Hong Kong protests will reverberate across the world
Public opinions polls indicate that a majority of Americans, Europeans see China's economic policies as a threat to their countries' interests.
Most democracy protests are short-lived, garner little international attention and are confined to state capitals. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong are exceptional, having endured for more than 24 weeks. They've spread to cities and college campuses across the globe, challenged international businesses, and attracted the support of foreign governments as well as politicians of contrasting ideological stripes.
Few protests have the potential to go global like those in Hong Kong due to the large number of people from Hong Kong and mainland China studying abroad - about 700,000 in 2018 - the high level of foreign investment in Hong Kong, and the centrality of Hong Kong to China's flagging economy.
Hong Kong students abroad have organised numerous protests, sit-ins, and rallies - often wearing black, masks, and the occasional Winnie-the-Pooh costume - to raise awareness and demonstrate solidarity with the pro-democracy protests. Masks are an emblem of defiance in Hong Kong where they are banned, as is Winnie-the-Pooh. The storybook toy bear is banned due to comparisons with President Xi Jinping. Students also give lectures, flood social media with messages of support and erect Lennon Walls, modelled after the one first created by John Lennon in Prague for passersby to post opinions about the quest for democracy. They also attend basketball games in the United States, wearing masks and t-shirts emblazoned with the words "Stand with Hong Kong" and holding placards in support of the protests, human rights, and democratic freedom more generally. National Basketball Association Games became a focal point of protest because of the backlash Daryl Morey, general manager of the Houston Rockets, received for Tweeting a message in support of the protesters.
The Hong Kong protests have also garnered the support of foreign governments. In 2014, when Hong Kongers took to the streets to challenge electoral reforms, support from Western democracies was limited primarily to rhetoric. Now, however, with the US embroiled in a trade war with China and support for Hong Kong serving as a pressure point, the US Congress has taken a much stronger stance. In October, the US House of Representatives passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act with bipartisan support. The Senate is expected to overwhelmingly approve the bill. The act establishes a process to impose sanctions and travel restrictions on those responsible for the arbitrary detention and torture of Hong Kongers, and more critically mandates an annual review of Hong Kong's special status.
Losing this status would mean Hong Kong would no longer be treated as a separate economy but a part of China. This would have significant consequences for both Hong Kong and China: Hong Kong is a financial bridge between the mainland and the rest of the world. Hong Kong is currently the largest offshore yuan clearing centre in the world, the largest source of overseas direct investment in China and a leading destination for China's foreign direct investment outflow. Hong Kong's financial industry is also important to China's signature Belt and Road Initiative.
Public opinions polls in the US and Europe indicate that a majority of Americans and Europeans see China's economic policies as a threat to their countries' economic interests. China's recent attempts to control corporations based outside China demonstrates that China's economic power is not only a threat to economic interests, but also democratic values and freedoms.
The people of Hong Kong are making tremendous economic sacrifices for democracy. Since the protests began, tourism has almost halved while retail sales have dropped by almost a quarter. International finance and real estate in Hong Kong are unaffected for now, but Hong Kong entered a recession last quarter for the first time in a decade. Yet, even in the face of such negative economic news, Hong Kongers continue to challenge China and fight for freedoms both in Hong Kong and abroad. Life in Hong Kong is deeply interwoven with the world at large, and the struggle for representative government that was promised by Beijing will continue to reverberate throughout the world.
Dawn Brancati is an associate research scholar at Yale University. Nathan Law is a student at Yale University.
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