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Resistance Burns at Hong Kong Polytechnic

Things are getting worse in Hong Kong—a fiery standoff at one of the city’s major universities culminated with police storming the barricades early Monday morning. To stop the advance of the Hong Kong police, protestors were forced to resort to extreme measures—setting fire to the barricades in order to create a wall of flames between them and an onslaught of riot police, water cannons, and armored vehicles. A video from the Hong Kong Free Press showed student protestors bombarding an armored vehicle with Molotov cocktails, nearly engulfing it in flames as it tried to ram down the barricades, until it was forced to retreat. 

Students, among other protestors in Hong Kong that have been rallying against the government in the past month, have been finding innovative methods of resisting police—including constructing tire spikes from bamboo and bricks, forming several-mile-long “human chains” to transfer food and medical supplies into besieged areas, and even constructing a trebuchet to launch bricks at oncoming riot police. 

Protests in Hong Kong began nearly six months ago, in response to new ordinances from the Chinese government that were feared to potentially “severely limit the autonomy” of the Hong Kong city-state. Among these proposed ordinances was the Hong Kong Extradition Bill, which would have expanded the Chinese government’s power to police within the city’s boundaries. Protests to these changes came in the form of relatively peaceful marches, demonstrations, and some public speaking events by notable democratic leaders in the Hong Kong government. 

However, as the Chinese government continued to ignore the demands of protestors and protests failed to falter, the government began responding with force. Over time, this has led to an escalatory tit-for-tat between Hong Kong citizens and the Hong Kong Police Force that has no foreseeable end in sight.

The police force of Hong Kong released a statement in warning to the student protestors at Hong Kong Polytechnic, declaring that the police may be forced to escalate to more extreme measures in order to quell the standoff. As some students flee the campus—on motorcycles, by foot, or even by climbing down hand fashioned rope-ladders from buildings, the Hong Kong Police have escalated their use of force by moving in with water cannons, and, even more recently, tear gas. There have also been rumors circulating in the Hong Kong Free Press that the police may resort to using live ammunition instead of rubber bullets if they attempt to tactically infiltrate the campus and are met by more fiery resistance. 

This escalation has occurred all in the matter of two days since the Hong Kong Police attempted to halt protests happening on campus, and one week since Polytechnic reportedly canceled all classes for the rest of the semester in fear of student safety amidst the growing chaos in the city. The government has suspended all schools, has shut down major transportation tunnels that link Hong Kong with the outside world, and have threatened to indefinitely suspend the democratic District Council elections scheduled to happen in the city this upcoming Sunday. 

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said that the United States is “gravely concerned” about rising violence in Hong Kong; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell encouraged President Trump to speak out in support of the protests. 

“The world should hear from [Trump] directly that the United States stands with these brave women and men,” McConnell said on the Senate floor Monday, where lawmakers are currently considering a resolution that would potentially sanction Beijing for cracking down and allegedly escalated to employing anti-riot tactics against initially-peaceful protestors. Since demonstrations started earlier this summer, the Chinese government has done little if all to listen to demands for more democratic sovereignty in Hong Kong. Instead, the Chinese government has responded in a typical mode of repression.

This resolution is taking on bipartisan appeal, and is also rallying support from Democrats who are speaking in tandem with Republicans on the issue of supporting Hong Kong. Most democrats are calling this an issue of basic “demands for democracy,” according to representative Ilhan Omar, via Twitter this past August. Many in government and the media have expressed surprise at the President’s lack of discourse on the issue, and instead expected Trump to continue his “hardline stance” on China—seen in his ongoing trade war and feud with the Chinese government over territorial expansion—by speaking out against the Chinese government’s authoritarian response to democratic protest. 

While this may seem like the logical response, silence on issues of human rights has been the trend of not only the current administration, but also of the American media. Reports emerged earlier this year from the Council on Foreign Relations providing some evidence to suggest that the Chinese government was unlawfully imprisoning Uyghurs, a small Muslim-Turkic minority group in China’s western Xinjiang region and adjacent areas. 

There had also been broad speculation, in analysis of data collected by The China Tribunal, an independent human rights watch group. This group alleges through their data that the Chinese government has been unlawfully harvesting organs from the Uyghurs and other religious minority groups over the past several years. The China Tribunal is currently engaged with the United Nations Commission on Human Rights in reporting their findings. Despite the severity of these actions, and the denial of said actions by the Chinese government, the issue received very little attention in American media outside of a popular moment on social media. 

This is the problem with solidarity that’s currently manifesting with the students besieged at Hong Kong Polytechnic. Compounded by the effects of increased censorship by the Chinese government, as well as tedious or unclear details of the conflict emerging mostly via social media, there appears to be a broader lack of international mobilization against the Chinese government condemning it for these inherently heinous and undemocratic responses to protest. The theory behind this is simple: that China, being not only a major player in global economics and markets, but also a major player in international security and geopolitics, is too big to stand up to. Representatives from the Chinese government sit in positions as high as the United Nations Security Council, the Council on Human Rights, and hold a major stake in international financial, military, and diplomatic agreements. 

Similar to hesitation expressed by the United State’s administration to speak out against the human rights violations committed by the Saudi Arabian government due to their positions as a strong strategic ally in the Middle East, the international community is hesitant to speak out against the Chinese Government and its authoritarian tendencies because of its dominating presence in global geopolitics. According to data collected from The World Bank, China accounted for a maximum share of 15.25 percent of the world’s gross GDP in 2017. 

However, despite the seemingly monolithic power of the Chinese government—consider the position of protestors within the borders of Hong Kong. Students, among supporters from the rest of the city, are remaining steadfast in their convictions for freedom against the Chinese government. The stakes are highest for those actually living in Hong Kong. If protests were to fail and succumb to the force of the Chinese government, it could mean a major backslide in the democratization and liberalization of East Asian politics that Hong Kong has championed over its tenure as a protected government. 

While completely surrounded by a Chinese state that acts routinely against its liberal interests, the Hong Kong government has recurrently stood up for policy initiatives founded on ideals of democracy: liberalization of the voting process, expansion of rights to minority groups, and the integration of society in the form of redistributive policies aimed to alleviate structural economic inequality. These types of policies are also exemplified by other small governments with a resistive position against the Chinese government in Beijing. For example, Taiwan became the first country in East Asia to fully legalize gay marriage in 2019, despite backlash from the mainland. 

The fear is that the Hong Kong protests may turn into another Tiananmen Square, a similar student protest that took place 30 years prior in 1989. In the government crackdown on these student protestos, several hundred to potentially over a thousand students and protestors were either killed or severely injured when the Chinese government moved forward with lethal force in the form of tanks, live ammunition, and even alleged bombings of public buildings such as protestor infirmaries and shelters. 

As the protests at the Hong Kong Polytechnic enter their third day, the methods of resistance become even more heightened, and response from the police escalates, the international community holds its breath.

Despite imbalanced media coverage, hesitant responses from powers in the international community that may have their arms twisted by China, and suppression of information by the Chinese government, the broader community of individual citizens has a moral imperative to stand for Hong Kong’s freedom. These protestors, and their fight for basic freedoms of expression and democracy, are constant reminders that freedom is a privilege for many people living outside the United States. To many U.S. citizens, this is a fundamental right enshrined in founding ideals of our government. 

That being said, it is important to remember that this government of freedom and democracy was not founded in exclusive peace. Rather, obtaining democracy was the result of longstanding resistance and struggle against authoritarianism. Similarly, the fight to improve the United States over its history has always been the result of longstanding and powerful resistance articulated through struggle against injustice. This is the foundation of women’s rights, civil rights for minorities, antiwar movements, and other movements historically motivated by idealistic groups—especially students—on the basis of what ought to be in their country. 

This same wherewithal is being exemplified in the protests in Hong Kong by brave students, and ought to be met with respect and solidarity. If the United States and its citizens are going to truly enshrine ideals of democracy, then they ought to recognize and unequivocally support the pursuit of those same ideals for others—especially when the stakes for this city and its people are at an all-time high.