2019: Beijing's nightmare but Hong Kong's awakening

January 02, 2020 08:00
Anti-government protesters gather at Lion Rock on a Friday evening in September. In 2019, Hong Kong witnessed a new political awakening that is powerful, resilient, and here to stay, the author observes. Photo: Reuters

One man's nightmare can be another man's awakening, just like one man's rioter can be another man's freedom fighter. Now that we've said goodbye to 2019, one thing is clear – it was the year Hong Kong became Beijing's nightmare, a nightmare created by Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.

But for Hong Kong, it was the year of awakening. If a farewell were to be written about 2019, this is how it should read: "Rest in peace. You taught us never to give up our fight for freedom".

Many people thought Hong Kong’s awakening came in 2003 when half a million marched against national security laws, forcing the government to withdraw it. But the awakening was short-lived, as it was in 2012 when mass protests forced the government to abandon national education.

Most people believed awakening finally came in 2014 with the Umbrella Movement. It didn’t. Beijing waited it out, seeing it more as a nuisance than a nightmare. Protesters who occupied streets thinned out, causing the democracy uprising to fizzle after 79 days. Hong Kong returned to normal, with political and livelihood grievances stuffed back into a time bomb.

When Lam’s extradition bill provided a trigger for that bomb to explode, it gave birth to a new political awakening. We are now seven months into that awakening. It is powerful, resilient, and here to stay. This time, Hong Kong has shown the world young people are unafraid to be frontline freedom fighters, with the backing of much of the population.

As a leaderless movement, it is fighting not only for democracy but against mainland-style authoritarian rule spilling into Hong Kong. Beijing's biggest nightmare is the city becoming a democracy frontline in a new US-China cold war. A relentless mix of propaganda, disinformation, and white terror campaign is underway to turn public opinion against the protest movement.

Government announcements on TV and radio bombard Hongkongers daily, telling them to regard news unfavorable to the government as fake news, to oppose violence, return to the old normal, and to learn the Basic Law. TV and radio stations are required to air for free such propaganda announcements produced with taxpayers' money. It's as if Hong Kong has become like North Korea.

Disinformation takes the form of mainland media and officials repeatedly claiming the protest movement has very little public support even though mass protests and the district council election results showed otherwise. Bombs and guns are suddenly found one after another, with the police saying they likely belong to protesters, without providing evidence.

Orwellian-style disinformation came from senior police superintendent Kong Wing-cheung this past Monday when he blamed protesters for provoking white-shirted thugs to savagely beat them and innocent passengers at the Yuen Long MTR station on July 21.

Many saw as white terror Beijing’s heavy-handed treatment of Cathay Pacific, after some of its staff peacefully and privately supported the protest movement. Staff of Cathay and other big companies no longer dare join even police-approved protest marches. Education Secretary Kevin Yeung Yun-hung added to this white terror when he threatened to fire school principals if they sided with teachers who sympathized with student protesters.

Lam, the police, and mainland media use every occasion to describe black-clad protesters as rioters. What they fail to understand is it makes no difference how many times they label protesters as rioters or force TV and radio stations to air propaganda announcements. Much of the public still see young protesters as risking their lives to defend Hong Kong's freedoms.

Nearly 7,000 mostly young people have already been arrested, many of them students, yet they keep coming out, braving police teargas by hurling petrol bombs. They are not afraid. If Lam thinks the more are arrested, the faster the protest movement will fizzle, she is dead wrong.

She is under orders by mainland leaders to clean up her own mess, after which, I believe, they will fire her. Her only strategy to clean up her mess is to declare war on the young, hide, and let the police do her dirty work. Her popularity is in a freefall, the public hates the police, and several generations of young people have already lost all trust in the government and Beijing.

As we enter a new year, let’s always remember what made 2019 so depressing yet so inspiring. The arrogance of a single woman turned Hong Kong into a Greek tragedy – radicalizing young people, ruining businesses, tarring students with criminal records, turning the people against the police, and causing the deepest societal rift ever.

Yet it was a year of inspiration. Hongkongers discovered what matters most to them. It’s not wealth, the economy, housing, or livelihood issues as Lam, her supporters, and Beijing would have us believe.

There is only one root cause for the unrest: democracy. People want to protect their freedoms. They want Beijing to stop meddling in Hong Kong's affairs. They have shown in the past seven months they are willing to fight in any way they can for what they want. That, to me, is inspiring.

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A Hong Kong-born American citizen who has worked for many years as a journalist in Hong Kong, the USA and London.