A Post-Mortem of the ‘Battle For Hong Kong’

Recent Features

Interviews | Politics | East Asia

A Post-Mortem of the ‘Battle For Hong Kong’

Insights from Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin

A Post-Mortem of the ‘Battle For Hong Kong’
Credit: Depositphotos

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy.  This conversation with Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin award-winning journalists and co-authors of “Among The Braves: Hope, Struggle, and Exile in the Battle for Hong Kong and the Future of Global Democracy” (Hachette 2023) is the 389th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.”  

What inspired the inception of your book?

We, like other reporters in Hong Kong, were gripped by the protests in 2019. We’d spend our weekends on the streets, running with protesters and away from police projectiles, and then try to use the relative quiet of the week to make sense of the movement and where it was going. Then in January 2020, the pandemic hit and the world’s focus swiftly shifted. By the end of that year, however, Hong Kong would soon be under a new order, with the passage of the national security law. 

Though we had written dozens of stories over the course of those two years, we felt that there was so much we hadn’t fully explored. Things felt unfinished. And so when we were eventually connected to a young protester who had fled Hong Kong by boat after he was arrested on the streets, we felt we had a very powerful narrative arc that could anchor a book. It really crystallized to us how Hong Kong had deteriorated from a place dissidents fled to, most notably in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, to a place that dissidents fled from

We knew we wanted to tell the book through the eyes of Hong Kongers themselves, and to make it character-driven rather than a memoir or in the style of an argument. All our key characters represented a key facet of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement and its history, from its inception in response to the June 4 crackdown to its more radical form in 2019. Everywhere we looked there were overlaps and through lines.

We started on the book project in early 2021, and as the situation in Hong Kong deteriorated, it was also clear that our work could serve as a bulwark against the blatant attempt to alter and rewrite history. There was an urgency on our part to interview as many people as possible, to collect materials and create a truthful record of what had happened. 

What core ideas and ideals do those fighting for Hong Kong embody? 

The first thing that people use to describe the 2019 protests is “pro-democracy,” and while that is absolutely true, it is a label that doesn’t completely capture what was happening. Other than fighting for rights that were denied by both the British and then the PRC governments, the movement was also a reflection of Hong Kong cementing its own identity, and then translating that into a belief for a more equitable society. Fundamentally, Hong Kong people wanted a say in their own future; to be more than an afterthought in their own city, with their opinions and ideas dismissed by their leaders.

What does the battle for Hong Kong portend for the future of global democracy?

Beijing managed to execute its crackdown on Hong Kong largely devoid of violence. It was a law, not the People’s Liberation Army, that ended Hong Kong’s autonomy, a reflection of how Beijing has altered its calculations since the events of 1989. It was perhaps this strategy, alongside clear limitations and shifting priorities of foreign governments, that allowed Beijing to essentially get away with a clear violation of its own promise and an internationally recognized treaty it negotiated and signed. 

As events since 2020 have shown, many foreign governments and businesses are fine to get on with things. Hong Kong leaders have suffered some economic sanctions, but that’s where American action ended. Lawmakers there have slammed Beijing’s actions and promised to stand with Hong Kongers, but killed pathways for Hong Kongers seeking refuge and then moved on to the next issue. The British said Hong Kong was in violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, but has still recently moved to re-embrace the city economically after years of strained ties. With Taiwan now the focus, Hong Kong is an afterthought, a place whose fate is sealed and therefore is undeserving of much action. 

Hong Kong offers a harsh lesson: that regimes can easily get away with crushing people’s aspirations and dismantling institutions, as long as it is done in a way that is palatable. Few in the international community will be willing – or able – to do anything. 

How does Beijing’s brutal crackdown of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong reflect the thinking of China’s leadership toward the future of Taiwan and its “braves”?

What occurred in Hong Kong ended any faint hope that the “one country, two systems” arrangement could be a viable answer to the Taiwan question. Indeed, the system that kept Hong Kong’s courts independent, its media free, and its protests boisterous was actually formulated by Deng Xiaoping with Taiwan in mind, thinking that if it worked in Hong Kong, it could work there too. When it fell apart spectacularly in 2019, it became clear that Taiwan would never accept a similar model of governance as a pathway to reunification. 

The [re-]election of Tsai Ing-wen [in 2020] was in direct response to the events in Hong Kong in 2019, and the DPP’s momentum is expected to carry on into the upcoming election as well. With the hardening of sentiment against Beijing in Taiwan, and rising tensions across the Pacific, it is extremely hard to predict how and when Xi Jinping will choose to resolve this fundamental question. 

Explain the symbolic and substantive relevance of Hong Kong to the United States and community of like-minded democratic nations. 

For many years Hong Kong was seen as a cushion of sorts between China and the rest of the world. It served as an important financial center for Chinese and Western companies that wanted to do cross-border business, but more than that was a place where people could meet freely, and where ideas and criticisms about the mainland were still permitted. Lawmakers from both parties in the U.S. had deep connections to Hong Kong, in part because it proved to them that a more, if not fully, democratic China was possible. The crisis over the extradition bill, and Beijing’s subsequent crackdown, has destroyed Hong Kong’s status as a middle ground where two hostile systems can co-exist. It has instead become the latest example of Beijing’s anti-democratic actions and an additional talking point in explaining tensions between the U.S. and China. 

The reverberations have been felt regionally, too – Hong Kong was a key part of the “milk tea alliance,” a community of pro-democracy activists across Southeast Asia, notably in Thailand and Myanmar. The painful reality is that authoritarianism has re-asserted itself across much of the region, most recently in Thailand where the results of a democratic election was ignored in favor of elite politicking. There are fewer places in the region, and indeed globally, that demonstrate the values of democracy today.