The Problem With Democracy In Hong Kong Isn’t Really China, It’s America

Photography by Alana Tse

Freedom and democracy have become synonymous beliefs — without democracy, there is no freedom for the people. This is especially true for the U.S., which has taken on the token image of liberty and independence and has diligently enforced these values across the globe. 

The idea of democracy in Hong Kong has been bubbling ever since the Yellow Umbrella Revolution in 2014, when a series of protests struck the city after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system. The movement was a catalyst for what would be years of the Hong Kong people’s desire for political reform. In 2017, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was introduced to the U.S. government, but it never made it to the House of Representatives. The act specifically targeted those involved in the bookseller disappearances that shook the city in 2015 as well as to those who participated in the 2014 protests. Although Hong Kong is persistent in pressuring the government to implement a new political system, the democratic ideology in the nation is not fully independent of foreign influence.

Since the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, Hong Kong people have become engrossed with the thought of universal suffrage, freedom of speech and press. The movements have redefined the meaning of freedom in the city, especially in relation to foreign powers. Where there was once a strong aversion to the British government, due to the city’s previous status as a colony, Hong Kong people have now called upon American and British leaders to pressure China to release their tightening grip on the city’s political system. 

A result of this insistence on Western aid has prompted the emergence of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019. Although this act is not identical to its 2017 predecessor, it still requests annual assessments of the city’s autonomy and sanctions for leaders who undermine democracy. 

I can’t help but think, why is there a glorification of America’s supposed freedom in Hong Kong? There is an air of nationalism and a clear desire for Hong Kong to remain Hong Kong while walking protests, so how would introducing an American perspective of  democracy work for a city that has never experienced full political autonomy? That is not to say that the idea of Hong Kong being fully democractic is not plausible. Rather, it is that attempting to assess democracy by using an external imperial power would not yield the same results as expected. In using another nation’s interpretation of democracy in a culture that is entirely unlike its own, the definition of democracy that would be applied to Hong Kong could not be the same as the one they are fighting for. Though the U.S. will not be an active ruler over Hong Kong, it seems unattainable in many minds to envision Hong Kong being democratic without foreign aid. Thus, how is one to say that Hong Kong could be fully independent? The persistence on American intervention and influence only reinforces the idea that Hong Kong has never experienced a “truly” democratic political system, so they look towards the ostensible emblem of democracy and freedom to lead them in developing a “new”system. 

This sentiment is particularly rampant amongst the younger generation of the city, as Maleek Mathieson, a 21-year-old Hong Kong-based rising rap artist told me. 

“If you don’t ask, you won’t receive,” Mathieson said, justifying marches to the American and British embassies, of which he could not participate in but actively supported. He continued by saying that “democracy in America is the truth.” His sentiment amplifies the ever-growing belief that Hong Kong’s political ideology ought to use the American government system as a basis for cultivating their own ideas on what freedom and democracy looks like. 

Amongst all the support for the Human Rights and Democracy Act, there is a lack of awareness that surrounds the possible motives behind the US government enacting it. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stated, “If America does not speak out for human rights in China because of commercial interests, then we lose all moral authority to speak out on behalf of human rights any place in the world.” 

However, associate research fellow with the Shanghai Institute for International Studies Zhang Jian has a more economics-based argument. 

“Of all foreign countries in the world, the US has the most interests in Hong Kong,” Jian said. “If the US revokes Hong Kong’s status as a separate trading entity [from mainland China], both countries [China and the US] will suffer.”

Pelosi cited a humanitarian, political reason for supporting the act, yet she did not mention any of the financial power America will gain if the act passes. She plays into the “police” role that America has become closely associated with. However, the commercial repercussions of the act is a huge factor of Chinese resistance, and for good reason. Hong Kong is a central financial hub in Asia, and the possibility of losing its trading power could cripple its economy. What does that mean for the future of Hong Kong? 

It is a beautiful city that is rich in culture and belief. What it lacks is the faith that it can stand alone, without relying on anyone else’s strength.

Alana Tse is a second year literary journalism student major. She can be reached at alanat3@uci.edu.