from the beginning fought a David versus Goliath battle. With multi-faceted economic clout, China can mobilize resources with ease to crush democratic aspirations in Hong Kong and put pressure on other countries to side with its political agenda. The imbalance in might and size between China and Hong Kong has pushed those who pursue human rights to develop more flexible tactics when furthering their cause.
This is why the international front line is so critical. Simply put, as generally understood, the international front line is a system of partner- ships and alliances with civil societies around the world to advance our democratic cause. By drawing attention to the impunity under Beijing’s rule, Hong Kongers aim to draw the world’s awareness to the CCP’s repressive practices. By thoroughly documenting China’s human rights abuses, the case of Hong Kong can serve as the litmus test of Beijing’s attitudes toward liberty and shed light on the hypocritical, aggressive, and expansive ethnonationalist nature behind Chinese growing assertiveness, both within and outside of its borders. All these efforts may serve as a warning alarm to other democracies at a time when China’s coercive diplomacy becomes its new normal. A growing overseas awareness may transform into bipartisan support for measures as a defense against authoritarian expansion.
WINNING THE WAR OF PUBLIC OPINION
Public support is the fuel of the international front line. The pro-democracy movement benefits from opendiscussion of the developments in Hong Kong; conversely, China benefits when people are in the dark or apathetic about the situation. When publics in other nations are aware of ongoing developments in Hong Kong, the consequent sea-change in perspective tilts the world against the CCP, making it much more vulnerable to continued resistance within Hong Kong itself. The international efforts that Hong Kongers have made can help strip away the façade of Chinese benevolence and do away with the illusions of “win-win” economic growth adopted by Western countries since China acceded to the WTO. If defying the world’s growing concerns, Beijingis further putting itself into challenging dilemmas, be they diplomatic pushback and economic disputes. Chinese state actors, or quasi-state actors—e.g. representatives of Huawei and the staff of Confucius Institutes—would also find themselves under greater scrutiny as a result of Chinese aggression.
Through studying the strategies that Hong Kongers used in the past year, the paper proposes a tentative model of public engagement which guides Hong Kongers’ tactics, based on the features of average public discourse on Hong Kong in a particular country. The model may contain simplifications, but it should be accurate enough to have a better understanding of the new form of activism that emerged in the city last year.
Although China is waging a global propaganda campaign, it is fighting a rather defensive position. With referenceto how China portrayed the protests in Hong Kong, the approach of the state-run propaganda machine is to distortand suppress the facts with disinformation. If China stays silent on the Hong Kong issue, it cedes the initiative toa decentralized network of activists. Ifinstead China floods the airwaves with Hong Kong–related media, it risks drawing unwanted attention to itself. Take, for example, the #nnevvy saga of early 2020, where Chinese netizens comprehensively lost a war of words against their Thai counterparts on Twitter. Reduced to playground insults like “NMSL,” (你媽死了) an acronym for “your mother has died,” the Chinese were unable to match Thai netizens in creativity or humor. In fact, they blun- dered so badly they even catalyzed the formation of the “Milk Tea Alliance” between Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Thai netizens against Chinese nationalist trolls. Internet memes from the Thais were self-deprecating, mocking their own government while criticizing Chinese aggression. Chinese trolls found themselves confused and unable to fire back.
While China does have a sophisticated propaganda apparatus, I believe that it is more geared towards pacifying an already docile population at home rather than winning influence and swaying foreign publics. Chinese bots and trolls, although effective in the closed and controlled platform of Weibo, find themselves adrift when released into the wider digital world. Moreover, even the “wolf warriors” of China—pro-Chinese social media commentators, who often have Twitter’s blue verified checkmarks—alienate more people than they convince, due to their bellicosity, rudeness, and general unpleasantness. Obsessed with toxic nationalism in recent years, Chinese nationalist trolls and politicians also cause diplomatic errors, from intimidating the Senate speaker of the Czech Republic and censoring a Genghis exhibition in France to threatening Canadians living inHong Kong. The abundance of CCP-funded propaganda campaigns based on blatant lies and half-true narratives in universities, think tanks, and other sectors of civil society suggest that this dynamic will continue, damaging international public opinion of China in the medium term.
Beyond the reach of Beijing’s cyber grip, international online spaces—Twitter, Facebook, and the comments section of YouTube—serves as a large advantage for Hong Kong’s freedom-seeking voices. Protesters keep active Twitter accounts that tweet in English, giving them a greater voice in the international community. Moreover, bottom-up actions by Hong Kong netizens, such as #FollowBackHongKong, where pro-democracy Twitter accounts would like and follow each other, have created an organic and spontaneous response against China’s online presence.
These efforts have already seen some success, having successfully linked the pro-democracy struggle with the global fight against climate change. Greta Thunberg, the famous environmental activist, wrote the introduction to my new book, Unfree Speech, which indicates a growing affinity between two very different protest movements. Not only does this give the pro-democracy cause more credibility in the eyes of Western publics—within, for example, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia—but it may also serve as an important prelude to further cooperation between various protest movements around the world.
THE INTERNATIONAL FRONT LINE IN ASIA
We may recall that the “Milk Tea Alliance” between Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Thailand, which came about following a rhetorical skirmish on Twitter, is considered as a sign of what may come about if the international front line plays its cards right in Asia. It is worth noting from the outset that the “Three Demands” of Thailand’s pro-democracy protesters are directly influenced by Hong Kong’s very own “Five Demands” during the 2019- 2020 protests, showing that there are ideological affinities between the two movements and opening up the possibility of cross-national collaboration.1 However, Thailand is an instructive case of the wider geopolitical context, which sees smaller Asian nations cooperating with China, banding with each other to resist China, or a combination of the two. This dynamic has often been observed from the perspective of the state, but this necessarily involves social movements within these countries. These tensions create many opportunities for the international front line.
Based on observations on how civil societies perceive China’s growing presence in the region, people in Asian countries have started to have more critical views on China and also the Hong Kong issue, even though their top governments still seek to maintain friendly relationships with Beijing. Another example is Taiwan, which is the greatest thorn in the CCP’s side and has been explicit in its support of democracy in Hong Kong. Vietnam and the Philippines, which have previously stood up to the CCP over its aggression in the region, are likely to champion Hong Kong’s cause if they see strong, concerted international action led by the West.2 Moreover, the growing popularity of Taiwan internationally, as well as an increasingly self- assured Japan, makes it much more difficult for the CCP to expand their influence in the region.3
This means that the CCP has two forces driving it towards aggression and miscalculation. On one hand, there is the external force, which sees a constriction and containment of the CCP’s efforts at global influence, forcing it to rely on erratic and risky measures. On the other, there is the extremely strong internal force of expansionist, revanchist ethnonationalism, which rewards Chinese officials for aggressive behavior abroad. This, combined with the echo chamber that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping has set up around himself, suggests that China is only going to become more unhinged in the Asian region. Xi’s China does not, and cannot, have the same calculating sangfroid of China from 1985 to 2008. Hong Kong activ- ists can simply point out China’s derailing foreign policy and ensure that this narrative remains in the news cycle. In this way, the international front line flows like water, redirecting threats away from Hong Kong and toward the CCP. A China under pressure is a China that makes mistakes; a China that makes mistakes will face an uphill battle in Hong Kong. If China was not distracted by its quarrels with its international contemporaries, it could crush the remnants of Hong Kong’s freedoms in an instant. But by bringing the rest of the world into this confrontation, Hong Kong can establish a delicate geopolitical balance to give itself some breathing room.
CONCLUDING REMARKS: A NEW MULTILATERALISM FOR THE MASSES
During this era of global democratic backsliding, Hong Kong’s experience can be an opportunity for bottom-up multilateralism. Entire civil societies of a variety of countries are wholly and consciously mobilized and empowered to speak up against injustice in countries beyond their own. When authoritarian leaders start to extend their reach overseas, activists across democracies can speak up for human rights abuses of each other and build up pressure for social changes and reforms through international front lines. Especially when dictators use media meltdowns, draconian laws, and indiscriminate arrests to silence dissent, as has been seen recently in Belarus and Thailand, it becomes more imperative for all freedom-seeking countries to speak up for them.
- In Hong Kong, the demands behind the famous slogan included “the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill; establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct; retraction of the designation of “riot” to describe the protests; amnesty for arrested protesters, and full democracy.” See for example Mary Hui, “A Guide to the Most Important Chants of Hong Kong’s Protests,” Quartz, 2 September 2019, https://qz.com/1699119/chants-and-slogans-of-hong-kongs- protests-explained/.
- Phuong Nguyen and Neil Jerome Morales, “Vietnam, Philippines Denounce China Military Drills in Disputed Waters,” Reuters, 2 July 2020, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-vietnam- china-southchinasea/vietnam-philippines-denounce-china-military-drills-in-disputed-waters- idUSKBN2431GG.
- Taiwan’s boosted reputation goes beyond its lauded COVID-19 response. See for example, Timothy McLaughlin, “Is This Taiwan’s Moment?” Atlantic, 16 May 2020, https://www.theatlantic.com/ international/archive/2020/05/taiwan-china-who-coronavirus-pandemic/611737/; On developments in Japan, see for example Alastair Gale and Chieko Tsuneoka, “China Provocations Hasten Japan’s Military Revival,” Wall Street Journal, 14 July 2020, https://www.wsj.com/articles/japan-china-military- provocations-revival-disputed-islands-pacifism-11594735596.
This article appears in Politics of Protest, the Spring/Summer 2020 issue of the Journal of International Affairs. Subscribe or purchase to read the article in print or via JSTOR.