Responding to the Hong Kong protests

November 5th, 2019

A controversial tweet

In early October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a simple image that read “Fight for Freedom. Stand With Hong Kong.” This tweet, which would seem innocuous to many in the United States, drew immediate and sustained backlash from both Chinese officials and businesses due to the complicated, contentious relationship between China and Hong Kong, a semiautonomous territory that, unlike mainland China, operates as a limited democracy with a capitalist economy.

According to the Associated Press, the Chinese consulate in Houston expressed “strong dissatisfaction” with the team following Morey’s tweet; and both Chinese state television and Tencent, a streaming media company with whom the NBA recently signed a $1.5 billion deal, announced they wouldn’t show Rockets games.

Yet the protests that have taken place in Hong Kong this summer and fall hold far more significance than the relationship between the NBA and China. That they should have any impact at all on something as far afield as pro sports only underscores their significance and the serious political crisis they represent. 

Months of protest

According to a New York Times article from last June, the protests initially arose in opposition to a bill considered by Hong Kong’s legislative body, the Legislative Council. The bill would have allowed the territory to extradite criminal suspects to jurisdictions with which it has no formal extradition treaty, including mainland China.

Observers warned that the Chinese government could use the bill to exert increased pressure on Hong Kong. “If enacted, this law would extend the ability of the Mainland authorities to target critics, human rights activists, journalist[s], NGO workers and anyone else in Hong Kong, much in the same way they do at home,” stated Man-Kei Tam, director of Amnesty International Hong Kong.

On June 9, more than a million people marched in opposition to the bill — nearly one of every seven Hong Kongers and the biggest public protest Hong Kong had seen since the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014. A New York Times video shows that police used tear gas against protesters on June 12, along with pepper spray, rubber bullets and batons, after a small number of protesters threw objects at them. Anger over the police response inspired even larger protests on June 16, when as many as two million people came together in the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-appointed chief executive, withdrew the extradition bill in early September, but the withdrawal wasn’t enough to bring protests to an end. One commonly heard chant — “Five demands, not one less” — refers to the protesters’ aims. The first was the withdrawal of the extradition bill; the others include (1) no more descriptions of the protests as “riots,” (2) unconditional release and amnesty for arrested protesters, (3) independent inquiry into police behavior, and (4) full and genuine democracy.

Throughout the summer and into autumn, protests continued and were increasingly marked by violent confrontations between demonstrators and police. On October 1 — a holiday that marked the 70th anniversary of the Communist state founded in 1949 — police shot a protester with live ammunition for the first time.

CNBC reported that on October 4, Lam invoked emergency powers and banned face masks at all public gatherings, claiming the move would deter violence because demonstrators cannot conceal their identities. (Many protesters wear masks and respirators to guard against tear gas.) The ban provoked a fresh wave of fiery protests. Lam’s critics worry what further actions might follow and how those actions might weaken Hong Kong’s special status, which they believe China has been steadily eroding. 

Mixed U.S. responses

In mid-October, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. It would require the State Department to certify every year “whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from Beijing [China] to justify its unique treatment,” as quoted in The Washington Post. This unique treatment includes exemptions from tariffs and other U.S. laws that apply to all other Chinese exports. If the bill clears the Senate, where it has bipartisan support, it would need President Trump’s signature to become law.

Publicly, Trump hasn’t spoken much about the protests, but the Financial Times reports that he promised Chinese president Xi Jinping that the United States would “tone down criticism of Beijing’s approach” in order to revive trade talks. However, at the United Nations in September, Trump called on China to honor its commitment to “protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system and democratic ways of life,” adding, “We are all counting on President Xi as a great leader,” as quoted in Vox.

Some American businesses find themselves caught between democratic ideals and the pursuit of profit. The NBA, for instance, forced Daryl Morey to apologize for his tweet, then issued its own apology while simultaneously trying to defend free speech, a response that pleased neither Chinese officials nor many US observers. Meanwhile, Apple pulled a map app from its digital store that protesters had been using to track police movement, and shoe company Vans pulled the top vote-getter in a sneaker design competition because the design depicted the protests. 

Christian response

“The Chinese Communist Party may be the greatest existential threat to the Hong Kong church,” notes Christianity Today. Nevertheless, about 900,000 Hong Kongers (almost 12%) are Christian, and Christians enjoy more freedom in Hong Kong than believers in mainland China.

Several church organizations in Hong Kong expressed concern about the extradition bill while calling for restraint and peace from protesters. According to a United Methodist News Service article, the ecumenical Hong Kong Christian Council issued a statement urging the reopening of now-closed public spaces for peaceful demonstration, restraint from using force on the part of police, and dialogue and “rational discussion” between the government and protesters.

Many Christians in Hong Kong have joined the protests themselves. In late August, the first large-scale rally specifically for Christians drew thousands. Its motto was “Salt and light, for justice we walk together.” Attendees formed part of a human chain stretching for more than 21 miles and sang the hymn “Sing Alleluia to the Lord,” which quickly became an unofficial “anthem” for the Hong Kong protests — partly because religious gatherings are exempt from Hong Kong legislation regulating public assemblies.

For believers who choose to participate in the protests, taking to the streets to defend their civil liberties and advocate for greater freedom is an expression of how they understand the gospel. Andrea Wong, an 18-year-old protester, told The New York Times, “I am very certain that Jesus would not have stayed home enjoying the air-conditioning. He would have been out here helping people and marching.”

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