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Hong Kong Protests More Populist Than Democratic

As protesters increasingly appeal to the US for support, it becomes clearer their claim that Beijing is undermining their freedoms has no merit

By NewsChina Updated Nov.1

The Hong Kong protests have raged for more than three months. In one of the latest developments, thousands of protesters in Hong Kong marched to the US consulate waving US flags and wearing “Make Hong Kong Great Again” hats to appeal to US President Donald Trump to “liberate” Hong Kong. Most media outlets tend to report the event as a sideshow, but to a large extent, the “MHKGA” slogan perhaps best summarizes the sentiments of the Hong Kong unrest, as it shares many similarities with the politics behind “Make America Great Again.” Much like Trump, who attributes the US’s problems to the influx of immigrants and its trade imbalance with other countries, many in Hong Kong also blame Beijing and mainlanders for most of the city’s woes. As Trump called illegal immigrants “rapists,” “drug dealers” and “criminals,” Hong Kong protesters have long been calling mainlander tourists “locusts” and mainland immigrants “infiltrators.” While Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric has led to a surge of racism in the US, anti-mainland sentiment in Hong Kong has sparked frequent incidents of harassment and assault against Mandarin-speaking mainlanders and pro-Beijing local residents. While Trump is building a wall at the border with Mexico, Hong Kong protesters are eyeing an invisible wall to separate the city with the mainland politically.  

But unlike Trump, whose claims are routinely subjected to media scrutiny and fact checks, Western media readily accepts Hong Kong’s anti-Beijing movement as a democratic movement. While accepting an over-simplified narrative of freedom fighter vs. authoritarian Beijing, Western media has categorically ignored the populist nature of the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. The reality is that there is simply no substantial evidence to back the protesters’ claims that Beijing is undermining their political freedoms. On the contrary, rights enjoyed by the city including freedom of speech, press and assembly are precisely how such massive protests were able to mobilize, spread and continue for so long, while Beijing at times appears to be throwing its hands in the air.  

Hong Kong police responses to many of the unlawful and violent acts committed by protesters, such as vandalism, arson, hurling petrol bombs and paralyzing the city’s airport, are also far more restrained than their Western counterparts when challenged with similar scenarios. It is ironic for Hong Kong protesters to seek help from the US given its own record of police brutality. Their apparent fondness for Donald Trump may lie in the similarity between the logic behind MAGA and MHKGA. While the MAGA sentiment is mostly driven by a sense of deprivation, Hong Kong’s unrest is also driven by insecurity due to the relative decline of Hong Kong’s significance compared to the rest of China.  

In 1997, when the former British colony was returned to China, half of China’s foreign trade was conducted through Hong Kong and the city accounted for almost one-fifth of China’s economy. Today, Hong Kong handles one-eighth of China’s trade and the economy accounts for less than 3 percent of China’s, less than Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. Along with the decline of its relevance to China, the city is also troubled by economic problems including wage stagnation, high housing prices and increasing inequality. 

Local politics and the city’s uncontrolled capitalist system, not the central government, have caused these problems. For example, many in Hong Kong attribute the astronomically high housing prices, which rank first in the world, to supposed collusion between Beijing and Hong Kong business tycoons. But as many commentators have pointed out, the most decisive event was in 1997, when mass protests forced Hong Kong’s first chief executive Tung Chee-hwa to drop his plan to build 85,000 public housing flats annually out of concerns it would drive down property prices.