A protester fires up a Molotov cocktail before throwing it toward police stationed outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on September 15, 2019. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Last summer when peaceful protest in Hong Kong morphed into violence and protesters turned into rioters setting metro and police stations on fire, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, gushed that it was a beautiful landscape, a fight for democracy and freedom.

Now that beautiful sight has been exported to America so that Pelosi can enjoy watching police precinct buildings set on fire closer to home. Of course, America is the home of democracy and freedom, so the looting and burning can’t be for that. 

Meanwhile, the Republican Party will need to revise its campaign handbook and find a creative way to add race riots in American cities to the compilation of grievances to blame on China.

“The riots in America are nothing like Hong Kong and comparing the two is bloody disgraceful,” tycoon Jimmy Lai said in a Donald Trump–inspired tweet. Indeed, he should know, since he has been one of the leaders and prime movers of the protest movement in Hong Kong.

Perhaps in response to Lai’s observation, it would be timely and appropriate to compare the two protest movements while the images and disturbances are still relatively fresh and to find if there are any commonalities and where the differences lie.

When the Hong Kong government attempted to rectify a missing part of its internal security by enacting extradition regulation to prevent criminals from escaping justice by jumping jurisdiction, it became a cause for the protest. 

HK government withdraws, protesters advance

The protest began ostensibly peacefully. When the government agreed to review the statute, which it subsequently withdrew, the protesters rather than backing off felt that they had gained the upper hand and turned violent, while increasing their list of demands.

Last week in the US, a horrified nationwide audience watched as a burly white policeman in Minneapolis slowly squeezed the life out of George Floyd, a black man lying on the street with his neck under the knee of the cop. Three other cops watched and became accessories to murder.

Spontaneous protests took place in America’s major cities under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” and the victim’s last words, “I can’t breathe,” became a marching slogan. Looting and arson quickly ensued.

By and large, America’s finest upheld their duty to protect law and order with clubs, teargas and rubber bullets. In three days of peaceful marches and not so peaceful riots, more were arrested than the total arrested in Hong Kong after more than three months of disturbances and mayhem. By the end of last week, 13 people had been killed.

Members of the media covering the protests became deliberate targets of police harassment with teargas and rubber bullets. One photojournalist lost her left eye to a direct hit by a rubber bullet. She expressed being “thankful” that it was not her camera-shooting eye, which would have been career-ending.

In Hong Kong, the Western media were free to roam, run interference for and select the protest scenes that met their needs to report on police brutality while ignoring the rioters and arsonists doing the destruction. 

While looters in American cities were indiscriminate and their actions included the random destruction of shops owned by ethnic minorities, the looters in Hong Kong were careful and selective and targeted stores with mainland owners. 

The rioters in Hong Kong seem to have been professionally trained. They knew how to make Molotov cocktails to deadly effect and use the umbrella to fend off teargas.

The rioters in Hong Kong were led by experienced advisers who knew how to create mass disturbances. The protests that led to riots in the US were spontaneous and driven by rage.

After Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997 and the formal name became Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, there was a strong undercurrent of discontent and agitation undergirded by a smug white superiority that presumed that Hong Kong could only go downhill after becoming part of China.

To those critics’ chagrin, Hong Kong did not collapse but found economic synergy with the mainland by becoming a real property and service economy. Thus a movement began to undermine the Hong Kong story. 

When a young couple from Hong Kong visited Taiwan and the young man murdered his girlfriend and returned to Hong Kong free as a bird, that ironically became the seed to sow discontent.

Extradition to prevent cross-border crime

To prevent future criminal acts, the Hong Kong SAR government responded to a popular petition for justice by proposing a carefully crafted, duly vetted, safeguard-loaded extradition provision. The anti-government and anti-China faction saw the proposal as the opportunity to histrionically allege a threat to their freedom and an excuse to restart a movement calling for “democracy.”

The anti-government forces were helped by a Hong Kong government that has not been particularly effective or ruthless, by the residual influence of colonial mindsets in Hong Kong, and by the generous financial support from the US National Endowment for Democracy.

The NED was spun off from the US Central Intelligence Agency to bring down governments that displease Washington. The word “democracy” in its organizational name was a cover for “regime change.” However, it’s by no means certain that the NED will succeed in Hong Kong.

The roots of racial unrest in the US go back centuries, not just decades as is the case with Hong Kong, derived as they were from the violent assertion of supremacy by whites over the blacks and all other ethnic minorities of color.

A long history of random lynching, Jim Crow and being brutalized for the slightest provocation were supposedly rectified by civil-rights and hate-crime laws enacted by Congress. Nevertheless, even today blacks continue to be much more likely to be arrested and killed by police. 

An NED-like organization in the US would not have helped. Police brutality against persons of color is deeply ingrained. The most recent incident in Minneapolis is just the latest of a long series of atrocities that Americans can expect to continue. There is no need for outside agitators. 

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s current chief executive, like all her predecessors is not made of the stuff of “when looting starts, shooting starts.” Her failure to implement an extradition statute reflects a flaw in her leadership.

Legal framework for national security

One of key missing elements of the Basic Law, in effect Hong Kong’s constitution, hammered out by Beijing and London was how to deal with national security. In the end, both parties agreed to leave writing the provisions for national security to the SAR government. 

Henry Litton, a retired judge of the SAR Court of Final Appeal, described various attempts to write the laws subsequent to 1997 that were stymied by a series of circumstances and obstructions. Last week, he observed that disruption has reached the point where no laws can be passed in Hong Kong.

“Internal security has worsened, with increasing evidence of terrorist activities aimed at bringing the HK police to its knees and overthrowing the government. The anti-government movement seems well funded, and this raises the question as to the source of funds,” he said.

Thus it was by default that the draft of the national-security laws was submitted to the National People’s Congress for enactment. As Grenville Cross, former director of public prosecution for the SAR government, has pointed out, a full set of laws in place is needed to prosecute sedition and agitators for secession.

The negotiated handover in 1997 was to return Hong Kong as a rightful part of China. Nothing in the “one country, two systems” policy implicitly or explicitly commits a right to autonomy or independence for the people of Hong Kong.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by withdrawing Hong Kong’s special status will facilitate enforcement of Hong Kong’s security and ejection of the likes of the NED by the SAR government.

Hong Kong has been consistently ranked among the three freest places in the world. The 2020 ranking by World Population Review places Hong Kong No 3 while the UK came in No 8 and the US No 17. If Jimmy Lai and his fellow protesters in Hong Kong would rather enjoy the peace and quiet of London or Washington, they should be allowed, nay encouraged, to move there. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is supposedly committed to welcoming 3 million Hong Kong people to live and work in the UK. He can’t be serious. Johnson needs to find a way to give the depressed UK economy a real boost.

Playing host to young professional protesters with no real employable skills would add to his problems. Those thinking of taking advantage of generous Boris had better read the fine print carefully before flying to the UK.

At least Johnson can look back to the negotiations between Margaret Thatcher and Deng Xiaoping as a basis for his butting in. The US has no such justification to claim a say on the future of Hong Kong. 

As of June 1, more than 50% of eligible voters in Hong Kong had signed a petition in support of the national-security legislation. Anyone hoping to invite in the US Marine Corps to “liberate” Hong Kong is chasing a pipe dream and needs to face the reality that Hong Kong will no longer tolerate traitors or acts of treason.

Dr George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is currently a board member of Freschfield’s, a novel green building platform.