The mammoth marches that involved an estimated 2 million people have inspired a range of views from the region’s citizens and direct action veterans. Some are in favour, and see hope in Hongkongers’ audacity – while others run the gamut from shrill condemnation to ambivalence. Bhavan Jaipragas, Phila Siu specially for the South China Morning Post.
Even for the likes of Malaysia’s Hishamuddin Rais, a veteran leader of the country’s pro-democracy Bersih marches that repeatedly brought Kuala Lumpur to a standstill in recent years, Hong Kong’s mammoth anti-extradition protests over the past fortnight have been a sight to behold.
“I mean, I was just so happy to see the young people. So many of them, so capable, and so clear in what they want. Us ‘grandaddies’ and ‘grandmummies’ of street politics can only observe and learn from the Hong Kong youth,” Hishamuddin, a firebrand civil activist for the last five decades, told This Week in Asia.
Like the self-styled Malaysian rabble-rouser, admiration – even envy – was the prevailing feeling among the citizens, civil activists and political observers of Hong Kong’s closest neighbours as they witnessed the city take to the streets in unprecedented fashion to oppose the politically charged extradition bill mooted by the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor.
The likes of the Philippines – the Southeast Asian nation nearest to Hong Kong – and South Korea have a long tradition of street protests. But even there, the Hong Kong protesters’ audacity, in particular their open defiance of the city’s ultimate political masters in Beijing, has gained them widespread praise.
Social media users from across the region also commended the protesters’ civil behaviour after they cleaned up after the marches, and on several instances let ambulances pass through streets flooded with people.
However, the adulation was not uniform across the region.
In Singapore – seen by many as Hong Kong’s sister city – where protests are rare due to tough rules governing freedom of assembly, one well-known establishment figure scoffed at the protesters for having “lost all sense of reality”.
Retired top diplomat Bilahari Kausikan suggested Beijing might need to get involved to quell the street protests.
Civil activists who had led protests in the Lion City, meanwhile, said people in the city state were unlikely to come out in the same manner as Hongkongers because they had been “conditioned” to be apprehensive of direct action.
Large-scale protests are expected to continue in Hong Kong this weekend after the city’s government failed to respond to demands to scrap the extradition bill, which would for the first time have allowed suspects in the semi-autonomous city to be extradited to mainland China.
Still, there has been some immediate impact, with Chief Executive Lam issuing a rare apology for attempting to push through the bill, which she has now vowed to indefinitely suspend.
However, the embattled leader continues to enjoy Beijing’s backing.
On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang said Lam’s resignation – a key demand of protesters – was out of the question.
The Beijing unit overseeing the city’s affairs, the Hong Kong and Macau office, meanwhile has said it respected Lam’s climbdown on the extradition bill, and expressed support for the police force’s efforts to maintain law and order.
Chinese officials have expressed deep displeasure over foreign governments’ open support for the protests, which they view as outside interference in a domestic matter.
Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong’s only representative to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, quoted officials after a meeting this week with liaison office director Wang Zhimin as saying that foreign powers had issued at least 67 statements to “interfere” with events in Hong Kong.
Nonetheless, in the Philippines, some citizens are wondering if they can employ direct action to extract climbdowns from an increasingly assertive China.
In the latest brush-up between the two countries, a Chinese vessel sunk a Philippine fishing boat on June 9 – the same day Hongkongers staged the first of their massive protests.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to play down the incident, at one point decrying “stupid politicians” for hyping up what was “just a collision”.
Critics have slammed that stance as yet another instance of his kowtowing before Chinese aggression. Duterte in the past maintained that he was taking a pragmatic approach with Beijing because the Philippines could not afford to go to war with the Asian power.
Gideon Lasco, a local academic and columnist, said Hong Kong’s resistance against the extradition bill offered a fresh perspective on the matter.
“[The Hong Kong protests] can inspire Filipinos to realise that military might is not the only ‘power’ we have. There is strength in numbers,” he said. “There is strength in simply being on the moral high ground, and having other people – or nations – behind you.”
Such clarion calls by Lasco and other Filipinos seem to be gaining traction.
In a viral tweet last week, Lasco said: “Incident after incident, it is very clear that Chinese forces are harassing our people, grabbing our islands, and destroying our reefs in the West Philippine Sea. If the citizens of Hong Kong and the government of Vietnam can stand up to China, so can we and so should our government.”
Jianne Soriano, who was born and raised in Hong Kong, echoed the sentiment.
Said the 23-year-old: “As a Filipino-Hongkonger, I feel stuck on both sides with a common thread which is China. I agree that what’s going on in Hong Kong is about the extradition bill, but also think that the message they are sending to others outside Hong Kong is that they can stand up to a superpower – which is exactly what the Filipino people and even the Filipino government should do.”
In South Korea, where demonstrations have been ubiquitous since democratisation from military rule in the 1980s, social media users expressed similar resonance with the Hong Kong protesters’ struggle.
Many took to social media to suggest the anti-extradition protests were similar to the demonstrations in late 2016 and early 2017 that eventually forced the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
Referring to Lam’s apology on Tuesday, one Twitter user likened her address to similar public mea culpas by former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park, both of whom are serving jail time for corruption. Some have signed online petitions calling for current President Moon Jae-in to weigh in and support the Hong Kong protesters.
Moon has maintained silence so far – expectedly, considering the impact any statement could have on ties with Beijing.
US-based South Korean political blogger Jumin Lee said the supportive response towards the Hong Kong protests on social media showed the country’s citizens “feel like what happened to them is happening to Hong Kong as well.”
SINGAPORE, WHY NO LOVE FOR HONG KONG?
In Singapore, while many lauded the civic-minded behaviour of protesters, few seemed to support their cause outright.
Former ambassador Bilahari’s shrill condemnation of the demonstrations on social media garnered strong support from his followers.
“These HK people have lost all sense of reality. At some point [Chinese President Xi Jinping] must act if this continues,” the former diplomat wrote on Facebook on Monday, after the demonstration on June 16 in which organisers said a record-breaking 2 million people took part.
“I am sure he would prefer to deal with HK after relations with the US stabilise, and that is not going to happen any time soon,” Bilahari said. “The HK people are probably banking on just that.”
Asked by This Week in Asia about the Hong Kong demonstrations on the sidelines of an interreligious harmony conference in the city state this week, a handful of civil servants, local researchers and company executives almost unanimously expressed ambivalence over the demonstrations.
Office workers in the central business district also expressed limited support for the Hong Kong protests.
“That is their culture. I think in Singapore, even if the government allows it, people won’t gather like that. There are other ways [to express dissent] … to make your anger known,” said sales executive Paul Sim.
Gilbert Goh, a prolific organiser of small-scale protests in the city state’s sole free-speech park, said he was unsurprised by the lack of support for the protests among his compatriots. “I think the [ruling People’s Action Party (PAP)] has done a good job. They say ‘You come out against us, there will be repercussions’ … so people are conditioned not to go against the authorities.”
Goh was the organiser of a series of protests between 2013 and 2015 over a controversial government white paper that suggested the country’s population could swell to 6.9 million people in two decades.
The government later dialled back the significance of the projection, suggesting instead that its expected population figure in 2030 was much lower.
The first of Goh’s anti-immigration protests garnered some 5,000 people, widely viewed as the largest demonstration since Singapore’s independence in 1965.
Under the rule of the PAP, in power since 1959, protests are rare because of tough rules governing street demonstrations. They are not banned, but require police permits – which have not been issued for political demonstrations for decades.
Last year, artist Seelan Palay served a jail term in lieu of a fine after he was convicted of being “part of a public procession without a permit”.
His solo protest, in memory of one of the country’s late political detainees, involved performance art in which he walked to three different locations holding a mirror. At one point he stood in front of parliament holding the mirror.
Palay’s case has been cited by civil activists to demonstrate what they claim are draconian restrictions on free assembly. Said Goh: “It comes down to culture. Hong Kong, they have a kind of British culture, they believe in protests. Here we are very Confucian, obeying authority. It takes a lot of stirring of sentiment and patriotism to get people to come out.”
Roy Ngerng, a government critic successfully sued for defamation by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, blamed PAP “propaganda” for locals’ harsh view towards protests.
“There is propaganda that protests will harm stability … but even [founding father] Lee Kuan Yew was involved in protests in the 1950s. Demonstrations were normal in the 1960s until dissent was stifled through laws enacted by the PAP,” said the political blogger, who now lives in Taiwan.
Ngerng’s open support for the Hong Kong protests has been one of the talking points on social media in Singapore this week. A main cause for the chatter was a picture showing him holding a banner at a Taipei rally last Sunday that said “Don’t let Hong Kong be like Singapore where people live in fear”.
Back in the Philippines, where the so-called People Power Revolution was staged to topple dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986, some say there are salutary lessons for Hong Kong from their country’s experience with direct action.
A second bout of demonstrations, dubbed “People Power 2”, toppled Joseph Estrada as president in 2001. Estrada was imprisoned for plunder but was subsequently released and served for a period as mayor of Manila.
Political scientist Maria Ela Atienza of the University of the Philippines Diliman suggested the country was suffering a “people power fatigue” because of a lack of progress arising from the two major social movements.
On issues like the South China Sea dispute, she said it was unlikely metropolitan Filipinos would take to the streets like their Hong Kong counterparts, given that the impact of Chinese assertions in the waters so far affected only fishermen from far-flung regions.
Hong Kong’s latest protests were “laudable” in that they managed to galvanise a “united front” of students, professionals, the religious sector, and even mothers, the professor said.
There was a cautionary tale from Thailand too, where demonstrators in the late 2000s and early 2010s railed against the country’s royal-urban elite for throttling elected governments backed by rural folk.
Protests were proscribed after a coup in 2014, and restrictions are expected to be kept in place despite the return of nominal democracy following elections in March.
Prominent pro-democracy columnist Pravit Rojanaphruk in a commentary this week said young people in his country were reticent to take to the streets after having borne witness to how “reckless and irresponsible protest leaders on both sides” put people in harm’s way during erstwhile clashes.
“While rights to demonstration are fundamental to a democratic society, as seen in Hong Kong this week, Thais now seem keen to see other avenues for political action used up first,” Pravit wrote. “Massive street protests will only return to Bangkok when all other channels for political action have been exhausted.”
Hishamuddin, the Malaysian veteran activist, said what he witnessed on television screens beaming live images of the Hong Kong protests reinforced time-tested fundamentals of direct action.
“In Hong Kong, they are defending their democratic life – a core part of their identity. In Malaysia, we were fighting for free and fair elections,” Hishamuddin said. “Whatever it is, when you go out on the streets, you must have a clear key objective that strikes at the heart of Mr and Mrs Ordinary.
“We are seeing that in Hong Kong today … the young people know what they want. There may be difference in opinion on tactics, the struggle between [hardline and compromise] methods. But what is clear is that this trend of street protests is not going anywhere in Asia. We will not see the last of it, in Hong Kong or elsewhere.”
Additional reporting by Crystal Tai
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