Hong Kong Is Having City Wide Protests, but do Mass Protests Work?
What’s happening in Hong Kong?
First My Criminals, Then My Heroes
Hong Kong is seeing some of the largest protests in modern history over a proposed Extradition bill between Hong Kong and China, police brutality and a growing fear that Hong Kong is slowly losing its autonomy. Some estimates are as high as nearly 2 million Hongkongers protesting, but that figure is likely exaggerated as it accounts for about 27 percent of the territory’s population. Hundreds of thousands is much more likely. These protests have been dispersed with tear gas and rubber bullets, yet the protestors actions have escalated, some of whom broke into a government building and hung up a British colonial flag.
This controversial bill was put forth by Hong Kong’s own government to resolve a murder case where a Hongkonger murdered their partner while on vacation in Taiwan. Without this bill, proponents claim, they cannot charge the accused. This bill however, grants extradition rights not only to Taiwan, but also to mainland China. Extradition between two parts of one country may not sound so bad in itself, but protesters fear this could be a huge blow to human rights in an otherwise democratic enclave within China.
Extradition is the practice of returning criminals to the country where they broke a law. If I were to murder someone and flee to Canada, Canada would return me because of its extradition treaty with the United States. On its face, this seems like a good thing, but it can be quickly be abused when you think about how the laws of separate countries differ. Because of this, usually only “like-minded countries” sign extradition treaties. Take a look at whom the United States has extradition treaties with. Notice that the vast majority of them are liberal democracies.
When you look at it from this angle, it becomes easier to understand the fears that Hongkongers have. This extradition treaty could potentially force Hong Kong to turn over journalists, protesters, or critics of the Chinese system. Even critics just passing through Hong Kong could be extradited to China.
These protests aren’t the first of their kind either. In 2014 pro-democracy protests galvanized the entire city into what were called the “Umbrella Protests,” named for the umbrellas used by protesters to fend off pepper spray. These protests ultimately gained little for the protesters, and soon enough police had cleared the last of protesters without further escalation.
It’s also worth noting that Hong Kong’s “democracy” is a bit different than our own due to its place within the Chinese sphere. Specifically, all candidates for office have to be vetted and approved by mainland China for office.
Previously, I’ve mentioned a sense of growing nationalism in Hong Kong. This is important context, but perhaps more important is the history of Hong Kong itself. That’s going to make this post a bit unique as we usually look to other parts of the world to understand the current situation, and we’ll do that too, but these protests really have been an inevitability since a treaty signed in the mid 19th century.
Hong Kong’s History
I Sell Drugs to Fund My Tea Problem
In the beginning of the 19th century, international trade had exploded and most of Europe had colonies all over the world. Britain was importing several goods from China, particularly silk and tea. China, however, refused to import anything in return, which lead to a huge trade deficit, which was a problem since England had recently lost its lucrative American colonies and was needing to fund its Industrial Revolution.
In fact, a British ambassador received this reply from the emperor when asked about trade:
Our ways have no resemblance to yours, and even were your envoy competent to acquire some rudiments of them, he could not transplant them to your barbarous land . . Strange and costly objects do not interest me. As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on strange objects and ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures
In response, The British East India company (a privately owned company with astanding army and ruled over parts of India that was responsible for bringing fine and exotic goods back to Britain) had the idea to grow Opium in India and smuggle it into China. Opium was super illegal in China. The smuggling was so wide spread that 10–13 million Chinese were addicted to Opium despite the emperor’s multiple edicts against it. To get an idea of that scale, the United States is experiencing a similar Opioid crisis that’s large enough to be affecting its economy and is even be considered a threat to national security. The crisis affects about 1.7 million people. The crisis in China in 1840 affected 8.3 million more people than the US’ crisis today. Given the differences in population, the Chinese epidemic was proportionally a bit larger than that of the United States’, but certainly comparable. The crisis in China hit males particularly hard though, with 27% estimated to be addicted.
In 1839, the emperor wrote Queen Victoria a letter hoping to resolve this matter, but this letter was likely lost in transit. Hearing no response, the Emperor ordered that all Opium be seized from the British ships and thrown into the sea. This was 2.6 million pounds of Opium. The British were probably getting real sick of having their goods thrown in the sea given the Boston Tea Party just over 60 years prior. This incident wasn’t the only diplomatic snafu though. When a British ambassador came bearing gifts, the emperor essentially told him that his gifts (mostly things like clocks, compasses and other inventions) were unwanted because the Chinese had everything they needed. There was also a case where two British sailors drank too much and beat a Chinese villager named Lin Weixi to death. The subsequent arguments over whether to try the sailors over British or Chinese law further degraded relations as did the fact the British eventually released the sailors.
As you might have guessed, tensions exploded in what is now known as the Opium War. The result was similar to that of the Japanese against Mr. Perry a few years down the road. The Chinese weaponry was simply no match for the industrialized British. The war resulted in China ceding Hong Kong and trading rights to the British in the 1842 treaty of Nanking. The squalid island full of piracy and disease didn’t attract many merchants though, and frankly, neither China nor the Brits were happy with the results of the First Opium War. In particular, the Chinese refused to even discuss the legality of Opium — a point the British kept pressing. The Daoguang emperor reportedly spoke of the matter saying, “nothing will induce me to derive a revenue from the vice and misery of my people.” Even so, other western powers managed to secure one sided trade treaties with China as well; these sets of treaties are now known as the Unequal Treaties.
China indignant about being pushed around and Britain still sore over the legality of Opium (arguing that the Chinese should just tax it and make a killing) eventually started the Second Opium War fought between 1856 and 1860. Officially, this was ignited by the fairly bizarre Arrow Incident where a Chinese ship in Hong Kong waters with a Chinese crew was boarded by Chinese authorities and the men arrested on grounds of suspected piracy. This was considered an affront to the British only because it took place in British controlled waters, and they considered it a breach of their extraterritoriality agreement in the Treaty of Nanjing. It may have been a shoddy argument, but it was the casus beli the British needed. Further, the Chinese were also dealing with the massive Taiping Rebellion led by Hong Xiquan, who literally thought he was the brother of Jesus Christ. The year is 1850 AD, and China is some 5,000 miles from Israel, but that’s beside the point. The man led a massive rebellion, sometimes referred to as a civil war, which prevented the Chinese from assembling an appropriate response to Britain’s affront. Eventually, the Brits secured more territory in the treaty of Peking.
The Brits weren’t the only nation getting in on the action. The French joined the war following the arrest and sentencing of a French missionary Auguste Chapdelaine who’d broke the law by preaching Christianity in interior China, which was a serious and well-known no-no. The French used it as their excuse to join the 2nd Opium War.
The treaty of Tientsin opened 11 more ports for trade and allowed the United States, Russia, France, and Britain to “establish embassies” in Beijing, which turned out to require thousands of troops, which proceeded to loot all of Beijing.
Over the next 50 years, the colony of Hong Kong attracted merchants and the resulting population grew so rapidly that the Brits were worried about security and where their population could go, since they were trying to keep it separate from mainland China. They ended up “leasing” more territory from China in 1898, which is now referred to as the new territories. This “lease” was really more extortion, but the Chinese agreed. This lease was supposed to run for 99 years, which was understood to just mean “forever.” This string of unequal treaties are often referred to by the Chinese government as among the inciting events for the “Century of Humiliation.” Every government since has put a focus on modernizing their nation to be competitive with the west. Hong Kong would now look like how we see it today:
99 years isn’t forever though, and as 1997 approached, Margaret Thatcher and the Deng Xiaoping began to discuss the handover. It was agreed that, for 50 more years, there would be a transitional period where the people of Hong Kong would continue to be able to practice the liberal values and democracies they’d become accustomed to. However, they would ultimately be apart of China — not Britain. This is often known as the one country two systems agreement, and in 2047, it expires and Hong Kong becomes just another part of China.
That brings us to the present. As Beijing continues to chip away at the values that Hongkongers cherish, conflict seems inevitable — though it’s hard to predict exactly how violent that conflict will get. While this conflict is certainly rooted in Industrial and Imperial histories, has there ever been anything like it?
If we cut to the heart of the conflict, what’s occurring is a protest against an unpopular law and an unpopular leader. As we’ll see, there are several notable examples of similar protests reaching all the way back to ancient history.
Similar Stories Through History
The Roman Republic
Can we have rights? Pretty Plebes?
The Roman Republic is a period of Roman history that many look to for inspiration on governance, and in fact forms the basis of United States’ government. The Republic began around 509 BCE after the Roman king was over thrown and ends in 27 BCE when Octavian defeats Mark Antony, avenges Julius Caesar’s death, and establishes the Roman Empire.
The Roman Republic, however, had a recurring social squabble between two classes of people, Patricians and Plebeians. The Patricians were the class of aristocrats and were, supposedly, descendants from the Senate that Romulus himself hand picked. Thus, only Patricians were allowed to be senators or hold any high ranking office. When the Roman king Tarquin was overthrown, the Patricians decided to do away with kings altogether (somewhat ironically, it would only be about 500 years before the kings were effectively back as emperors). They replaced the kingship with consuls — two leading men who had veto power over each other, were elected by the Patricians, and were liable for crimes when their office was up. Sounds like a great step in the right direction to avoid the tyranny of despotic kings, right?
Except that the Plebeians, who made up the vast majority of Roman civilization, had no say in either consulship, nor could they even be elected to a voting position. In a situation that might sound familiar to anyone who’s read about a revolution, the Plebeians were taxed, but had no oversight into how their money was spent, and were drafted into wars they had no say in whether they fought. Further, when they were drafted into a war, nobody could take care of their farm. They would go off and fight for Rome, come home to a ruined farm and receive no support from the state. This would force them to take loans they couldn’t repay, and subsequently cause them to be harassed and imprisoned for not repaying the loan. Instead of waging a civil war though, they did something pretty incredible given the year is 493 BCE. They organized and protested.
In a remarkable event that we refer to as the Secession of the Plebes, a Plebeian known as Lucius Sicinius Vellutus advised that instead of leading a violent revolt, they should just leave. That’s what they did. The entire city packed up and left. Literally. Any Roman citizen that wasn’t a Patrician — that includes barbers, accountants, farmers, and importantly, soldiers — united and walked out of their own country. They set up shop on a hill, fortified it, and waited for someone to come meet their demands.
And there demands were indeed met. The senate, fearful of an attack while the populace was away, sent Menenius Agrippa to meet them. Menenius was a well liked man by the people and he prepared an eloquent speech in which he compared the patricians to the stomach and the plebians to the arms and legs. Yes, the arms and legs do all the work to feed the stomach, and at first glance the stomach does nothing but consume the labor of the arms and legs. However, if the arms and legs do no work, then the whole body will suffer because the stomach also provides nourishment to the arms and legs.
His speech was successful and brought the Plebeians to the table. The office of the Tribune was created in which two members from the Plebeian class held an elected office and had the power of veto. They could veto any unjust law being proposed by either the consul or senate. The Plebeians would use this secession tactic four more times in the coming years and in doing so secured various rights, including the right to marry between patrician and plebeian, the return of land that had been seized to pay their debts, and even an upper limit on the amount of land any one person could possess.
This is certainly a protest ahead of its time as political disagreement nearly ubiquitously resulted in bloodshed. The largest difference here is scale. Rome hadn’t even conquered all of Italy yet and was several hundred years before its peak. This sort of strategy would never have worked once Rome had established its empire. Something more immediately comparable to China would have been if this occurred 400 years later and the entire empire walked out. The amount of civil wars Rome would suffer through in the 200s prove large scale support for a cause isn’t always a problem, but those conflicts also had significant differences in what they were fighting for and the mere fact they were fighting. Hong Kong’s protests have been relatively peaceful. Mainland support for Hong Kong is non-existent, and thus Beijing is eager to paint Hongkongers as terrorists or rioters — phrases that have a connotation of fringe ideology that doesn’t reflect a deeper schism within the unity of their country, a strategy that’s working.
The English Civil War
Let Me Level with You
It’s easy to think that protests are mostly a modern invention with the Romans being a forward thinking exception, but protests are popular throughout history. In fact, the first labor strike in history happened about 700 years earlier in theEgyptian New Kingdom. Coincidentally, this was near the time of the Bronze Age Collapse. Another protest I’d like to particularly hone in on is the Levellers in Great Britain.
I initially hesitated at choosing another situation involving either Britain or China, but the Levellers seemed particularly apt for the present climate both in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The Levellers were a radical political group in the 17th century who advocated an ideology that would have fully democratized Britain. They gain their name from their opponents who coined the term claiming that the Levellers wanted to level the inequality by abolishing property rights and equalizing all wealth, neither of which were actual goals of the Levellers. If calling a politician a name associated with an unpopular agenda that doesn’t align with their actual goals sounds familiar, it should.
The Levellers came to prominence within the English Civil War, a conflict started between Charles I and parliament, and in itself was over how much authority the king could wield.
As a little bit of background, King James had united the kingdoms of Scotland and England (and had hoped to also unite Ireland). However, England’s parliament was a bit stronger legally than Scotland’s, which proved problematic when the King wanted to raise funds for the Thirty Years War because in England taxes could only be levied with parliament’s permission. It was almost literally their only codified responsibility (though they had others, they were less official, and often amounted to petitions, airing grievances, or proposing laws the king could reject). This codified power of Parliament was particularly irksome because James (and his heir Charles) both believed in the concept of Divine Right, which is basically just the idea that God himself chose the king (an idea originally propagated by Roman Emperor Diocletian), and Absolutism, which is basically a fancy word to describe the response, “Because I said so,” to anyone daring to question the king. In other words, the King has absolute power — as you might expect if God Himself appointed you.
Once King Charles had ascended, he was broke from James’ ongoing war (a war he’d tried to prevent by marrying the king of Spain’s sister). Charles tried various sketchy means to raise funds without Parliament including forced loans. When people refused to pay up, he just threw them in jail, which unfortunately still left him without funds and still forced him to call Parliament to get permission for a tax.
Parliament was none too happy about his actions. His jailing of knights and nobles were seen by parliament as a violation of Habeas corpus, and compelled Parliament to produce the Petition of Right. Parliament refused to grant any taxes until the King recognized their petition. The Petition of Right had 4 major clauses that might sound familiar:
- Taxes may not be levied without approval of Parliament
- Subjects may not be imprisoned without cause
- Troops may not be quartered in citizen’s homes
- Martial Law may not be enacted during peace time
Charles recognized the Petition but became further frustrated with Parliament’s other grievances, so he dissolved parliament and simply refused to call another one…for eleven years. He thought as long as he could avoid another war, he didn’t need Parliament’s taxes, and thus didn’t need Parliament. However, due to his attempted reform of the church in Scotland (who wasn’t a fan of the national Church of England), a Scottish army invaded, and Charles was forced to call a parliament in 1640 to secure war funds. This incident is known as the Bishop’s Wars, but would be the first in several wars collectively known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms. During this and subsequent Parliaments, Parliament recognized they had Charles by his ears and demanded even more recognized powers. Charles refused to grant them. This ultimately lead to the English Civil War. Loyalists to the king were referred to as the Cavaliers while the “Roundheads” of Parliament were led by a man named Oliver Cromwell.
Cromwell would win, overthrow the monarchy, and establish a military dictatorship as those who win wars “for the people” seem wont to do — see also Julius Caesar, Maximilian Robespierre, Napoleon Bonaparte, Simon Bolivar, or Vladimir Lenin.
The Levellers developed from Cromwell’s Parliamentary army as a faction wanting not only further rights for parliament, but full democratization including universal suffrage and abolishing the House of Lords. (Parliament is composed of a House of Lords and a House of Commons. A big difference between which is that members of the House of Commons are elected whereas the House of Lords are appointed. The House of Lords used to be more powerful than the Commons, which is why the Levellers sought to abolish it.)
Members of Cromwell’s New Model Army came together and published these thoughts in their political manifesto known as “The Case of The Armie Truly Stated.” One Leveller Colonel argues the case for suffrage with their General stating:
“I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he, and therefore truly, sir, I think it is clear to every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government.”
This full manifesto angered the Leveller’s senior officers, and the leaders of the Leveller movement, known as Agitators, were invited to debate their ideals in the Putney Debates. The manifesto was brought to the debate and redrafted as “An Agreement of the People.” The Agitators explained their principles and merit against “The Heads of Proposals,” a document that the army had already drafted with demands of King Charles when he was defeated.
Lastly, the Levellers even drafted a petition to present to parliament which garnered signatures from 1/3 of all Londoners. The goals of the Levellers were not in line with Cromwell’s aims. Eventually, the Levellers were kicked out of the army, some court marshaled, and one agitator named Robert Lockyer was hanged. This sudden oppression caused a string of mutinies, the biggest of which was 400-strong and known as the Banbury Mutiny. Cromwell crushed the mutinies and soon after the Leveller’s newspaper ceased publication. The executed leaders are still celebrated today in Oxfordshire on a day known as Levellers Day.
The Levellers on their face bear little resemblance to the Hongkongers, but under scrutiny similarities begin to reveal themselves. Both the Levellers and protesters came to prominence in a turbulent environment. One might say that the protesters caused their environment, but this turbulence is inevitable given only 70 years to lose all the liberties gained over the prior 150. Thus both groups are a product of, rather than a catalyst to, their shifting political environments. Both groups were also initially peaceful and distributed information about their cause via pamphlets and brochures. One was violently shut down, and as the Chinese military amasses at the Hong Kong border, it may become another similarity.
Lastly, both groups had similar aims and faced a seemingly insurmountable opponent, whether that’s the whole of China or a divinely appointed monarch. The Levellers’ aims did not come to pass, but the movement did push the national conversation and inspired the populace to keep pushing for liberty. Whether Chinese citizens will make similar strides with the national conversation seems unlikely with the Tienanmen Square protests in recent memory and the effective nature of Chinese media impressing its populace.
Violence isn’t inevitable and can still be avoided, but whether there’s a compromise to be had seems unlikely. The one party two systems agreement is unlikely to be a durable one, and these protests aren’t Hong Kong’s first. As the protester's demands grew from simply removing the extradition treaty to full autonomy and democracy, China is less able to cave. Whether China will be able to wait the protests out as they did in 2014’s Umbrella movement remains to be seen.